Critic’s Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
642 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg. Appetizers $7-$10, entrees $10-$24, desserts $4-$4.50. 727-824-7221, sylviasstpete.com.
Sylvia’s Soul Food is not an on-trend locavore kind of place. It’s more akin to a kickass church social where everybody’s grandma brings a favorite dish that they learned to cook from their grandma. You can almost picture the late Sylvia herself smiling from ear to ear as she dishes up a plateful of her specialties and soulful sides.
As Duke Ellington famously exclaimed about jazz and other forms that play fast and loose with conventional composition rules, “If it sounds good, it IS good.” The same is true of Sylvia’s soul food. Are some ingredients canned instead of fresh? Sure. Are some dishes prepared ahead and waiting in the kitchen, buffet-style? Absolutely. But my table was luxuriating in the homely embrace of the cuisine’s traditions, so who cares? To riff on Duke: “If it tastes good, it IS good.” And everything our table chows down on passes with flying colors.
I take a group of English friends who know little about soul food. They were recently underwhelmed by a hyped-up new venue, but here they have a ball. Every single appetizer, entree and dessert is the real deal, down to the well-done green beans with bacon. And despite the fact that they would make a classically trained French chef cry, they are authentic and delicious. All you need to do is to let go and enjoy.
Look within the tradition and understand the dishes’ origins — e.g., vegetables are conventionally cooked with ham or bacon until they beg for mercy. But they scream with flavor. You’ve got to adjust your expectations; this is not the place for fresh al dente haricots vert with a chiffonade of Italian parsley. This is home-style cooking.
Soul food is the love child of the African diaspora’s collision with the culinary traditions of the old South. My touchstones are The Praline Connection in N’awlins’ and Joyce’s in Fuquay-Varina, NC, where I ate the best fried chicken of my life on a paper plate with a plastic fork — but mostly with my fingers. So it’s exciting to see the celebrated Manhattan Casino splendidly restored to bring new life and real soul food to what was the historic “main street” of the African-American community.
There is so much food to come that we order just two traditional starters: fried green tomatoes and catfish fingers. Both are great examples of why serious foodies need to seek out regional cuisine whenever possible. There’s a reason these dishes endure. The crisp cornmeal coating envelops the entire green slice and melds together with the tart warm tomato flesh for a notable taste that is a touchstone of Southern cuisine. The catfish fingers are, likewise, crispy on the outside — with moist mouth-watering seafood as the reward.
The entrees strike an equally satisfying chord. Sylvia’s down-home fried chicken is terrific, the crunchy coating’s herbs and spices enhancing the juicy poultry. The same is true with the shrimp, which are also available grilled or bar-b-cued.
Sylvia’s much-talked-about barbecue features huge, glowing-red, St. Louis-style ribs slathered with Sylvia’s Original Sassy Sauce (available in supermarkets). It’s hot enough to tingle on your tongue, but delightful nonetheless.
Personally, as a sucker for pork, I particularly enjoy the meaty chop smothered in delectable gravy; that is, I eat every morsel and scrape the dish clean with my spoon and a bit of the sweet cornbread that arrives at the table at the top of the meal. The sweetness is pronounced and betrays a distinct Yankee influence — this is from Harlem, after all. Most native Southerners go lighter on the sugar. Anyway, Sylvia’s yellow cornbread is decidedly sweet, so regardless of your preference you are forewarned. I must say, though, that ours disappeared with alacrity and happy faces.
Because each entree comes with two sides, we sample eight of Sylvia’s favorite accompaniments with joy and smiles all around. Smoky collard greens, creamy garlic mashed potatoes, spicy okra & tomato gumbo, soft pork-tinged string beans, savory black-eyed peas, comforting baked mac & cheese, tiny cowpeas with fluffy rice, and sweet candied yams.
Sylvia’s also features daily specials that get to the heart of Southern soul food traditions, including stewed turkey wings, oxtails, and chitterlings. The collagen in oxtails gives them a particularly luscious mouthfeel, so I hope to see you there soon on a Tuesday or Wednesday when I can have my fill. However, since I visit each restaurant anonymously, please protect my secrecy and just ignore the comatose gentleman in the corner with braised oxtail stains on his shirt.
The desserts, many of which are available to go, feature everything from banana pudding to red velvet cake to bread pudding with strawberries. We take the county fair route and end up fighting over traditional favorites: peach cobbler and sweet potato pie. While the peaches don’t appear to be fresh from the orchard, the resulting desserts disappear quicker than a deck of David Blaine’s cards. And as I look around the table into the contented eyes of my guests, every single shining pupil reflects back “blue ribbon.”