Since Smith bought all the ingredients for what became Henry’s Soul Cafe on U Street NW in 1968, he purchased containers for everything that went into Eleanor Harrington’s pie, measuring them before and after the pies were made, a process that made for a same-tasting dessert, says his son, Jermaine Smith. “My father was a perfectionist,” says Smith, 47, who remembers Henry giving him a spoonful of filling — never more — as a child, to identify the pie’s makeup. True story, says the son: “I was 23 when I tasted a complete slice,” at the behest of a friend who asked for some pie. Before that, Jermaine figured he shouldn’t be eating something the business could sell for a profit.
Not long after Henry Smith opened what his son describes as a glorified 7-Eleven, a source for milk, cigarettes, diapers and canned goods, did he add hot dogs and half-smokes to the lineup. In short order, the entrepreneur bought a grill to make hamburgers and a deep-fryer to serve french fries with the burgers. Fried chicken dinners followed. Pies, including coconut custard, made their debut in 1969. So many people requested the sweet potato pie that it soon became the only flavor sold. Henry Smith, his son says, “built (his business) into what the neighborhood was asking for.”
Henry Smith worked until his son and business partners, including daughter Henrietta Smith-Davis, coaxed him away from day-to-day duties in 2007. Even after he retired, though, customers came by, chairs in tow, to chat him up outside the carryout. The founder died seven years ago, at 73. But his exacting philosophy lives on at the original location.
Taste the baked chicken and tell me otherwise. The entree appeared on the menu in the 1980s, when customers started asking Henry Smith for food that wasn’t fried. He responded with a fresh, local chicken sprinkled with some herbs and slow-baked to succulence. Tender slices of liver stay moist beneath a blanket of onions and brown gravy made with drippings from the baked chicken. Smith-Davis, 55, remembers her father telling her, “Don’t give anybody anything you don’t want.” The cafe’s response is to dust catfish with cornmeal and flour and fry it to a beautiful shade of gold. There’s a flock of fried chicken around town these days. Henry’s version is striking for its lack of somersaults.
Portioned as if leftovers are expected, the entrees are served with a choice of bread and two sides; a sheet of wax paper separates the meal from muffin (choose between white or wheat cornbread, or a slice of white or wheat bread). The muffins, similar in taste to Jiffy, are baked at the cafe. If the stuffing tastes familiar, it’s because it’s made with muffins. The sides would look at home at a church social. Say “amen” to the creamy orange mac and cheese, nicely seasoned green beans, mashed potatoes flecked with red bits of peel and firm, velvety collard greens. The last get their charm not from vinegar but from smoked turkey wings.
“We don’t try to re-create the wheel,” says Jermaine, emphasizing the tradition-bound cooking, which includes a porky, pepper-stoked bean soup and pork ribs suffused with the smoke of their hickory fire. The ribs are dense, meaty, black in spots and brushed with an assertive tomato sauce, its vinegar sting countered with brown sugar. “Nothing has changed,” he says. “We’re doing things the same way as when I was a child growing up” in the business.
Customers seem to appreciate the consistency. Before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for some of them to show up with their own containers or ask staff not to affix a label on a carryout box, say both of Henry Smith’s children. “I don’t care,” says Smith-Davis, laughing at the memories of people trying to pass off her food as home cooking. “As long as they keep getting it from me!”
A second branch of the cafe was opened in 1997 in Oxon Hill, Md., by Jermaine and onetime sports and entertainment manager Bernard Brooks Jr.. Did I hit the offshoot on an off day? A computer glitch resulted in a delayed online order, for which a server apologized with an offer of a gratis dessert and drink. I didn’t mind the wait, as the storefront entertains customers with music outside. Alas, hits from Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder — a patron of the U Street carryout — couldn’t overcome the salty flat salmon cakes, black from the grill; meatloaf with an aftertaste of canned corn beef hash; or oddly sweet collard greens. Salvaging the meal were those tender corn muffins, warm from the oven even after 30 minutes in the car, and a couple of crunchy fried chicken wings, ignited with flame-red hot sauce.
I can understand why Henry’s Soul Cafe sells about 100,000 pies a year. The smooth filling of the signature revels in nutmeg, ginger, vanilla and orange, albeit in amounts that let the sweet potato shine. (The thin crust is an adequate commercial product.) It wasn’t until talk show host Wendy Williams reached out to the Obama White House and asked about his preferences that the owners discovered the former president had eaten their bestseller, and more than once.
Catering is a big part of the Smith family business. A central kitchen on Alabama Avenue SE employs the majority of Henry’s 40 or so workers. Clients have included the Wizards, the Capitals, church groups and D.C.’s homeless.
Henry’s Soul Cafe was never about Henry Smith making a lot of money, says his son, who remembers his father letting some customers buy food on credit and taking meals to folks in need. “He didn’t have a bank of wealth, but a bank of heart.”
The original carryout is free of pictures of the boldfaced names who have enjoyed the fruits of the family’s labors over the operation’s long run. Knowing celebrities have enjoyed your food is nice, Jermaine says, but his father said steady customers were his bread and butter.
“ ‘The really famous people are the regulars who come in,’ ” Jermaine remembers his dad telling him. “ ‘And I don’t have enough space on the wall’ ” for all their photographs.
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Henry’s Soul Cafe 1704 U St. NW. 202-265-3336 and 5431 Indianhead Hwy., Oxon Hill, Md. 301-749-6856. henryssoulcafe.com.
Open in Washington 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Oxon Hill: 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Prices: in Washington, sandwiches $5.15 to $9.95, main courses $10.59 to $13.99; in Oxon Hill, sandwiches $3.99 to $8.99, main courses $9.95 to $13.99. Accessibility: Both locations are too snug to accommodate wheelchairs; a small ramp leads to the entrance in Oxon Hill.