Few combinations of words get our mouths watering as quickly as "Hey, there's a new soul food restaurant in town." Pavlov's pooches got nothin' on us when we hear those words, filling our heads as they do with thoughts of crunchy chicken-fried steak smothered in gravy, fried pork chops, crispy fried chicken, smoky collard greens (with cornbread, natch), savory black-eyed peas, hush puppies, mac 'n' cheese ... mmm ... Sorry, got lost in thought there for a sec.
If that list of deliciousness caused you to drift off too, then allow us to recommend Sweet Soul in the River Market's Ottenheimer Hall. It's a new-ish place, run by the proprietors of the late and lamented Haystack Cafe in Ferndale.
The menu at Sweet Soul is simple, hewing toward home cooking, of course. The "Southern Classics" ($6-$9) include two sides and cornbread or a roll with chicken-fried steak, catfish or pork chop, or a veggie plate with three sides and bread.
Some of us at the Times have a weakness for chicken-fried steak that is so powerful as to be almost debilitating, rendering us unable to order, or even really see, the other items on the menu. So of course, that was what we tried on our first visit.
The chicken-fried steak at Sweet Soul was just about perfect. Some places will use a ground beef patty in lieu of a cube steak, and some of us picky CFS lovers consider that to be cheating. Rest assured, comrades, this one is the real deal. It's juicy, flavorful and importantly, it is very tender while still giving your teeth something to work on by not annihilating the steak's connective tissue. It's a tough thing to get just right, and Sweet Soul nailed it.
For sides, we tried the mashed potatoes and collard greens. The mashed potatoes were creamy and dense. And they had both white and brown gravy on hand. As far as the greens were concerned, we could scarcely believe the Sweet Soul crew when they told us that they were cooked without the use of any pork products. That might sound sacrilegious to certain folks, but these greens were seriously tasty and cooked just right.
Yellow cornbread was dry and somewhat crumbly with a barely detectable hint of sugar; in other words, it was done exactly right, perfect for soaking up the juice from the collards.
On our next visit, we opted for the catfish. Like the CFS, it's fried to order (and it's a big three pieces to an order) so it comes out piping hot with a fantastic cornmeal breading. In all honesty though, the fish tasted a little bottom-of-the-river-y. Thing is, we've heard from a couple folks in recent weeks about having similar experiences with catfish at other joints, places where that fishy taste is normally not an issue. So it's possible that there's something happening on the suppliers' end. Other than that, Sweet Soul is doing everything right.
For sides, the black-eyed peas were creamy and perfect. We got the collards again just because they were so, so good the first time.
In addition to the Southern Classics plates, Sweet Soul offers several sandwiches ($7-$9; all served with fries or, for $1 extra, onion rings). These include chicken, pork chop and catfish varieties, as well as the Haystack Burger, which is a beef patty smothered in barbecue sauce with two strips of thick bacon and two onion rings on Texas toast.
There's a rotating array of daily specials as well, and if what we tried of the regular menu is any indication, these won't disappoint. One of the specials we tried on our third trip was fried chicken, which was spectacular. It's the fried chicken of childhood memories — crispy, salty (but not too salty), juicy and satisfying in the way that few dishes are. For the money ($7.50), this is one of the best lunch deals around. You get a leg, a thigh and a wing, mostly dark meat, which is the way it should be. Call us crazy, but those dry, flavorless, all-white chicken breasts hold zero appeal.
We resisted the siren call of dessert on our first trip to Sweet Soul, but our willpower was waning on the second visit, so we opted for a personal apple pie ($3) and were very glad that we did, because it was uncommonly good. It came in one of those little individual pie tins, but if this crust was pre-fab, it's the best pre-fab crust that's ever been served — flaky, just barely salty, perfect. The filling was spot-on as well, not too sweet and with a hefty pinch of cinnamon. What seemed to be Golden Delicious apples were cooked just right, with a bit of resistance to them.
Even if you don't frequent the River Market area, Sweet Soul is worth a trip downtown for lunch. For those of us who are in the area regularly, well, we suspect Sweet Soul will be nourishing our bodies and spirits often.