The Best Soul Food Spots in America to Visit on Your Next Road Trip
Indulge in mac and cheese, fried catfish, and sweet potato pie.
For the first few weeks after moving to Brooklyn, I felt homesick. I longed for a meal that resembled something even remotely close to my grandma’s Sunday meals she’d cook when I was younger. To put it plainly, I missed soul food.
I was born and raised in Georgia and my palate craved collard greens cooked with ham hocks, fried chicken with hot sauce (legs are the best part, no debate here), and pork chops. But even though I was states away from my forever home, New York proved itself to have a soul food scene where I was reminded of who and where I came from.
Not to be confused with Southern comfort food, soul food has historic roots that differentiate it from other American cuisines. The legacy of soul food is marinated in tenacity and soaked in a pot of togetherness.
“Soul food is the Southern food that Black migrants took outside the south and transplanted in other parts of the country,” says soul food scholar and culinary historian, Adrian E. Miller. “Soul food is usually more intensely seasoned, relies on the use of a variety of meats, and usually borders the line between savory and sweet.”
A major impact on the development and preservation of what we know of as soul food in the United States was The Great Migration that started at the beginning of the 20th century and continued through the 1970s.
During this period of time, vast amounts of African Americans left the American South in pursuit of job opportunities not riddled with overbearing racism. Cities such as Chicago, New York, Washington DC, and Houston were the centers of this massive migration. Communal cooking became a time to show love and graciousness through the food that kept these Black migrants fed physically and emotionally.
“The reason why I talk about migrants and soul food is that I argue that soul food is the celebration food of the south and then that food was transplanted across the country,” Miller says. He added that people usually think soul food is an everyday meal, but it was really only eaten and available during special occasions.
Whether it’s the heavily praised baked macaroni and cheese from Henry’s Soul Cafe in DC, or fried chicken smothered in savory gravy from Dulan’s Soul Food in Los Angeles, soul food now shows up on menus across the country.
Although this list could go on forever, it is not exhaustive and works best as a launching pad on your soul food journey. I asked experts to name the soul food restaurants they considered the best in the cities that they live in or make food-related content about. Are the collard greens braised to near perfection? Can the macaroni and cheese stand the test of time it travels in a takeout container? Yes, the skin on the fried chicken is crunchy enough, but is it seasoned with onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and paprika?
Find the closest spot to you and experience the greatness for yourself. Be sure to check each restaurant’s vaccine and mask status before dining in or walking in for pick up.
Los Angeles, California
While LA may not be the first place you think of when you’re craving soul food, you might want to take another look at all the culinary variety the city has to offer.
Owned by Gregory A. Dulan and Terrence Dulan—sons of the late “King of Soul Food” Adolf Dulan—Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen’s three locations all serve the same entrées, sides and desserts no matter which location you order from, you won’t miss out. Adolf Dulan was also the founder of Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch, a successful soul food pillar in the Marina del Rey community of Los Angeles that was visited by many celebrities such as Little Richard, Janet Jackson, Kobe Bryant, and Elizabeth Taylor.
One thing that has kept the Dulan family’s legacy so strong over years within the Los Angeles community is the quality and soul that can literally be tasted in the food.
“[Dulan’s] does a great job at serving hearty portions of food that taste and feel like your grandmother’s cooking,” says Danielle Salmon, LA-based creator of Follow My Gut, a blog full of restaurant reviews and panels with various food industry leaders.
Salmon’s authority on identifying the cream of the crop shows true with the section on her blog called “Best of the Best,” which showcases some of the “best ofs” in the Los Angeles restaurant scene.
This Midwestern city’s culinary culture is not one to miss. Options are plentiful for those who wish to coat their taste buds in rich seasonings and juicy goodness, but one place stands out above the rest in the minds of Chicago food bloggers. Located in Chicago’s West Town, Soulé’s creole-infused soul food has been a staple in the community since it opened in 2017.
The Black Foodies, a husband and wife duo who have taken the YouTube food scene by storm with their reviews of Black-owned restaurants in Chi-town and around the world, told me Soulé reigns supreme. “We appreciate having a diverse offering of ‘soul food’ to choose from, which heightens our dining experience,” says Dino Dean, one half of The Black Foodies.
And a diverse offering is exactly what you’ll get at Soulé. From traditional soul food dishes like fried catfish, to New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp and grits, your mouth will take a trip around the diaspora.
For Chicago native Jeremy Joyce, the founder of Black People Eats, a site that promotes Black-owned restaurants and food and drink companies around the world, Soulé gives familiar dishes an exciting spin. “When it comes to food, their bold take on family favorites brings life back to the table,” Joyce says. “I mean every bite into the succulent boneless catfish, coupled with savory chicken spaghetti and sauteed green beans will have your mouth jumping for joy.”
St. Louis, Missouri
The Lou is home to more than just barbecue, Jazz music, and Nelly and his Air Force Ones. It’s also home to Gourmet Soul Restaurant and Catering, Joyce’s pick for the best soul food in St. Louis. The spot is located on Delmar Boulevard, just steps away from the City Museum.
Peruse the restaurant’s lunch and extensive catering menu. Gourmet Soul serves your traditional soul food offerings like smothered pork chops, cornbread dressing and baked chicken. But what makes them stand out is their gourmet approach to their dishes, which is clearly seen in their plating style.
Gourmet Soul serves their customers meals in sturdy, colorful plates and side dish cups to match the vibrant flavors.
“They pride themselves in producing soulful gourmet touches to our favorite meals such as baked chicken, smothered pork chops, chicken wings, peach cobbler, and caramel cake,” Joyce says. “We tried their chicken wing meal with mac and cheese and collard greens and it was a flavorful experience. St Louis might be known for their BBQ and music, but this restaurant is opening doors to new possibilities of what this city has to offer.”
New Orleans, Louisiana
Believe it or not, there are in fact fun things to do outside of the French Quarter in New Orleans, like a food crawl through The Crescent City. It’s important to note that Louisiana’s Creole cuisine has a large influence on its soul food scene, so many restaurants feature an infusion of soul and Creole. Louisiana Creole draws from West African, French, and Spanish influences. It is not to be used interchangeably with Cajun-style cooking, which unlike Creole, typically does not use tomatoes and tomato-based sauces.
Now that you’re more informed about Louisiana food lingo, you’ll have no trouble ordering at Heard Dat Kitchen in Central City, which is what Chasity Pugh thinks the best soul food spot is in New Orleans. Pugh is the creator of Let Dat Girl Eat, where she showcases New Orleans’s finest and tastiest food options. “The reason why Heard Dat has some of the best soul food in the city is because it fuses the Cajun and Creole flavors of New Orleans with down south soul food that Louisiana is known for,” Pugh says.
New Orleans-based writer and photographer L. Kasimu Harris also selected Heard Dat as his soul food favorite. “The flavors are bold: crispy fried catfish topped with a crawfish cream sauce or a gumbo that a New Orleans born and raised grandmother would rave about,” Harris says.
It would be impossible (and just downright wrong) to leave New Orleans without ever having a plate of shrimp and grits, and luckily for you, Heard Dat has you covered in that area. Or try one of the signature dishes like the Superdome (blackened fish, lobster potatoes, lobster cream sauce, sweet corn, and crispy onion rings) or the Bourbon Street Love (fried chicken over mac and cheese and Crawdat cream sauce and potato salad). Then when you’re all done, wash it down with Dat Tea.
To find the best soul food in Washington, DC, I turned to Cornelia Poku, co-founder of the popular Instagram account Black Girls Eat DC. Poku says that mac and cheese is one of the best barometers to determine a great soul food spot and Henry’s Soul Cafe on U Street topped her list.
“Because mac and cheese is a difficult dish, and despite its role as a side, it can easily be the star when done right,” Poku says. “Henry's Soul Cafe is one of the last strongholds of the culture of DC in one of the neighborhoods where the Black population was heavily concentrated.”
Poku said that with it being on the same block at the historic Howard Theater, the African American Civil War Museum, and Ben’s Chili Bowl, it’s a part of a deep history within the community. In the first half of the 20th century, U Street was one of the most vibrant places for African American culture and livelihood. Its impact on the music and arts scene in Washington, DC was seen through the presence of acts like Duke Ellington, who was born in DC.
Jermaine Smith—son of the original founder and owner of Henry’s Soul Cafe—told me the restaurant started out as a small spot similar to a convenience store and offered some takeout items like hot dogs, burgers, and sandwiches. Henry began to add more items to the menu as time went on, including what he became best known for: sweet potato pie.
“When I was growing up, there would be snow blizzards and ice storms, and my dad would still open up because he had an obligation to feed people that may not be able to get a meal,” Smith says. “When the pandemic came, my first inclination was that we were going to stay open and we’d take the necessary precautions to try to lessen the effects of the virus, but we have an obligation to stay open.”
Take Poku’s advice and pair your fried chicken wings with cabbage, fried okra, stuffing, or coleslaw. Finish off your meal with a slice of the “Homemade World Famous Sweet Potato Pie,” or really treat yourself and just order a whole one.
From Chef James “Mackie” Jones comes His Place Eatery, a soul food spot located on the eastside of Indianapolis. According to Brittany King, one half of Two Midwest Foodies, the Midwest is often wrongfully thought of as just flyover country, but this soulful restaurant deserves a visit.
“His Place Eatery reminds me of my grandma’s cooking growing up,” King says. “You can tell that there is a lot of thought and care put into their menu. Fried catfish is a favorite, and the mac and cheese is always a must order. If you’re feeling extra indulgent, try the red velvet chicken and waffles.”
The menu contains a plethora of southern classics like crispy chicken and waffles (and a red velvet waffle option!), fried fish, smothered pork chops and a variety of BBQ meats like slow smoked pulled pork, brisket and hickory smoked ribs. But don’t forget to finish off your nap-inducing meal with a slice of sweet potato cheesecake or warm peach cobbler with a scoop of ice cream.
Phoenix, Arizona; Dallas, Texas; and Las Vegas, Nevada
Neva LaRue, who runs a recipe and restaurant Instagram account, says Lo-Lo’s Chicken and Waffles is her favorite soul food restaurant. Even though she’s based in Portland, the food is so good that it’s worth the trip. And if you’re planning a road trip out west, keep in mind that LoLo’s has locations in Texas, Arizona, and Nevada.
“LoLo’s is just good food, period! From the cheesy mac and tender greens to the syrupy delicious candy sweets, every bite makes my heart smile,” LaRue says. “I get the same thing every time: The Famous Soulfood Platter with the fried catfish and smothered chicken thigh and I always add on a waffle. Every bite of that hot crispy catfish makes me do a little shimmy! Don’t forget the big ole’ glass of Kool-Aid, it’s as sweet and refreshing as you remember from those hot summer days.”
Founded by Larry “Lo-Lo” White in 2002 at the first location in Phoenix, Lo-Lo’s features an all-day breakfast menu. Signature items include Ivan’s Chorizo and Eggs, Aunt Portia’s Chicken Omelet, and the Kiss My Grits Special Breakfast. For lunch and dinner, go for the “Famous Soulfood Platter,” which you can choose from three pieces of fried chicken, three pieces of smothered chicken, three pieces of double dipped smothered chicken fried chicken, three chicken tenders, or two pieces of golden fried catfish. The platter also comes with two sides and a slice of cornbread.
New York, New York
Commonly referred to as the original birthplace of chicken and waffles in the United States, Harlem is not only rich in its cultural roots and history, but also in its array of Black-owned restaurants and cafes. The Harlem Renaissance movement produced one of the most significant acts of Black migration in the early 20th century. The movement resulted in a surge of cultural explosion in Harlem, prompting the opening of many Black-owned clubs, publishing houses and music companies. It paved the way for the Black-owned spaces we see today, including numerous soul food treasures.
One of these treasures is Melba’s, located on West 114th street in Central Harlem. Another unanimous winner in the New York soul food Olympics, multiple food bloggers cited Melba’s as having the best soul food in the city that never sleeps.
The six degrees of separation may be even smaller than you think. The owner of Melba’s, Melba Wilson, is also an alumna of Sylvia’s Restaurant, owned by her aunt Sylvia Woods, a historic icon in New York. There’s always room for more than one spot at the top of the soul food chain, and with the effects of gentrification and the current pandemic making it difficult for Black-owned businesses to thrive and survive in New York City, the more the merrier. Bottom line? Melba’s is in good company.
"Melba's has always been my top pick for soul food in New York City. Melba started in the kitchen of the world-famous Sylvia's and then decided to strike out on her own,” says Dominek Tubbs, food blogger and creator of Dom N’ The City, where she provides New York restaurant reviews on restaurants around the city and other Black-owned spots like Fieldtrip, The Crabby Shack and Beatstro. “Who can say no to a woman that beat Bobby Flay with her delicious chicken and waffles recipe?"
The chicken and waffles recipe Tubbs refers to are Melba’s southern fried chicken and eggnog waffles. Yes, you read that correctly—eggnog waffles, and they are certainly worth a try (they’re available for delivery!). You’ll never want buttermilk waffles again. Fluffy, yet firm enough to soak up the sweet strawberry butter and maple syrup, it’s no surprise Bobby Flay deemed Wilson the “Queen Bee” of chicken and waffles.
Food enthusiast and creator of No Ordinary Grub, Brandi Bodega echoed Tubbs’ choice of Melba’s, praising their mac abd cheese and turkey meatloaf. “Harlem is historically known for its soul food eateries and Melba's stays true to Harlem southern soul food flavors,” she says.
Many great things and people come from Houston: delicious BBQ, the Houston Rockets, and of course, Beyoncé and Solange. But H-Town is also home to Mikki’s Soul Food Cafe, a cafeteria-style spot in southwest Houston that’s been visited by artists like Biz Markie, Wale, Too Short and Letoya Luckett. Opened in 2000 by owner and founder, the late Jeanette Williams, Mikki’s serves traditional soul food dishes at both the southwest Houston location and the Pearland location, which is about 16 miles from Houston.
Mikki’s offers a daily specials menu with rotating dishes like smothered fried chicken, stuffed bell peppers, ham hocks and curry chicken. The everyday menu has a ton of classics like oxtail, turkey wings, smothered pork chops, and smothered baked chicken are served daily, but the fried chicken and catfish are only served on Fridays and Sundays.
Valerie Jones and Kim Floyd, Houston-based founders of 2 Girls Who Travel, a joint blog where the two review Houston events and restaurants consider all of the food at Mikki’s to be tasty and generous in portion. But for Jones and Floyd, the sides are the real standouts. “Save time and order the greens, sweet potatoes, and mac and cheese,” Floyd says. “We’ve never had sweet potatoes so sweet and delicious.”
If your sweet tooth is still in need of more attention, look no further than Mikki’s dessert selections which includes red velvet cake, peach cobbler, pound cake, and sweet potato pie. On their beverage menu, you'll find an assortment of teas and Kool-Aid flavors, but be sure to get one of their daiquiris in flavors like blue raspberry, the signature Mikki’s Sunset Blend or the iconic Hurricane.
New Haven, Connecticut
Another spot that might not automatically spring to mind when you think of soul food is Connecticut. But Monique Anderson, a foodie and content creator based in the state, has many soul food recommendations, with Sandra’s Next Generation being her favorite.
“The owner Sandra is the sweetest and makes you feel like family,” Anderson says. “The fried chicken is some of the best around. It's perfectly crispy on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside. The sides are all a win. They're all so tasty that it's hard to go with one. But the ones that stick out are the mac and cheese, yams, and deviled eggs. The food is mouthwatering and flavored to perfection.”
The restaurant’s founder, Sandra Pittman, drew inspiration for the menu and flavors from her mother’s cooking, which she had watched and helped with when she was younger. Fried chicken is Pittman’s favorite thing to cook, so look for it all over the menu, including options like Shante's Plate and Shar'wyn's Church Plate, which can both be ordered with fried chicken, fried catfish, BBQ chicken, or cajun chicken.
Much like New York, Miami is a melting pot of cultures, cuisines and people. It's known for being a mecca of Cuban culture and a place where authentic Cuban sandwiches reign supreme. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find other ethnic restaurants. Social distancing may still be in effect, but you don’t have to distance your taste buds from soul food if you order from Sunday’s Eatery.
It’s no surprise that Miami’s own rap icon, Trick Daddy, known for “Take It To Da House” and “Let’s Go” with Lil Jon, Twista and Big D, is the owner of Sunday’s. He joins a growing list of celebrities who’ve thrown their hat into the ring of restaurant ownership, like Ludacris’ Chicken-N-Beer at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Rick Ross, who owns a number of Wingstop franchises in several states.
Alexandria Jones, creator of The Frugalista Life, named Sunday’s Eatery as her Miami choice due to its comfortable atmosphere. Jones also filmed a documentary titled A Soulful Taste: Exploring Tampa Bay's Black-Owned Food Scene, which shines light on Black-owned restaurants in Tampa Bay. “Sunday’s Eatery is like being at your Granny’s house for Sunday dinner with your family,” Jones says. “Anita Baker and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly played through the speakers and it wasn’t out of the ordinary to bop around to the music while I’m eating my meal.”
Before you let go of your menu at Sunday’s, you should try one of the fried (of course) entrées like the fried ribs or the chicken wings. Pair it with seasoned rice and peas and string beans. But if you’re not a huge fan of fried food, then swap them out for something grilled or baked.
Atlanta is the home of the Braves, Outkast, and an abundance of exquisite food spots. As a Georgia native, I have a few places that I consider staples, but to lessen my own bias, I reached out to award-winning blogger Erica Key, creator of Eating With Erica, to inquire about her favorite spot in the city. She’s been featured on Good Morning America and has written about a vast amount of Atlanta restaurants on her blog.
“Today's soul food isn’t about reinventing the wheel as it is about making classic soul food dishes your own. When you think of the word ‘best,’ it is defined as that which is the most excellent, outstanding, or desirable,” Key says. “Truer words could not describe Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, as they are the best in their league when it comes to distinctive and delectable soul food.”
Owner and Executive Chef Deborah VanTrece takes a creative approach to soul food at Twisted Soul Cookhouse. On the brunch menu, you’ll find dishes like the sweet tea BBQ brisket pimento cheese melt, blackened sea bass and brown butter duck breast.
Be sure to order one of the signature cocktails like Fire and Desire, which features Gracias A Dio mezcal, hibiscus, Himalayan salt, and Aztec chocolate bitters. Or go for the Down In Eve's Bayou, which consists of Ketel One Peach and Blossom, caramelized fig syrup, Lillet
Rouge and citrus. Also take advantage of Twisted Soul’s dinner menu, which includes aged cheddar, caramelized Onions, Roma tomatoes, house pickle and smoked BBQ aioli, and delicious desserts creme brulee cheesecake and bourbon peach cobbler with cinnamon whipped cream.