Willy D's brings real soul food back to Minneapolis
A half-dozen or so years ago, Minneapolis's soul-food scene was really cooking. The heart of it was Lucille's Kitchen, which served home-style meals with a side of social and political activism and functioned as something of the North Side's de facto community center. When Al Sharpton ran for president, he was interviewed at Lucille's for one of the restaurant's Public Policy Forums, which was broadcast on KMOJ radio.
The most delicious soul food in the Twin Cities was being cooked at Big E's, a shoebox-size eatery on Nicollet Avenue run by the talented but troubled chef Eric Austin, a.k.a. Big E. Austin had trained at the Culinary Institute of America and modernized the classics enough to make them fresh, but not so much that Grandma wouldn't recognize them. It was nearly impossible to get a table at Big E's on a Friday or Saturday night.
And you could still find traditional foods like chitlins—the dishes most reminiscent of hard times and thrift and perseverance that were always the first to be phased out. The amazingly named Mama Taught Me How to Cook, which was tucked into an obscure corner in St. Anthony, served its chitlins boiled. They looked like heaps of wet pantyhose.
During that glorious period, there was enough soul food in the Twin Cities for a few friends and me to make a daylong tour out of sampling all of it. We must have been a sight to behold: six and a half white people, five of them law students, bicycling up to each eatery in sweat-soaked athletic gear, much of it in violation of Arnellia's dress code (since it was midday, the staff didn't seem to care). We'd order buttermilk biscuits, scoops of mac and cheese, and slices of 7-Up cake. We'd skip the ribs and catfish and fried chicken because everyone except me was vegetarian, which somehow made the whole expedition all the more ridiculous.
That trip would be hard to replicate today. While several longtime joints like Lee's & Dee's and Hickory Hut still anchor St. Paul and its storied black enclave, the old Rondo neighborhood, Minneapolis's soul food scene suffered the loss of Lucille's, Big E.'s, and Mama Taught Me How to Cook. Sure, plenty of places specialize in chicken or ribs and serve them with a few sides of baked beans, Jo Jo potatoes, or coleslaw, such as Ted Cook's, Pastor Hamilton's, Shorty & Wag's, and Big Daddy's. (You can even get good ribs at white-tablecloth spots like the 128 Café—and theirs are amazing, by the way.) But overall there's a distinct lack of full-throttle soul in the Twin Cities: the rich, varied, and bountiful spread of the African-American South.
Fortunately, there is now Willy D's Southern Style at 38th and Chicago, which operated as Derrick's Southern Style for about six months before recently rebooting with revised management. (Derrick Williams and Willy Frazier were the original partners, but after the restaurant was mysteriously vandalized twice this year, the frustrated Williams, who is also suffering from health problems, decided to step back. The kitchen is still run by the same chef, Duane Covington.)
Like all good soul-food eateries, Willy D's sits across the street from a storefront church, and its dining room has zero ambiance. Service is friendly and laid-back. (Northerners should be advised to slow their roll; during one visit I rattled off my to-go order so fast that I was requesting desserts while our waitress was still writing down the appetizers.) Health is not Willy D's first objective, though it plans to add more baked and grilled items. Here even the vegetables—okra, collard greens, corn on the cob—come battered and fried. The okra, a Southern staple, is fine, but the others are more intriguing. Take slow-cooked, tissue-tender greens, wad them into balls, batter them in a thin, Pronto Pup-like batter, and cook them in hot fat. Take half a cob, coat its sweet, plump kernels in a different but equally light batter, and fry it until it's encased in a light-brown jacket. No need for salt or butter.
There are better places in town to eat pork than Willy D's. The pulled pork has a brash, sugary-vinegary sauce in which it's been cooked to the point of mushiness. The ribs are okay, being neither too tough nor too tender, but they're not distinguishing themselves with their straightforward, jammy sauce. They do come with a side of onion rings, dipped in another sort of batter—this one rough, speckled, and tasting rather like Corn Flakes—and fried to just this side of bliss.
But it's hard to find more heavenly fried chicken. Dinners are made to order, which takes about 20 minutes, but it's well worth the wait. The meat is lush and tender and the batter is crisp, but not overly so, and seasoned in a way that seems simultaneously simple and nuanced. (Covington says he uses a Southern spice blend that's not available in Minnesota, and he doesn't use buttermilk, which makes the batter too thick, but he's not disclosing any more details of his secret recipe. "Thousands of people ask me for it all the time," he says.) The catfish fillet, fried in yet another light, crispy batter, is just as good. The flesh is ripe with its signature aquatic funk that gives the fillet more flavor and body than its Northern cousins walleye and whitefish.
The sides are uniformly plain and largely good. Corn muffins, coleslaw, and potato salad are the expected renditions. Pick those over the mac and cheese, which has a sauce that's an unholy shade of orange and tastes like a cross between American and Velveeta. But don't miss the black-eyed peas, a ham-studded mash that's rich and salty.
If you want to get takeout, Willy's offers free delivery. If you want to make a night of it, Willy's offers live music and karaoke. Whatever you do, just make sure to have a piece of the pecan pie, which is just as you'd hope it might be: gummy and sweet without being treacly.
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