As far back as I can remember, two basic types of soul food establishments have defined the genre in Charleston — real and fake. Fake ones tended to be downtown, full of white people on vacation, serving up loads of fried chicken and shrimp and grits. Then there were the bona fides: scraggly, worn, sometimes dirtier than you really wanted to imagine them, loaded with grease, and the loud chatter of workmen with big appetites. They existed on the fringes, where people with soiled hands tended to spend their days, and always seemed to have a matriarch at the helm, manning a stove in the back, or dishing out the pork tails, pig’s feet, and collard greens from a steam bar. For awhile, I thought the former might win out.
I’ve watched the best soul food places in town close down. Legendary joints, like Alice’s Fine Foods, which used to anchor the Upper King corridor before Upper King got so damn cool. I saw the march of time take the matriarchs out of those kitchens, and with them, I thought, the soul out of Charleston. I have on more than one occasion thanked God for allowing Ms. Martha Lou to continue making the best fried chicken on Morrison Drive, and continue to marvel at the skill with which the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly cranks out that same delicious and original fried chicken recipe.
But something strange has happened lately. Perhaps the recession has foisted upon us a bit of good fortune, because soul food seems to be back with a younger crowd at the helm. From Ledy’s Soul Food out along Highway 61, to the new Silva Spoon Soul Food up on Rivers, and wafting out of Craves Soul Food on the upper reaches of Meeting Street, it seems the artful preparation of gizzards and chicken feet still has a place in the world.
This new generation of soulful proprietors might best be viewed from a window seat at the Silva Spoon, where I recently ate lunch while watching the two female proprietors handle the rush of work trucks that make this their daily noon stop. The ladies are young. They prefer pants to dresses. And the place reverberates with the vibe of a younger generation. I tweeted my love of the okra soup from my laptop, hooked up to the free WiFi. That may be the beauty (and saving grace) of modern soul food restaurants: a younger generation of cooks is bringing a different look to the old way of cooking.
But it’s the food that counts, and having a few more pots of red rice steaming about town is never a bad thing. Silva Spoon offers a decent spread of grub that will win any hungry Southerner over. The ubiquitous fried pork chop plate, an extra heavy mac and cheese, a relatively bland okra soup, and some of the best beans over rice in town (pitch in an extra buck and get a neckbone with that). It’s what I would call a standby, a place that can produce a good lunch for a good price five days out of the week. And we need more of those.
I think that’s why I’m so excited about Craves Soul Food up on Meeting Street, almost right under the I-26/Ravenel Bridge overpass, where Freddie’s used to reign supreme. It doesn’t take long to see why this new generation of soul food is going to last — it’s a local thing. These guys don’t cater to tourists. You won’t see people from Jersey sucking down fried chicken in the corner (at least not yet). This is a place to get oxtails that fall off the bone, swim around in a bowl of brown gravy, and cry out to be splashed over some white rice. It’s where you can get an authentic rice “prioleau,” sometimes made with chicken, sometimes made with shrimp, sometimes made with a pig’s foot — depends on the day you order.
They kick it old school, with sweet tea served out of glasses that your mom might have had in the cupboard in 1973. They have old-timey sage dressing, but with mashed potatoes that have roasted garlic smashed in. The shrimp and grits comes in brown gravy, and when I was there, I was the only white boy in the joint, if you don’t count the Fox News anchors that mouthed silently from two of the three sets. This is old school stuff, in a brand new setting.
Craves is spotlessly clean, has an outdoor deck (overlooking the off-ramp), and tastes good to boot. All of that with a meat and three veggies for about eight bucks a plate.
I have learned that we will lose some of the most revered spots over time. People just don’t live forever, and neither do their kitchens. We need younger generations to take the helm if the traditions of our cuisine are to continue, and we need young mouths to understand too. I think they do, if my 4-year-old is any indication. Already, she’ll fight you over half an oxtail.