Fried chicken, collard greens, candied yams, mashed potatoes, cabbage -- the slender woman in front of me at Saints Paradise Cafeteria doesn't look like she'll be able to tackle the heap of food growing higher by the helping on her tray. Reading my mind, she turns to me and announces, "This will be my dinner for the next three days!"
The portions are big, and the price is right, at this rare Washington find: a soul food buffet. Launched as a service to members of the United House of Prayer for All People in the 1940s, but expanded to include the general public in the 1980s, the basement cafeteria, using recipes from its congregation, dispenses comfort for both the stomach and the spirit. "Welcome to Saints Paradise Cafeteria," a sign near the long steam table reads, "Where love is our main ingredient."
The ladies (they're almost all women) behind the counter make a point to say something nice to each visitor, and the kitchen plays along, dispensing tender biscuits that require no butter at breakfast, and soft, soothing slabs of meatloaf, specked with bits of sweet bell pepper and onion, at lunch. Patrons have the option of eating in, at one in a sea of blue tables, or taking their comfort food out. I prefer the community of worker bees, construction crews, cops, suits and senior citizens inside, where skylights hide the reality of the cafeteria's location and glass doors frame a view of a courtyard fountain. Kitchen manager Mary Barbour, 66 -- a church member here for 48 years, and the talent behind those biscuits -- figures she and her crew feed as many as 500 people a day. She also shares a tip for those who don't like lines: Show up between 9 and 10 a.m. for breakfast and around 2 p.m. for lunch.
A few dishes prove less than heavenly. Macaroni and cheese has just the right proportion of pasta and cheddar, creaminess and crunch, but it's cold by the time I get through a slow lunch line and have a chance to dig in. Pork chops need a splash of hot sauce to perk them up, and the candied yams are sweet enough to count as dessert.
That still leaves plenty to praise, like homey fried potatoes, crisp whiting and desserts that sing the song of the South (sweet potato pie) or hark back to another era (orange cake with white frosting).
-- Tom Sietsema (June 8, 2008)
Because Tom Sietsema didn't visit this restaurant his usual three times, this review does not contain star or noise ratings.