During the first half of the 20th century, the Great Migration brought black Southern culture north, including a down-home cuisine that featured corn as a staple starch, boiled legumes and greens, and fried, cured or smoked pork, poultry, and seafood.
Thus, although it originated in the South, soul food, as such fare is often called, is at home in the north. Many soul-food restaurants are not just places to go for a meal; they are community meeting places and social centers in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. As such, they seem to suggest that the concept of Southern hospitality traveled north with the cuisine.
We certainly experienced hospitality at Soul Food on Hamilton, an aesthetically spartan but atmospherically warm and welcoming restaurant in Homewood run by Ms. V. Dobbins.
The menu is grounded in traditional soul food, peppered with Pittsburgh favorites (hoagies, steak salad) and augmented with daily specials.
Dobbins made us feel right at home — specifically, the home of someone eager to please us and determined that we not go hungry. Though we did not identify ourselves as reviewers, in addition to all that we ordered, she brought us plate after plate of hot, fresh-from-the-kitchen items just because she thought we would like to try them: extra shrimp, a waffle and a serving of the daily special of spaghetti with meat sauce. If satisfaction was her goal, she succeeded.
We got started with fried wings. The crust was light and crisp, not fluffy like a batter, but not crunchy like breading, either. The meat inside was utterly, falling-off-the-bone succulent. The Belgian-style waffle we were given paired well. It was not crisp, but had a rich, malty flavor that balanced both the savory chicken and the syrup.
Ribs weren’t available during our lunchtime visit, so we tried a fried pork chop instead. The crust was similar, but not identical, to the chicken, perhaps due simply to cooking in a pan instead of a fryer. Regardless, the deeper color portended deeper flavor, and while the meat could have been more tender, it was a tasty chop.
Fried tilapia was not moist, but we wouldn’t describe it as dry, and a lemony flavor seemed somehow cooked into the substantial crust in lieu of a juicy wedge to squeeze on top. Fried whiting is also available.
Fried shrimp are on the menu, but our attempt to order them was politely declined; Ms. Dobbins explained that the shrimp she had that day were too big, and would toughen up before the frying was done. She brought us, instead, an order of grilled shrimp that were firm yet tender and lightly, flavorfully browned.
Each entrée came with two sides, and we were able to try most all of them on offer. Potato salad was superb, with tender potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and minced celery in a thick, creamy dressing that was full of flavor without smothering the main components. Macaroni and cheese was nearly as good, going heavy on real melted cheese rather than a creamy sauce for a more direct cheesy flavor; this was good enough for a main course. Yams were sweet but not cloyingly so, their vegetable flavor coming through alongside the molasses-like brown sugar.
However, greens were cooked to a fair-thee-well, such that we couldn’t tell whether they were mustard or kale. Bits of smoked turkey couldn’t rescue their weak flavor. And fries were a thorough failure: Their soggy, pale character betrayed that they had been cooked neither long nor hot enough.
We were nearly done — and pretty full — when Ms. Dobbins delivered a bonus plate of the day’s special, spaghetti. Very much in the style of a fire-hall fundraiser, the tomato sauce was meaty, augmented by a couple beefy meatballs. The only flaw was a too-light hand with seasoning: a quick sprinkle of salt made a big improvement, and another of parmesan really brought the flavors together.
When you go to Soul Food on Hamilton, be sure to stroll toward the back, where a refrigerated case is full of homemade desserts, from sweet-potato pie to chocolate cake. Had we not been plied with so many entrees, we would have relished the chance to try the sweets.
Will Homewood be the next frontier of gentrification in Pittsburgh’s rapidly transforming East End? If so, we hope it will not come at the expense of the neighborhood’s established community and its own local businesses, such as Soul Food on Hamilton.