A good friend of mine whom I’ve known and worked with for many, many years recently asked me to review a restaurant into which he has invested. Norvel Green asked because he wanted an honest evaluation from a couple of known foodies — Ursula and me. I promised not to pull any punches, so here goes my honest evaluation.
R&B Kitchen’s Food from the Soul is located in El Paso’s Northeast side at 9787 McCombs Street (915-757-1515). And befitting it’s name, R&B Kitchen does indeed specialize in soul food. You’ll find collard greens on the menu and, yes, even Kool-Aid along with that Southern staple — sweetened ice tea. When I saw that I was intrigued.
But before we get to the food let’s talk about the ambiance of the place. R&B Kitchen recently underwent an extensive expansion, remodel, and upgrade of their existing facility when they took over the retail space next door and removed the wall. New tables and chairs were introduced, a fresh coat of cheerfully bright yellow and red paint with a faux wainscoting effect was applied, and an inviting and exceedingly practical checkerboard pattern of easily patched and replaceable carpeting was installed. Ursula noticed that last rather ingenious touch and brought it to my attention as we sat at our chosen table — it’s a marvelous and very practical solution to stains and wear. With all this work the R&B Kitchen leaves behind any hole-in-the-wall feel found in so many other family owned and operated restaurant establishments.
There are no printed menus in this place. Take note of what you want to order when you arrive through the doorway. There’s a daily updated chalkboard right as you walk in with that day’s specials. You can’t get much more home-style than that!
We arrived at R&B Kitchen on a Saturday, which just so happens to be barbecue day there. Other recurring daily specials include meatloaf, catfish (which is pretty much available every day R&B Kitchen is open), chicken-fried steak, and many other soul food favorites. Sides are pretty much constant when available or in season and usually include collard greens, fried okra, yams, and mac & cheese. Ursula and I both crave fried okra when we can find it, so we ordered a double portion as our “two” allotted side dishes and an additional side of yam to check out and share between us. Entrées come with a slightly sweet cornbread muffin as well. As we’re both watching the sugar intake and wanted to try dessert, we opted for the blasphemous unsweetened ice tea, which tasted freshly made and was flavorful and not over-brewed.
On this day I ordered the smoked brisket as my main meat dish. The brisket was delicately smokey throughout without being overpowered. As you can see from the picture below I got a portion that was heavy on the bark side and a bit light on the juicier interior meat. Nevertheless I enjoyed the flavor, but being bark-heavy both Ursula and I found it on the dry side. I think this particular brisket may have been either smoked at too high a temperature or the water ran low in the smoker (see my tips on Smoked Brisket here). Contrary to what you may read into that, we both enjoyed the brisket and found it very flavorful.
But for a comparison to what I’m referring here’s a shot of my brisket below. Note the narrower bark region and the juicier interior.
Ursula’s choice was one of her favorites, smoked pork. This particular smoked pork was of the pulled variety. Unlike the brisket this selection was incredibly moist throughout as you can see. Like the brisket it was rich in flavor, delicately but not overpoweringly smokey, and very, very tasty. It was a solid winner through-and-through, and a dish I can highly recommend.
If you’d like to learn more about the art of smoking pork, here’s my blog post on Smoked Boston Butt. And if you’d like your smoked pork South Carolina-style then here’s my blog post on what to do with that pork roast after it comes out of the smoker: Smoked Boston Butt — Carolina-style Mustard barbecue Hash.
Now let’s discuss R&B Kitchen’s sides. As you know, we tried two. The cornbread, as previously noted, was slightly sweetened. I’m more a South Carolina traditionalist, so I prefer mine without sugar. Nevertheless, it was a nice accompaniment to the meal. The fried okra was crisp, delicately breaded without being overly coated in cornmeal, and both light and tasty. Just as okra should be. If there’s a discordant note here it’s that the okra breading was a tad on the salty side. As I was brought up on Southern cooking this didn’t really bother me, but Ursula definitely noticed the saltiness and she thought it interfered with what otherwise would have been a great fried okra rather than just a good one. The yams, I’m sorry to say, were just plain over-cooked to the point of mushiness. They still had flavor, but it was washed out and there was no texture.
Dessert on the other hand was an incredibly delectable surprise. On the menu this day were two — strawberry shortcake (which I defy anyone to screw up) and fruit pie. As pie requires a culinary sophistication to it, this is what we chose. Our slice took a while to arrive, but that’s because it came to us still piping hot and fresh from the oven. The crust was a flaky affair that far too few bakers properly master. Not so here. The filling was definitely a homemade concoction of apple and various berries perfectly proportioned and not overly sweet as one usually experiences with restaurant pies. You’ll have to excuse the photo of this dish, but the pie was so appetizing that Ursula and I started to dig in before I remembered to photograph it.
R&B Kitchen is a family owned affair, and it shows in the quality and taste of the food. No bland corporate uniformity here. The primary owner and patriarch, with whom Ursula and I had a very nice and lengthy chat, is Robert Coleman. Robert is a delightful gentleman who hails originally from Alabama and was raised in Brooklyn. His son Chris is a graduate of culinary school, and this is evident as well. Also found in the kitchen and among the waitstaff are other family members, including the cheerful Mrs. Coleman who proudly brought to us our freshly baked slice of pie.
As we rose to depart after nearly two hours of dining and chatting with Mr. Coleman I spied yet another dish I definitely want to come back for a try. That would be the cornmeal-breaded and fried Southern-style catfish. Just looking at it, the catfish appeared perfectly prepared. The gentleman dining on it certainly thought so, and he didn’t hesitate to tell me just that when I asked. Yes, the R&B Kitchen most assuredly will be calling us back, and we look forward to our return there the next time I get hungry from some great Southern-style soul food with a true homemade flair.
For another take on R&B Kitchen’s Food from the Soul Restaurant, please click on this review from the El Paso Times dated January 15th of this year: