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Neither Indiah Wilson nor Oji Abbott had run a business, much less a restaurant, before opening up Oohhs & Aahhs on U Street last year. Wilson was an accountant and sometime model, Abbott a security guard. But the two amateur cooks had something almost as important as professional know-how and experience: They had resentment. In fact, the city’s best soul kitchen might never have been if not for the litany of slights the two had long nurtured.
“I hate when you go somewhere and you pay an arm and a leg, and you end up disappointed,” Wilson said one recent afternoon while juggling a multitude of duties from behind the counter: taking orders from customers, wrapping up carryout meals, directing her assistant to fry up another batch of wings. “You pay so much money and the food’s disappointing and you get bad service. You know? And they don’t even care.”
If the callousness of some of the high-ticket restaurants left Wilson and her partner cold, they were no less dismayed by what they saw in many mom-and-pops. “A lot of the so-called soul-food restaurants are not soul-food restaurants,” Wilson went on. “We have no meat in our collard greens. My mom says you don’t need it. If it’s seasoned properly, you don’t need the pork. You don’t have to use salt. We give salt to the customer that wants salt. There’s so many other good seasoners. We make our own seasonings.”
In case you were thinking that Wilson and Abbott, in their contrarian zeal, had decided to confront what they perceived as a lack of home-style cooking by opening a place that serves some kind of New Age take on soul food, think again: The pork chops are smothered in a thick gravy, the fry basket is always busy, and the butter is dispensed liberally—what isn’t fried is given a gloriously sloppy painting by the wide pastry brush that sits in a clear plastic tub beside the griddle. Servings are gargantuan. A buddy on a recent outing groaned at the finish and said, “Maybe I should walk back to work.” Work was three Metro stops away.
Given all the slathering and the portioning and the groaning, I find it difficult to get behind Wilson’s claim that Oohhs & Aahhs is “healthy” food. But I’m in lock step with her claim that theirs is food cooked “with love.” In the kitchen, love comes down to the same things it does in life: taking the time and minding the details.
Behold the fabulous fried chicken, a testament to a lifetime of lessons learned at the elbow. These are mammoth pieces, with a skin so sturdy it resembles a coat of armor. Finishing off a drumstick one day, I was stunned to find myself holding what looked like a cone of fry in my hand. The meat, luscious and tender, had come off the bone and slipped out of its savory jacket. The skin, meanwhile, was intact and firm, retaining its structural integrity to the end.
You eat a dish as perfectly engineered as that and you’re willing to trust just about anything else the kitchen serves up thereafter. My next time in, Wilson directed me to the Cajun shrimp. The spicing isn’t particularly hot—Abbott’s blend is heavy on the garlic salt, with just a touch of cayenne—but the shrimp themselves are bayou-country fat. They come eight to an order, remarkably generous in these parts, especially at 13 bucks, sides included. (Try the wonderfully unclotted mac-and-cheese or a square of the buttery, cakelike cornbread.) Even better, Abbott doesn’t cook them for even a second too long, plucking them from the griddle at the point of brilliant orange-pinkness and strewing them atop a tangle of sweet sautéed peppers and onions.
“Is it wonderful?” Wilson asked.
It was. Which was why I’d kept on eating long after I’d crossed the line into bloatedness. It happened again with the turkey “chops.” The turkey is plunged whole into the deep-fryer, cut into huge slabs, and tossed onto the griddle to cook again. Moist all by themselves, the chops are given an added gloss by a dousing of tangy barbecue sauce.
The downside to all of this is finding a place to sit with your Styrofoam container of food. There are only five red stools at the counter, and they fill up fast. To snag a coveted spot is a privelege, especially when the conversation is as lively as it sometimes is: Talk of Marxism, the war on terrorism, and the roots of black nationalism mingles with more personal chitchat and the latest gossip on the block.
More seats are on the way, Wilson says. She and Abbott have leased the space upstairs and begun remodeling it. She envisions a sit-down place big enough to accommodate all those customers who’ve had no choice but to take their meals and run, as well as all those who’ve begged and pleaded with her to host their meetings and functions.
But the request closest to Wilson’s heart? “‘Don’t change. Whatever you do, just don’t change,’” she says customers tell her, over and over again. Having seen the gentrifying neighborhood lose its soul, they don’t want to see this promising expression of the old flavor and fellowship disappear. Wilson sympathizes: Not so long ago, she was there on the other side of the counter. If there’s one thing she understands, it’s the feeling of having been let down once too often.
Oohhs & Aahhs, 1005 U St. NW. (202) 667-7142.—Todd Kliman
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