It’s not enough to say that Audell Barbour III cooks soul food. The way he sees it, there are gradations within the genre. What he calls “up-tempo” soul food, the kind that he aims to produce at Big Man’s, his restaurant on Bladensburg Road NE, differs from the “flat” or “down-tempo” cooking that one often sees passed off as true-article soul food. Take Barbour’s brown sauce: “I’m a licensed chef,” he explains. “I’m gonna make it nice and smooth and creamy and tasteful. If you’re like an old grandma cook, you’re gonna make a gravy, but it looks like spit-up. It might be good, but your eyes don’t say, ‘Eat it.’”
For his own sauce, Barbour shuns water for beef drippings and careful attention. “It gives it more clarity,” he explains, “more of a beef flavor.” He says that the freshness you taste in his sauce comes from “the onions, the celery, and the green peppers that you cook that meat with, and it’s right in the juice. So when you pour it off, you got that garden-fresh taste along with the beef drippings right up in that gravy. It gives it a whole new flavor….That’s what I call supreme, up-tempo cooking.”
When Barbour talks about food, he speaks the passion-stoked dialect unique to the very well-fed. The name of his restaurant describes him quite accurately: His ample midsection stretches the fabric of his orange Big Man’s T-shirt, elongating the black lettering emblazoned on the front. Rain clouds and pulled shades conspire to make his restaurant fairly dark this afternoon, and as he sits in a booth for a chat, he rubs his eyes repeatedly, at first casually and then, as the afternoon dwindles on, with increasing vigor. At 4 o’clock, he’s been at work for almost 10 hours. And dinner is just around the corner.
Big Man’s sits inside an old, shacklike building that Barbour helped save from total dilapidation with a patchwork of investors and some orange and brown paint. Tables with attached chairs populate the dining room, which bumps up against a kitchen fronted by a steam table and a cash register. The place is grungy but quaint, lined with tile that’s seen better days and centered on a big-screen television that usually broadcasts videocassettes at a loud volume. When Barbour entered into the lease-to-own agreement that led to Big Man’s opening last February, he says, “This place was a sham….It was all mice-infested. The only good thing about the place? It didn’t have any roaches. You can get rid of mice, but you can’t get rid of the roaches.”
He discovered other problems after opening, foremost among them heat and air-conditioning systems that didn’t work. In the winter, he says, the restaurant was so cold that most of his customers took their orders to go. Summer, of course, brought the opposite problem. “Nobody wants to eat while they’re sweating,” Barbour quips, by way of explaining both the slow business in the early summer (the air-conditioning system has since been replaced) and the reason he subsequently had to lay off most of his employees.
Currently, Barbour represents Big Man’s entire staff, save for one guy who comes in late at night to clean pans and mop the floors. The Big Man himself arrives around 6:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast: bacon, corned-beef hash, grits, sausage, homemade biscuits, pancakes, honey ham. That, he says, takes him about 35 minutes. Then he starts to load the bigger lunch items into the oven: roast turkey, roast beef, more honey ham. He opens the door at 7:30. “People don’t come right away,” he explains. “They come in little spurts. So I can do little stuff here and there: stuffed fish, smothered pork chops, turkey wings, chop beef for beef pepper steak. Whatever.”
Barbour serves his entrees on disposable dinnerware and rounded out with boiled cabbage, turkey-flavored greens, and oven-baked macaroni and cheese; sometimes, because of the amount of prepping he’s forced to do as a staff of one, he uses a microwave.
Despite the obvious pitfalls of opening a restaurant in a neighborhood that’s known not to support them (two nearby establishments have already opened and closed during Big Man’s short existence), Barbour isn’t one for bitching. He doesn’t claim to have had many problemsa few stolen bathroom keys and an employee who took off with a safeful of his cash, but that’s about it.
Of course, like a lot of first-time business owners, especially those who espouse the spiritual rewards of their craft, Barbour sees his modest enterprise as the beginning of bigger things. His beef gravy is indeed rich and creamy, his mac-and-cheese is way up-tempo, and, citing the recent building of a massive CVS outpost complete with a drive-through pharmacy a few blocks away, he believes that the cards are stacked in his favor.
These days, Big Man’s doubles as a de facto community center; there always seem to be kids around, either on weekends, when Barbour lets Little League football players watch videotapes of their games on the big screen, or loitering outside in the midday, fiddling with bottle caps and saying goodbye to whoever walks out. Next summer, he hopes to be serving ribs to customers listening to live jazz seated at tables in the front parking lot. And then there are his plans for a gospel-themed restaurant in a shopping mall.
But first things first. On the floor near Big Man’s entrance is the name Brad engraved on a metal plate. It refers to Mr. Brad’s, a long-dead restaurant that sat in the same spot decades ago, back when the Northeast D.C. address was surrounded by thriving sit-down eateries. A Korean-owned diner that, by Barbour’s estimation, specialized in flat soul food occupied the space immediately before Big Man’s, but Barbour hopes that he can restore the magic of Mr. Brad’s, which he says served “the best home-cooked soul food this side of the border.”
The Big Man thinks he’s close. “I got lucky,” he boasts, removing his orange Nike hat so that he can wipe his brow. “I really take pride in what I do.” He says that people often ask him, “What is soul food?” To which he responds, “Food with loveand taking the time to make sure you cook something to its full potential. As good as you can get it. Not half-assed. No short cuts.”
Big Man’s Restaurant and Creative Catering, 1001 Bladensburg Road NE, (202) 388-5115.
It’s been a while since I’ve gorged on a lunch of beef as delicately textured as that in Cafe Soleil’s tournedos au poivre. And although serving the heavily sauced tenderloin cuts over toasted English muffin halves still strikes me as something one would do when they’re trying to eat “whatever’s in the fridge,” the muffins remain a likable, not entirely inauthentic touch. Still, a reader who was unmoved by the dish thought that maybe it was “missing something. Like maybe jam.”
Cafe Soleil, 839 17th St. NW, (202) 974-4260. Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.