Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Queen's Way Soul Cafe

The double doors to Queens Way Soul Cafe in downtown Hampton were wide open and welcoming on a recent Saturday evening, bright light streaming out into the night. The layout was long and narrow, with a bar to the right; booths stretched neatly to the very rear.

A black-clad host came around the bar with an offer to seat us, but the hour was late (what can I say, we get up early!). I asked if we could have a seat at the bar and get an order to go. Take into consideration, our impression is based on our takeout food experience, a little different from my regular weekly restaurant review, which involves eating in.

We bellied up, and checked out the menu. My eyes were immediately drawn front and center: pig’s feet and chitterlings. Both sounded tantalizingly exotic and authentic to my untested palate. Flipping forward, my resolve began to waver over the promise of catfish... no, shrimp...no, chopped barbeque!

The host/waiter asked if we were ready; Dave promptly ordered the baby back ribs special ($13.95). It came with his choice of two sides, so he selected macaroni & cheese and collard greens.

Having lost my blossoming nerve, I told the waiter that I was torn — catfish or pork chops? Smiling broadly, he assured me that the catfish was quite nice, but his own personal preference ran to the gravy-smothered grilled pork chops ($10.95). Say no more! With my request for yams and rice & gravy, he disappeared back into the kitchen.

The bartender deposited our beers in front of us, Budweiser for the lady, Red Stripe for the gent. The restaurant’s “dad,” on his way out of the kitchen for the night, voiced his preference for the Bud, while the bartender maintained that the Stripe held the true taste of Jamaica.

A couple of regulars sat at the end of the bar, engaging in easy banter with each other, then the bartender. Our waiter returned to the end of the bar, and soon a smoothly divergent discussion upon various meat-smoking methods, saucing techniques, motorcycles and the fine art of comfort food.

Soul food, said the bartender solemnly, isn’t something you eat every day. Well, it’s not something you need to eat every day. But when you do need it, you gotta know where to go get it. Dave and I both smiled — indeed.

Our wait was a thoroughly enjoyable half hour. A couple of waitresses came in for their shifts, full of energy and laughter, with hugs for “Miss Peggy” back in the kitchen. When our waiter came out with our two bags, I asked if it was too late to get a slice of the sweet potato pie ($3.00). No problem, and amidst the air of general good cheer and goodbyes, we slipped back into the night. The scent of the piping hot meals mercilessly, insiduously, crept into and around us, making for a long ride indeed.

Once safely home, I laid everything out, the boxes still quite warm and steamy. Dave’s racks o’ ribs were thick and meaty — I quickly cut one off to appease my watering mouth.

It slid effortlessly off the bone, tasting of smoke and fire. The sauce was minimalist and mild. Next time, we’ll know to ask for it spicy-hot, but most folk would consider it just fine.

Next, I delved into the sides. A hunk of cornbread was sweet, if a bit dry, while the mac ’n’ cheese seemed geared for a far more youthful palate. The collards were well-cooked, but a bit of a wallflower. A generous dousing of cider vinegar perked them right back up, while a dash of hot sauce propelled them right into my mouth.

Continuing along to my own plate, I tried a scoop of the yams. They were mashed, they were a little sweet, and most importantly, they still tasted of themselves! The white rice was steeped with a glorious gravy that was savory and more-ish (meaning: I kept going back for more). With a hopeful smile, I cut into one of the two pork chops on my plate.

I don’t usually gravitate towards the pork chop, as it is so often turns up bland, chewy and dull. Apparently, the secret lies in first grilling, then smothering the chops in that wonderfully addictive gravy; both merge into something greater than could ever be achieved on their own. There was love in those chops, for certain.

Our bellies were rapidly filling, but I couldn’t wait until the next day to taste the sweet potato pie. Chewing slowly, I could hear the waiter’s voice echoing meaningfuly in my head, “You should really get two slices of pie... two slices... two slices… .”

The crust proved a fine and sturdy base to the amazing sweet potato filling. Forget weeping, I was awash in giddy, cinnamon-tinged laughter. The pie stood not even the slightest chance of making it through the night.

Roger and Peggy Winston and family have crafted a fine, welcoming enivronment that practices what it preaches — old-fashioned comfort food served with sincerity, humor and panache. Good for the spirit, good for the soul and the sweet potato pie alone will undoubtedly cure that which ails you. But next time, rest assured, it’s the chitterlings for me!

Queens Way Soul Cafe
9 E. Queens Way, Hampton
Phone: 224-7669
Specialties: soul food
Price range: appetizers: $3.50-$7.25; sandwiches: $6.95; dinners: $8.95-$12.95; desserts: $3
Hours: 7 p.m.- 12 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday, 11a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday & Saturday, 1 p.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Alcohol: beer, wine, full bar
Smoking: permitted at the bar
Vegetarian: are you kidding me?
Wheelchair accessible: yes, but could be a tight squeeze in this old building
Payment: cash, credit cards , checks
Noise level: conversational, noisy later at night
Atmosphere: casual, family-friendly
Additional Information: kid’s menu, carry-out, banquet room available, weekly specials, live music/DJ on weekends, Monday Night football
Star rating: Food 3 1/2, atmosphere 2, service (for Shelley's takeout order) 3
(out of five stars)


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