The Boulevard at the Capital Centre suddenly has the largest concentration of upscale soul food restaurants in the area. Opening first, in early spring, was Soul Fixins', a southern outpost of a Harlem classic. Then came Carolina Kitchen, a reincarnation of a popular Silver Spring restaurant that was burned out in 2003. Gladys Knight and Ron Winans' Chicken and Waffles opened early last month; their other two restaurants are in the Atlanta area.
Three restaurants offering similar menus might seem like overload in one shopping center, but each has its own personality. With its sleek black and white decor, Soul Fixins' is basically a carryout with a few tables for eat-in dining. Carolina Kitchen is a folksy, cluttered space that crams seating for a few dozen people around a busy cafeteria-style line. Gladys and Ron's feels like a supper club, with dark wood, a small performance stage and a big bar area.
The menus of the three reflect their different personalities, though all are based on fried chicken and home-style vegetables.
Soul food is not an easy cuisine to deliver. Everyone who grew up eating these favorites compares the food to the best turned out by their mother, grandmother or favorite aunt. Also, fried chicken is best eaten immediately, which means cooking to order and lag times of 20 minutes or more. The vegetables, on the other hand, need to be cooked slowly, which means planning to ensure there are sufficient quantities to last throughout a meal or a full day's service.
Soul Fixins' is in the development's Restaurant Row crescent, along with other fast food-style eateries. Customers order their meals at one end of the counter, wait for them to be assembled on the steam counter, and pick them up at the other end. Only the fried fish is cooked after ordering; the fried chicken is prepared in advance. Food is served on plastic plates with plastic utensils.
Salmon croquettes are round, the size of tennis balls, not like the patties my mother made. The exterior of the deep-fried croquettes is crusty, and the interior is very dark, too finely ground for my taste, and lacking flavor. The fried chicken, both light or dark meat quarters, is good and juicy.
Side orders are meted out in large scoops: The potato salad is pleasantly tangy; mashed potatoes are smooth, with a real taste of the earth; and macaroni and cheese has a creamy consistency and a cheesy flavor, but lacks the crusty top that is the hallmark of that dish. The corn is sweet and tastes fresh; the green beans are much too sweet.
A slice of chocolate-iced yellow cake -- really two sheet cakes glued together with chocolate icing -- had a commercial bakery taste that usually comes from using shortening instead of butter. The sweet potato pie was over-the-top sweet.
Carolina Kitchen is the restaurant I wanted to like best. The hostess greeted me with a "Welcome, welcome, welcome to Carolina Kitchen" and apologized for the 15-minute wait for a table (even at 9:30 p.m., a half-hour before closing). The friendliness of the wait staff was so effervescent it was almost combustible.
It's been a long time since I endured such a series of calamities. The restaurant ran out of corn, and when I requested green beans instead, the kitchen was out of those, as well as most of the other side dishes. The cornbread was "in the oven" and didn't arrive steaming hot until I was ready to go. There was no peach cobbler left by the time I placed my order.
There are lines when Carolina Kitchen opens at 6 each evening, and despite its efforts to cook enough for a four-hour dinner service, supplies are often exhausted. It seems the popularity of such home-cooked fare is almost endless.
The goodwill couldn't make up for the food. The smothered chicken was marinated to mush and the accompanying gravy had no real chicken flavor; meat loaf was tasty but drowned in a too-sweet sauce; the macaroni and cheese included some nicely browned bits, but the cheese had no punch; the coleslaw had a nice vinegary bite but too much mayonnaise; and the mixed vegetables tasted as if they were straight from a can. Only the mashed potatoes, with pieces of skin, stood out.
Carolina Kitchen's version of fried green tomatoes -- ripened slices, battered and deep-fried, topped with shreds of Parmesan cheese and presented with lettuce and orange-colored commercial French dressing -- was better than it sounds.
But the desserts weren't. The sweet potato pie was cloyingly sweet, the blackberry cobbler was just as sweet, and the pastry tasted nearly raw.
The cooking is most accomplished at Gladys and Ron's, but I wouldn't tolerate a long wait for even these soul-food offerings. However, hundreds do. On a Friday night, the wait was running about 90 minutes, and about 100 people crammed the entry or waited outside in 90-degree heat, including one woman holding a half-sheet cake for a birthday celebration.
To shorten the wait, a customer might settle for a seat in the bar, rather than in the main dining room. In addition to the long bar, there are small tables with stools. Huge television sets are tuned to sports programs, but mercifully the sound is muted and captioning is turned on.
Gladys and Ron's carries on a tradition started in New York. Musicians would visit restaurants for late-night meals, and often they couldn't decide between breakfast and dinner. So, the restaurants offered both.
The waffles are superb: light, fluffy, nicely browned and with a real homemade taste. They arrived piping hot, as did the fried chicken.
A variety of fried food is available. The 20-piece chicken-wing plate is popular with the men who fill the bar at lunchtime. Jumbo chicken wings -- so big they look like turkey wings -- accompany a waffle in the Midnight Train special. They have crispy coating and a juicy interior. The boneless chicken breast used in the smothered chicken is battered and deep fried to a lovely golden brown, but doesn't have a lot of taste and isn't helped much by the gravy. The salmon croquette is crusty and light inside, but doesn't have much salmon flavor.
Fried corn is sauteed with hot peppers, but the kernels are too big to have been hand cut from the cob; green beans are far too salty, while the macaroni and cheese isn't salted enough.
Desserts fare better: The peach cobbler has a flaky, tasty crust and flavorful peaches, but just a bit too much cornstarch in the glaze. The sweet potato cheesecake is a winner: creamy, flavorful and not too sweet, though it could be improved with better whipped cream.
Soul Fixins' 881A Capital Centre Blvd., Largo, 301-333-1141. Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. Entrees: $7.95 to $14.95.
Carolina Kitchen 800C Shoppers Way, Largo, 301-350-2929. www.thecarolinakitchen.com. Hours: noon to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, noon to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Entrees: $7.69 to $23.99.
Gladys Knight and Ron Winans' Chicken and Waffles 860E Shoppers Way, Largo 301-808-6402. www.gladysandron.com Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. Prices: $5 to $14.75.
All three restaurants are accessible to the disabled.