One cannot assess the merits of this 39-year-old soul-food institution by its curb appeal. It has none. Step inside and you may still have doubts, based on ambiance. There is none, unless you count the sound of industrial exhaust fans.
What you will discover, though, is some serious down-home cooking. That's why folks line up for chicken fried to order -- with a good scald on it (sold by the half-chicken, $7.99) -- and for the mountain of collard greens prepared daily. And, of course, for the sweet potato pie ($9.50, or $2 per slice), available at Henry's year-round and sold by the thousands during the holidays (so popular they stopped taking orders for Christmas a week early).
"Folks tell us they never knew we were here!" says Henry Smith's daughter, Henrietta Smith-Davis, 42, who runs the U Street NW operation with a friendly, easygoing manner. What the hordes order most, Smith-Davis reports, are the pork chops (two for $8.40), barbecued ribs ($8.99), wings with special mumbo sauce ($1.25 for one, up to $6.49 for eight) and sweet, spicy and syrupy yams (small $1.95, large $2.50; all side dishes priced the same).
On a recent visit, "40-something" cousin Deborah Smith was portioning piping-hot corn bread, slathered with melted butter (60 cents per piece), on a three-foot-wide tray.
"She's the gravy expert here -- almost as good as me," Smith-Davis said as she tended to inch-thick Salisbury steaks sizzling on the flat-top grill (served with gravy and onions, $5.75). They work in close kitchen quarters, behind a tall painted divider. A mammoth pot of potatoes was boiling on the stove, earmarked for creamy, eggy potato salad and smooth, firm mashed potatoes. Other house-made sides were ready to go, in deep supply: string beans, squeaky and long-cooked; macaroni and cheese, nicely seasoned; cornbread dressing with sage, onions and celery; perfectly fried okra; plus serviceable coleslaw, mashed potatoes and plain white rice. Don't ask about recipes; many are family secrets.
On weekends, breakfast takeout runs from 7:30 to 11 a.m. Platters come with two eggs, grits or home fries, fried apples, toast or biscuits, fatback and orange or apple juice.
"A lot of people say they don't eat fatback anymore, but they sure come in here looking for it," Smith-Davis says. "I think we're the only ones around who are making it." The fatback breakfast platter ($4.25) and country ham platter ($6.15) are the most popular.
They've got it all going on, soul-food-wise. You just need to get past the security fencing on the windows and see for yourself.
-- Bonnie S. Benwick (Dec. 26, 2007)