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The Boulevard at the Capital Centre, located in Largo near FedExField, is a bricked, obsessively scrubbed village of large and small businesses aimed at an African-American community with money, taste, and, apparently, a bent for good manners. (The Boulevard posts a “Code of Etiquette,” which includes such prohibitions as “sitting in such a way as to cause inconvenience to others.”) The community clearly has a taste for soul food, too: The shopping center is home to two such operations, the 50-seat Soul Fixins’ and the behemoth Gladys Knight and Ron Winans’ Chicken & Waffles.
Size and celebrity cachet are not the only things that separate the two restaurants. Despite its spare, almost Eastern-like interior—warm mahogany colors mix with squat, backless, white-cushioned seats—Soul Fixins’ is still only a counter-service establishment located in the corner of an outdoor food court. Knight’s place sits with the other big-box restaurants on the opposite end of “Restaurant Row”; it’s an expansive, high-ceilinged eatery with a full bar, original artwork on the walls, and a small stage for live music. It’s soul food’s answer to the Cheesecake Factory.
“My favorite restaurant is Houston’s,” says Reginald Washington, vice president and executive chef of the three Chicken & Waffles. “You know you’re going to get good service. They got the same menu throughout the country, and they’re consistent. They’re on that Cheesecake Factory level. Traditional soul food has always been a little raggedy place.”
Sounds like the classic setup for a David and Goliath story, doesn’t it? With little more than superior cooking and a sound business plan, the scrappy underdog fells the wannabe corporate giant. Well, not this time. In this story, Goliath beats David to a bloody pulp on almost every front. For one thing, C&W doesn’t even have to convince anyone to eat there. Without a lick of advertising to draw them, people routinely wait a half-hour or more for a weekend table at Knight’s joint.
If you examine the menu at C&W, you’ll discover there’s not much variety here—mostly variations on chicken and salmon, along with a hefty assortment of hit-or-miss sides (the sweet heat of the fried corn shouldn’t be missed) and a few breakfast options. Washington likes to call his cooking “nouveau soul food” because it tones down some of Southern cuisine’s fattier excesses. The wimpy collard greens are slow-cooked with smoked turkey wings, not ham hocks. Salmon plays a larger role on the menu than fried catfish does. The wait staff even gives you tiny plastic containers of “buttery taste spread” for your waffles instead of regular butter (never mind the Food and Drug Administration’s howlings on partially hydrogenated oils).
C&W’s health consciousness, fortunately, doesn’t extend to its fried chicken. The hot, tender pieces of bird arrive on a white plate, all golden and still glistening from their dip in oil. A light, salty coating conceals fleshy chicken that’s moist all the way to the bone. You have a stack of paper napkins at your disposal, but if you’re smart, you’ll suck your fingers clean.
Too bad the waffle doesn’t carry its weight in the restaurant’s titular dish. The Midnight Train is four massive fried wings—I’d hate to meet these supersized chickens in a dark alley—paired with an “Original” waffle. The thin round of malted waffle has barely progressed past the batter stage, baked just long enough to give the goop some form. If the goal of chicken and waffles is to match a salty, crunchy bite of bird with a sweet, crunchy bite of breakfast food, then the dish fails. But that’s the fault of the kitchen, not the recipe. Before you order, demand that your waffle receive a proper ironing.
In terms of fully realized entrees, C&W dishes out better plates than its chicken and waffles. The brown-sugar salmon, Washington’s clever riff on candied yams, is a fresh fillet marinated in the sweet stuff as well as in teriyaki sauce and pineapple juice. It is smoky, flaky, moist, and full of flavor, without drowning in sugar. The smothered chicken is another showcase for the fried bird, this time served with a creamy, bell-pepper-infused gravy. It’s the best thing on the menu.
Soul Fixins’ also does a smothered chicken. The counterman pulls your choice of fried chicken from a steam table—maybe a leg or maybe a breast with wing, each a greasy, over-fried mess concealing either hardened or dry meat—and ladles it with a thin lumpy gravy of mostly pan juices. You’ll receive the same tough, warmed-over bird for the fried chicken entree, which is no better than its smothered cousin. You get the sense you’re eating leftovers here, a problem for any restaurant that precooks and holds its food. It’s enough to make you feel sorry for Soul Fixins’ as it goes toe-to-toe with C&W.
Operations manager Thomas Brown, though, is not about to throw in the towel at Soul Fixins’. In fact, he’s stealing some energy from his star-powered neighbor. “You’d be surprised how much spinoff I get from her restaurant,” Brown says. “You said you’ve been here, and you’ve been to Gladys’ [place]. Now you wouldn’t have even come here if it weren’t for Gladys.”
He’s so right.—Tim Carman
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