Seattle abounds with culinary diversity. Stroll through most neighborhoods and you will likely spot a taco shack, gyro joint and pho house within blocks of each other. Walk another half mile and you’ll probably hit stellar sushi and vegan almost anything. But, Southern food—soul-coaxing dishes, such as shrimp and grits, collard greens, and biscuits and gravy—has never dominated our restaurant landscape.
Sure, in the past, you went to The Kingfish Café on Capitol Hill to satisfy a crawfish craving. Peach cobbler? Ms. Helen’s Diner in the Central District, of course. Sadly, both restaurants are no more. The good news, however, is that four new casual soul food spots have sprouted up within the past year and a half (a fifth, Ms. Helen’s Soul Food Bistro, from Ms. Helen Coleman herself, is due to open this month at 2801 E Union in the Central District) to satiate our desire for home-style eats. You can get the glam version, too, at eateries such as Witness on Capitol Hill, which does fried green tomatoes with red onion marmalade and arugula. Or hit any one of the popular fried chicken nights around town, from Sundays at Ballard’s The Hi-Life to Wednesdays at the Bookstore Bar & Café inside downtown’s Alexis Hotel. And we’ve long relied on takeout fried chicken from Ezell’s or Heaven Sent. But, we’re pretty smitten with the humble soul food cafés that call Central and South Seattle home.
“It just feels good to eat at those places,” says Darren McGill, co-owner, with NBA point guard Nate Robinson, of Nate’s Wings & Waffles, which recently opened a second location. “Not to knock down other restaurants in Seattle. There are some talented chefs doing really creative things. But, [those restaurants] can get kind of spendy, and you can never go wrong with simple home cooking. Nate’s grandma is really good about making everyone feel welcome.”
RunMa, as they call her, greets you at the door of the original location (Rainier Beach, 9261 57th Ave. S; 206.722.9464; nateswingsandwaffles.com) and goes over the menu including organic Draper Valley chicken strips (regular or spicy, $6 for one-half pound) and naked or batter-dipped wings ($5 for one-half pound). Sauces range from classic buffalo to coconut-jalapeño-lime.
On our visit, specials included a chocolate stout waffle ($7), featuring Guinness Extra Stout, house-made whipped cream and chocolate syrup, as well as a jalapeño cornbread waffle ($7) with chopped jalapeños, pepper jack cheese and garlic sour cream. The newer Nate’s (Central District, 1224 E Jefferson St.) also features Sunday brunch and specialty cocktails based on its house-made limeade.
At Simply Soulful (Madison Valley, 2919B E Madison Ave.; 206.474.9841; simply-soulful.com), mother-and-daughter duo Barbara Collins and Lillian Rambus craft classic dishes inspired by Collins’ mother, Elizabeth Hammond, who moved to Spokane from Mississippi in 1967 and developed a passion for urban farming.
“You would go into her garden and couldn’t even see yourself, because the tomato plants and green beans were growing up to your head,” Collins says. “We just want to give people good, fresh food in the same spirit.”
Hammond also brought north what the ladies proudly refer to as “the best sweet potato pie recipe in the world.” They baked and sold the pies at farmers’ markets and stores in and around Seattle until they opened their cozy Madison Valley café.
Here, people line up for Collins’ slow-cooked, spicy shrimp and grits ($12.95) with buttery, house-made cornbread. The chicken and waffles ($12.95) are hard to beat: crunchy fried chicken piled atop a warm, perfectly dry (read: not soggy) Belgian-style buttermilk waffle.
The owners attribute the spike in soul food eateries to Seattleites’ adventurous appetites. “I think there are a lot of people from the South who live here and they come in to test our food and bring their friends,” Rambus says. “People are finally being exposed to soul food again.”
The menu also features chicken pot pie ($9.95), red beans and rice ($11.95), and Hen and Dressing ($17.95; weekends only), a Cornish game hen with sage cornbread dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy. Get an order of biscuits and gravy ($6.95) so you don’t fight over the savory, chicken-sausage-spiked nectar. It is divine.
So are the legendary hush puppies ($2.95) at Jackson’s Catfish Corner (Rainier Valley, 7216 Rainier Ave. S; 206.323.4330; Facebook, “Jackson’s Catfish Corner”), next to Auto Fitness Detail, a car wash business. Inside the tiny counter spot that opened this past summer, owner Terrell Jackson and his family fry their cornmeal crispy on the outside and chewy-soft on the inside, just like Jackson’s grandparents, Woody and Rosemary, did.
They opened and operated the original Catfish Corner at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and East Cherry for 30 years before retiring and selling the business in 2009. The new owners lost the restaurant in 2014 following a dispute with the landlord—and the neighbors have mourned the loss of fried goodness ever since.
However, Jackson, who had grown up in the restaurant, refused to let Catfish Corner disappear.
“People have been calling me Catfish since I was 14,” says Jackson, who jump-started the new business out of a tent near the Rainier Beach light rail station. “I knew every step of all the recipes and felt it was my duty to reopen with our name. It’s the Jacksons back in here.”
Today, the simple menu features the same kicky, cornmeal-crusted fried catfish fillets (with fries, $8.75; as a sandwich, $6.95) or oven-baked, Cajun-style ($8.99), plus hamburgers ($7.95) as well as fried okra ($2.99), coleslaw ($2.95) and a seafood gumbo ($12.95, Wednesdays only) brimming with chicken, beef sausage, shrimp and crab. A second, 2,000-square-foot outpost will open by year’s end.
Meanwhile, Jackson is overjoyed that the original Catfish Corner location now has a second life as a soul food restaurant and community gathering place. As of press time, Marcus Lalario, owner of L’il Woody’s, was set to open Fat’s Chicken & Waffles (2726 E Cherry St.; fatschickenandwaffles.com) with longtime pal and New Orleans chef Patrick Dours at the end of August. Dours’ menu plans include chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, jambalaya, fried oyster sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and, of course, catfish.
“We have to keep tradition alive in there,” Lalario says.
Our sated souls agree.