They don't call it soul food because it's good for your body -- it's not. The hard-core, old-school Southern culinary art form is not for the faint of heart or those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes. But for those who value flavor over nutrition, it's hard to beat the effects of ham hocks, lard, salt and Karo syrup.
Richmond has no shortage of down-home Southern establishments. From La V's Homemade in Shockoe Bottom to the now-defunct Corner Bar & Grill in Carver, I've had a great time eating and writing about our native nosh. A trio of noteworthy joints, however, may have failed to register on your radar.
In the most authentic category is Woolfolk & Sons, family-owned and operated for the last 30 or so years, but largely unknown outside its north Church Hill neighborhood. This is not a see-and-be-seen destination. The carpets are worn. The drop ceiling and faux wood paneling aren't likely to make you relax into your seat and savor the ambience. But the service is remarkably friendly, and the food is to die for (recall that opening paragraph).
Ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender, smoked, slow-roasted and basted with a thick, tangy homemade sauce that's been properly glazed on the grill. These may be the best ribs I've found in town, and they more than make up for the din of the evening news emanating from the gigantic TV in the corner. Why the jukebox loaded with classic Luther, Al and O'Jays is left unplugged is beyond my understanding, as is the reference on the taped menus to the salad bar when said salad bar is likewise unplugged and serving as storage for trays and booster seats.ÿ
But such funk is fair balance for all the places that value style over taste. And who would go to Woolfolk for salad? From string beans and collards adorned with chunks of pork to corn pudding that swims in sweet syrup and hush puppies that could be a meal in themselves, it's the side dishes that set the place apart.
In the newest soul category is Lucille's, which trades the dim, smoky confines of a neighborhood bar for the lifeless glare and open space of a strip-mall storefront a bit farther to the north, over the eastern Henrico line. The service is sweet and earnest. Whereas the folks at Woolfolk seem mildly amused at non regulars wandering in, the staff at Lucille's is out to win you over with big smiles and anticipatory gestures all through dinner service.
What you lose in the trade-off is a bit of the grit and gristle that makes for a notable experience, but the food here is plain good. The seafood is dusted with a light seasoning and hint of cornmeal before the ubiquitous deep fry, and the result is surprisingly light and crispy -- an improvement over the heavy breading that weighs down the fish dishes at Woolfolk. Cornbread arrives at the table steaming hot, sweet and light. The collards are rich and earthy, but I missed the pork component to take them over the top. The ribs fall apart at the touch of a fork, but the sauce was an afterthought, both unglazed and store-bought, earning serious demerits in my book. So did the gigantic TV blaring the evening news, which in this case is only excusable because we heard that Obama had clinched the nomination in about the best setting imaginable. Folks stopped eating to converse across the dining room and -- no matter who's your candidate of choice -- it really did feel like "One America" for a change, at least over dinner.
Saving the best for last, in the still relevant category (now that the Jackson Ward location has closed) is Anniebell's, way out in Midlothian. When you walk in, you'll notice it's a bit old-fashioned: no giant TV; the booths all match; the menus are clean and current. On top of this, three golden words: chicken and waffles. Enough said? If you don't know what that means, go and you'll get it. Great collards? Yes. Piping hot corn muffins fresh from the oven? Yes. Crispy fried catfish? Yes. But it doesn't even matter, because honey-heat fried chicken paired with a crispy golden waffle covered in butter and syrup is enough to make anyone's soul shine, and that's what this kind of eating is all about, just like the blues: It feels so good to hurt so bad. S
Woolfolk & Sons Seafood ($)
1627 Mechanicsville Turnpike
(near the corner of Ford Avenue)
Lunch and dinner: Tuesday-Sunday
No nonsmoking section
Lucille's Southern-Infused Cuisine ($)
1241 N. Laburnum Ave.
(Laburnum and Creighton)
Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sunday: Noon-8 p.m.
Anniebell's Restaurant ($)
10827 Hull Street Road No. 102
Tuesday-Friday: 4-9 p.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sunday gospel brunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Live music with cover charge on weekends