THE KINGFISH CAFE 602 19th Ave. E., CAPITOL HILL 206- 320-8757 lunch Mon., Wed.-Fri.; dinner Mon., Wed.-Sat.; brunch Sun.
THOMPSON’S POINT OF VIEW 2308 E. Union St., CENTRAL DISTRICT 206-329-2512 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; until midnight Fri.-Sat.
North of Mason-Dixon and west of the Rockies, the needs of soul-food lovers go unserved. Locals content with the greens, chicken, cornbread, and—god knows—barbecue we’re served up hereabouts are shocked by tirades like, “You call these ribs? Back home in Texas/South Carolina/Missouri, we’d ride this place out of town on a rail! Seattle doesn’t have any good soul food! I must go now and visit my hometown!”
I am not a Northwest native, but I pass for one: I arrived when I was 7 and have been around much of the time since. Still, I recently caved in to my childhood siren song of Carolina pulled pork and Low Country crab cakes, cheese grits, Black Magic cake, hushpuppies, and “vegetables” like macaroni and cheese (and glory day, all the sweet tea I could drink), and headed off on a road trip down the other coast.
From New Jersey down through South Carolina, the best of the bunch was a place called Jestine’s Kitchen, just to one side of the Battery in Charleston (251 Meeting St., Charleston, S.C., 843-722-7224). Named for a powerhouse of a woman who died at age 112, the menu features everything you could want from a soul-food restaurant—tender pecan-fried catfish, smothered chops, candied sweet potatoes, salty collards with fat chunks of ham, spicy red beans, lava-hot hushpuppies, meatloaf sandwiches, pineapple bread pudding, and sweet tea by the gallon—all for under 10 bucks, all served quickly by the sweetest staff in the state.
We went back twice, trying desperately to eat our way through the menu before our plane left. We almost made it, but they kept offering new specials—glazed carrots, grits, shrimp (we asked what kind of shrimp; “from Jim’s boat this morning” was the answer), coconut layer cake. . . . I nearly wept on the plane, knowing that no matter how much I love my nearly native city, we do not have our own Jestine’s Kitchen.
Knowing that a large chunk of my culinary heart belongs to Dixie, countless friends have insisted, sometimes vehemently, that I must eat at the Kingfish Cafe. Kingfish fans are serious eaters; one nearly ate himself into the ER, so pain-fully overfull was his belly after a dinner there. So I have tried to share the Kingfish experience. But I have little patience for standing in the rain when I am hungry; Seattle’s climate is not conducive to no-reservation policies. Now, I thought, perhaps getting wet would be a small price if it eased my wistful longings for my beloved Charleston diner.
After a suitable period of mourning, we arrived at Kingfish before it opened, and were seated after just 15 minutes of out-in-the-rain time. Shortly after, disappointment hit. We began with crispy, tart fried green tomatoes, drizzled with a well-matched chipotle cream sauce ($6.75). Everything that followed—gummy, bland red beans and rice, slightly cold fried chicken, inedibly bitter collards, dry mashed potatoes, finished off with a desiccated chocolate cake ($6.50)—varied between barely OK and actively terrible. (The butterscotch-flavored whipped cream was lovely, but at that point I was so crushed and confused that I nibbled a spoonful, sighed, and gave up.)
The service wasn’t great, but considering how swamped they were at the moment, I’ll cut them a break: No one was actively rude, just slow, overwhelmed, and difficult to track down when we needed something. Like the check. I went back to each insistent friend and reported. Without exception, each sighed and said, “Well, maybe you should try breakfast.” I gently explained that a waffle isn’t on my list of soul food, and went searching elsewhere for food that would feed more than just my tummy.
“ELSEWHERE” TURNED out to be a funny spot deep in the Central District known as Thompson’s Point of View. It’s not much to look at—one side is a crowded, smoky bar, the other a plainly decorated room with mismatched furniture, scraggly plants, Christmas lights, and a few advertising banners. Drinks—good, sweet tea and tasty lemonade—were $1.50 each and had as many refills as we could drink; we sipped through a couple glasses each as the food started piling up.
And kept piling. Hushpuppies were crispy with firm, mealy interiors, perfect for dipping into the brown sugar-cinnamon sauce coating the chunky sweet potatoes. Catfish ($9.95 includes two sides and cornbread or hushpuppies) was dredged in a firm cornmeal coating that worked perfectly against the delicate, mild fish, while the chicken and dumplings ($9.50 including one side and cornbread) came in a casserole dish large enough for four and filled with random bits of bird and plump noodlelike dumplings. The dish of collards contained nearly as much ham as it did greens, while the beans were small, brown, and lightly sweet. Cornbread is pancake-style and piping hot off the grill; it soaks up butter like Seattleites soak up sunshine in February.
My experience isn’t likely to move the hordes of loyal diners south of the hill and down into the CD, but short of buying a red-eye flight back to Charleston, my vote goes to Thompson’s for the food most likely to feed the soul of a hungry Southerner. You Yankees won’t know what you’re missing.