One can find dim sum and nachos, pasta and samosas in abundance on the menus of Washington restaurants. But try searching out a decent soul food restaurant with a menu brimming with pork chops and chitterlings, black-eyed peas and spareribs -- and you might come to the mistaken conclusion that soul food in the capital is nonexistent, or at least on the verge of extinction.
Brad's Soul Food Deli, purveyor of hearty, often heavy Southern fare (and pastrami and corned beef to boot) proves that such is not the case. While soul food isn't exactly flourishing, it's available, and sometimes agreeably so at Brad's.
Lunch appears to be the best time for visiting this corner neighborhood eatery; not only does the food behind the counter move faster, it also looks fresher and thus more appealing than at dinner, when steam table fatigue sets in and robs the selections of taste and texture. (Indeed, one evening the liver was barely distinguishable from the salisbury steak in appearance, and the black-eyed peas were rendered bland and mushy.)
There are some satisfying finds among the offered "dinners" (meat entrees with two side dishes). The fried chicken in particular has been quite good, with crunchy, crisp, golden skin and juicy, tender meat. Bolstered with a heaping side of zesty, crunchy cole slaw and served with some rather good french fries, it's probably one of the best dinners on the menu (and stiff competition for the neighboring fast food spots). Another decent surprise was a nonsoul entree of salisbury steak, which stood out as a generous patty of lean ground beef.
"Smothered" offerings of chicken and pork chops (rather thin and chewy), topped with an ocean of gelatinous gravy, are also available, but you'd be wiser opting for the unsauced versions.
If gravies aren't this deli's strong suit, neither is the barbecue sauce, an adequately spicy but thin and runny adornment to spareribs that lack crustiness and taste steamed. And that's unfortunate, considering that the ribs are unusually meaty.
If you're offered a choice between a roll or a big square of cornbread with your meal, opt for the cornbread, which is homemade. On a good day the stuff is crumbly, golden and fine-flavored, and on a bad day it retains its wonderful corn taste, though it arrives drier in texture and darker in color. The rolls are commercial and spongy.
Brad's offers sandwiches of chicken salad, roast beef, turkey and such, but you'd be missing the point by ordering such fare, which is easily had elsewhere (and better).
There are a few real misses on Brad's menu, notably crab cakes, liver and macaroni leached of everything but its Day-Glo color. The kitchen's a bit heavy-handed with the sugar at times (sweet potatoes could have passed for dessert, for example) and the too-smooth mashed potatoes are instant, but there's enough variety to divert us from these missteps.
For aficionados, the chitterlings -- pig intestines seasoned with onions -- are served in strapping portions. Of the desserts, only the apple and peach cobblers appear to be homemade, and they tend to be sweet and gummy (and none too appetizing stuffed in a Styrofoam cup).
The L-shaped dining area is smallish, with no more than half a dozen tables for seating. It's a bit on the untidy side at times but serves well for a quick meal. A group larger than two or three (or anyone who likes to linger over his or her meal) might be better off ordering carry-out.
If Brad's isn't a destination point, it's a predictable stop along the way for a decent soul food dinner -- and a homey alternative to the fast food regimen.