When I visit a soul-food restaurant, there is one thing I must know before I give it a seal of approval: How well do they do the chicken?
Soul-food restaurants might include many specialties on its menu, from barbecue ribs to pork chops to chitlins. But chicken is a soul-food staple, the definitive dish that fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—binds us urban folk. So, whether it's fried or baked or barbecued or even smothered (but, mainly fried – I mean, who the hell are we kidding?), if you're a soul-food spot that can't do chicken well, you might as well burn the place down and collect the insurance money.
The chicken at 118 Got Soul, the new soul-food eatery that opened in November in Durham, is delectable.
I thought a soul-food restaurant in the heart of downtown would be popping off with patronage by now, but 118 Got Soul was mostly unoccupied the couple of weekday afternoons I was there. The waitress who served me assured me that, while foot traffic can be sparse during the week, it does pack in the after-church crowd on Sundays. (Sure enough, I saw two glowing Yelp reviews from people who stumbled onto this place while looking for a spot to eat on a Sunday afternoon.)
Located down Parrish Street from Monuts Donuts (home of the honey bacon bourbon doughnut, which should be illegal), the place certainly has the low-key, soul-food joint motif: Its discount décor includes a wall display listing the menu items that looks like it's from a '70s restaurant, covered tables, booths and a speaker system playing Motown hits—which, for some reason, aren't performed by the Motown artists who originally sang them.
A large buffet station holds the vegetables and salads, while the meats are cooked in the kitchen. However, patrons can't serve themselves all willy-nilly. The servers also go behind the station and assume the role of cafeteria workers, scooping up the side dishes to accompany your main course.
118 Got Soul's pride-and-joy specialty is barbecue turkey ribs. Turkey appears to be a meat that this spot specializes in, even cooking the collard greens and cabbage in turkey rather than pork.
Nevertheless, I was here for the chicken, which the restaurant serves in fried, roasted and smothered form. My first time there, I sampled the roasted chicken, served in leg quarters. I got a large piece, along with the candied yams, white rice and cornbread.
I was quite satisfied with the chicken's flavorful tenderness. It wasn't overseasoned or undercooked. It wasn't completely doused or leaking with oily juice. It properly tasted the way chicken straight out of the oven should taste. Meanwhile, the candied yams were just that, sweet and heavy as all get out. The cornbread was buttery, as they applied the old-school technique of greasing the cornbread pan to the point where the bottom is soaked in butter. And the white rice was, well, white rice.
The second time I showed up, I ordered chicken, white meat, along with candied yams (again!), cole slaw and cornbread.
The chicken breast was pleasantly succulent; the skin crunchy and seasoned without tasting scaly or fatty.
However, I did hit a speed bump with the wing. It appeared the cook was too eager to serve the food and forgot to pluck all of the feathers from the wing. So it had a few feather remnants sticking out of it. (Thankfully, they replaced the wing with a less feathery one.)
While that wing mishap would be seen as a no-no to more respectable diners, I found it amusing.
Soul-food restaurants are supposed to give patrons a flawed, down-home and ultimately delicious eating experience, which 118 Got Soul does. Besides, this isn't some fancy-ass bistro; this place serves ox tails for Chrissakes!
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cross the road for the chicken."