Every now and then, you come across a meal you think could change a life. You eat it, you dream about it, you try to replicate it, and you don’t succeed, because it is the epitome of perfection. For many in the South, those meals don’t come from a five-star dining establishment. As a Southern culture, we like our food to be fried in lard, we like our peas with black eyes, and we must have our tea sweetened.
Jacksonville’s food identity is hard to pin down. Places like Charleston, Savannah, and Nashville are often considered as the grandmamma of Southern cuisine, but Jacksonville has her own Southern food roots. What our Northern neighbors don’t realize is that Northeast Florida has some of the greatest soul food in the South.
While soul food is delicious, it isn’t just about what’s on your plate. The Potter’s House Soul Food Bistro knows this well. Stemming from The Potter’s House International Ministries, Soul Food Bistro is a place where all can gather and eat in a family friendly environment. From the Southern hospitality to the buffet-style home-cookin’, The Bistro will have you licking your fingers and wanting much more. Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin, pastor at The Potter’s House International Ministries, says he wants customers to be able to walk in and smell the fresh homestyle cooking, dishes like collards, candied yams, pork chops, fried fish, fried chicken and baked ham. At The Soul Food Bistro, the motto is “Service is everything.” From the moment you walk in the door, you’ll understand this mission statement, manifested by the friendly staff and the menu items that recall meals like Grandma made on Sunday after church.
After starting as a catering company, Annie Ru’s decided to share its homestyle cooking with the world in 2013. Ever since the doors opened, Annie Ru’s has provided delicious, authentic soul food to folks in the San Marco area, serving up a hearty variety of downhome fare, but soul food is the focus. Currently, shrimp and grits are trending all across the United States. Why waste your time and money on “fancy” shrimp and grits when you can just go to Annie Ru’s and try her excellent rendition of a Southern classic? The important ingredient in shrimp and grits is the grits (are the grits?). Annie Ru gets grits right. Make sure to add this to your list of soul food meccas. If you’re lucky, you may get to meet Annie Ru herself.
With a buffet style similar to Soul Food Bistro’s, Checker Bar-B-Q & Seafood has quickly become one of Northeast Florida’s most well-known soul food restaurants. Owner and chef Art Jennette will explain his “cracker” style of cooking — you don’t even need to ask. Chef Art calls his culinary methods cracker cooking: barbecue ribs, fried shrimp or scallops, dinners of pork, turkey, chicken tenders — you get the idea. And he’s grateful for every diner in his restaurant. If you aren’t immediately taken by Chef Art’s charisma, you’ll be impressed by his “redneck surf ‘n’ turf.” A medley of the famous ribs and 25 fresh shrimp, the entrée is enough to feed a small family. If there’s one word to describe Checker Bar-B-Q & Seafood, it’s “experience.”
Soul food has proved to be much more than food; it’s a story, a memory of family and good friends, it’s the blues and, most important, it’s a Southern tradition. Regardless of the world’s latest trends, soul food will always be. Whether it’s a block party or just a lunch break, soul food will be sure to leave you with a friendly face and a full stomach.
The Kinfolks Soul Food Festival, happening here Nov. 14, will showcase the many options. No specifics yet, but mark this on your calendar. You’ll get a taste of some of the most impressive soul food in the country, and see great musicians. In years past, the festival has hosted the likes of Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan, and George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic. Award-winning chefs, top-notch entertainers, and a soultastic time with family and friends — no downside to this, people.
Parker E. Williams is a regional food and culture blogger whose work can be seen at fastfoodie.us.