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Is Soul Daddy America's Next Great Restaurant? We ate at the new MOA outpost to find out

The final episode of NBC's "America's Next Great Restaurant" aired last night, showing Jamawn Woods of Soul Daddy beating out meatballs (Brooklyn Meatball Co.) and Indian food (Spice Coast) to have his concept realized. An unemployed father of three and self-taught cook, Woods went from selling his wings and waffles out of his home to becoming an owner-operator of a three-restaurant chain.

Those restaurants--at South Street Seaport in New York City, the Hollywood & HIghland Center in Los Angeles, and the Mall of America in Bloomington--opened today. The Hot Dish hit the MOA location (#344 South, third floor between Tony Roma's and Noodles) to check out Wood's "lighter" approach to traditional soul. Here's what we found:

Soul Daddy exterior, with faux patio seating.
Soul Daddy exterior, with faux patio seating.

Fans lined up dozens deep outside Soul Daddy before its doors opened at 11 a.m., calling friends and posting Facebook statuses as they waited. A woman from Illinois desperately seeking a Soul Daddy t-shirt left her contact information with the manager in the hopes of purchasing one later.

Lining up at the Soul Daddy counter.
Lining up at the Soul Daddy counter.

Soul Daddy's first impression is of being a Southern-style Chipotle, due to some combination of its interior design, cafeteria-line service, and rustic menu font. The interior has an urban/industrial aesthetic (concrete floors, utilitarian lighting, long wooden tabletops), but it's chic and welcoming.

Fans commemorating their meals with camera phone snaps.
Fans commemorating their meals with camera phone snaps.

The restaurant offers a simple menu of entrees and sides served a la carte, or as a full meal (entree with two sides and bread) priced around $10. Entrees include country-style ribs, baked herb chicken (Woods's healthier alternative to his original fried chicken), roasted pork, and pulled pork sandwiches. Sides include the traditional collard greens and cheese grits, plus several salads, including black-eyed pea, sweet potato, and green beans. The biscuits are made with whole wheat flour and the cornbread comes in waffle form. And, of course, there's the southern staple, sweet tea, on tap.

 

We sampled about half of the items and came to the conclusion that Soul Daddy probably isn't America's Next Great Restaurant--or even its next Chipotle. But if you find yourself in the Mall of America searching for an inexpensive, easy meal, it would certainly do the trick. Also to its credit, Soul Daddy's won't leave you feeling like you need to go get your cholesterol checked, like some southern restaurants do.

Chicken, biscuit, wild rice salad, and coleslaw.
Chicken, biscuit, wild rice salad, and coleslaw.

The baked herb chicken breast is a good choice, both tender and flavorful. In the sides category, the wild rice salad deserves a special shout out for its crunchy texture and lively bits of dried cranberries and scallions. The so-called collard greens were actually curly kale, but still worth an order, nonetheless.

The whole wheat biscuits--made on-site by employees wrestling large blob of dough--deliver the most bang for the buck: crusty on the outside, pillowy within, and just $1 a pop. They're even better slathered with honey butter.

Ribs, cornbread waffle, cheesy grits, and kale.
Ribs, cornbread waffle, cheesy grits, and kale.

But the ribs at Soul Daddy aren't worth the bother--the spice rub is dull and they're not smoky or succulent enough to inspire any of the carnivorous, bone-gnawing, napkin-shredding frenzies that the best ones do.

Next time the America's Next Great Restaurant investors are in town, they should stop by our own locally grown soul food concept, Brasa, to taste Alex Roberts's approach: it's filtered through a South American lens, with bolder flavors, juicier meats, and sustainably sourced ingredients. They'll likely wish they put their money behind that business instead.

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