It isn't easy finding a platter of honest-to-God soul food in this town. A lot of what is passed off as the genuine article may be Creole cuisine or Texas barbecue or tarted-up country cooking, but it isn't soul food. Soul food is all about sweetness and heat and salt and smoke, the earthy intensity that comes from slow cooking and deep fat and the pungent flavors of root greens, pigmeat, and black-eyed peas. It's the cooking of the enslaved and poor blacks of the South who had to make do with turnip tops and ham bones, and through skill and ingenuity created a cuisine that is hankered after to this day, around the world.
If you can find it, that is. Most of the eateries discussed in our last soul-food wrap-up 9 years ago have gone the way of the telephone booth, but Auntie April's, a friendly counter-service storefront in Hunters Point, is one delectable option. Here, you can watch the affable lady behind the counter dust and fry up your chicken and pour the batter into the iron after you've ordered the signature chicken and waffles ($5). The result is two spicy, crunchy wings atop a buttery waffle and plenty of maple syrup for pouring. An even better option is the sticky bones ($9), a pile of rich, tender, honey-glazed chicken wings served with soft, thickly cut french fries ideal for soaking up the drippings. The fried catfish ($10) is chewy and dull despite its crunchy cornmeal coating, and the black-eyed peas ($3) are bland and watery. But the yams ($3) are rich and lusty with a spicy, citrusy afterbite and a crisp grilled texture on top. Best of all are the bold, pungent, slightly bitter collard greens, smoky with bacon ($3), and the sweet, full-bodied cornbread.
The Hard Knox Cafe, just along the T line from Auntie April, takes a more Planet Hollywood approach to soul food. The carefully casual setting — corrugated-metal walls, old beer signs, spent leatherette booths, T-shirts for purchase at the cash register — has a Disney-fied feel about it, and many of the dishes lack that rich 'n' spicy down-home oomph emblematic of the real deal. The cornbread muffins are as pallid and spongy as a platter of cupcakes, with none of the density, crunch, or grit of cornmeal discernible. The yams taste like cloyingly sweet canned pie filling; the mushy mac and cheese has the rubbery texture of Velveeta. Slightly better are the mildly earthy collard greens and the satisfying if less-than-tender braised oxtails ($15). But the fried catfish ($13) is delectable, steamy, and moist within its crunchy cornmeal crust, and the almost creamy black-eyed peas have a smoky, spicy flavor that's irresistible. Each entrée comes with corn muffins and two sides (extra sides are $3 apiece), and drinking options include fresh iced tea and lemonade, a classy assortment of wines, and several admirable beers.
A more successful attempt at reimagining the cuisine is farmerbrown, the most notable local example of the nouvelle soul movement. For more than a decade, venues like Wendell's Grille in Memphis and B. Smith's in D.C. have been transforming soul food classics into lighter cutting-edge fare suitable for health-conscious consumption. farmerbrown employs locally, organically, and sustainably nurtured ingredients in preparations that may not be as rich and highly seasoned as the stuff back home, but that won't put you into a food coma either. The salmon croquettes ($10) are nothing but lush, silky Loch Duart seafood, a few shards of onion, a drizzle of remoulade, and a crisp fennel salad to cut the richness: They're a far cry from the lard, flour, and StarKist specials of yore. The fried chicken ($17) is crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside, and comes with deep-green collards with plenty of bittersweet flavor and an al dente mac 'n' cheese draped in sharp Oregon Tillamook. The überspicy spareribs ($12) are on the chewy and meager side and come with a surprisingly bland carrot-cayenne coleslaw. Underseasoning also afflicts the kitchen's otherwise luscious stoneground hominy grits, which co-star with smoky little prawns and a yummy tomato-onion-celery salsa in the house shrimp and grits ($19). Despite its girth, the aptly named angel biscuit ($1) is a feathery dream, while the rich, buttery, not-too-sweet bourbon-pecan pie ($6.50) makes for a marvelous meal-closer. Housemade ginger beer, iced tea, and lemonade (as well as wine, beer, and cocktails) are available, and the setting — all burlap, worn wood, hammered metal, and sepia artwork — creates a marvelous retro-Island ambience.
For years, San Francisco soul food meant Powell's, a popular Hayes Valley hangout with legendary corn muffins, fork-tender oxtails, and gospel singer extraordinaire Emmit Powell at the controls. Then the place moved to the Fillmore Redevelopment District, couldn't quite rekindle its former glory, and closed a little more than a year ago. But you can't keep a good man down, and the place has been reincarnated as a lunchtime buffet within Velma's Sunday Blues 'N Jazz Club. Just inside the entrance of this unprepossessing corrugated metal superstructure is a dark, cool bar ideal for a midafternoon libation. Just past it is an inviting smorgasbord of old-school delicacies: lush, smoky collard greens and cabbage laced with morsels of fatback; tender mac and cheese with a gratin of cheddar; juicy fried chicken with an oil-rich golden crust that slides off the meat; meaty, tooth-tender ribs dripping with sweet (if not spicy-smoky) sauce. Other dishes — dull, sugary candied yams; chewy, overcooked pork chops; disappointingly cakey cornmeal muffins — don't fare as well, but the price is right ($10 per entrée plus muffins and two sides), and you can enjoy your food at the bar while the band tunes up for the evening's performance. What better way to soothe today's especially famished soul?