Downtown lunchers welcome Li’l Soul
“I need two-four pieces of sassy BBQ chicken!”
No, it wasn’t another “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke. It was an order, shouted to the kitchen, for one of the most popular dishes at Li’l Soul, a small, crowded eatery that opened in September in the Remington College building downtown.
Known in previous incarnations for his buttermilk-marinated, crispy-fried chicken, chef-restaurateur-caterer Sean Priester is adding a little more soul to his already famous menu items with a new location that offers some new as well as familiar dishes. His Soul Patrol lunchwagon is still out and about, but Soul Café on Waialae Avenue closed last July.
“I love what I do,” Priester said, between calling out orders. “I love the fact that I get to be intimate with my customers. Where’s my honey butter?”
Having eaten once at Li’l Soul, I popped by to interview Priester, but soon realized it would be impossible to do so at lunchtime. Our conversation was often interrupted by shouts and questions to and from staff. The restaurant filled up fast and it wasn’t even noon yet. The space is small and can feel a little cramped when itʻs busy, but if you’re ordering out, the line moves fairly quickly.
Lunchtime rush hour can be, well, a rush. I’m usually a grab-and-go girl; but I decided to stay for the real Li’l Soul experience and people watch. Having hardly any knowledge of Southern food, I wasn’t sure what to order. I took the advice of quick and accommodating server Tamara Meznarich. My gut told me to order some good ole fried chicken, so, following Temara’s suggestion, I chose Priester’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken & Chili Plate ($8 smaller plate/$10 large). And I couldn’t resist adding the Mac ‘n Feta ($7) to my lunchtime feast.
Sitting at a table near the counter. I began to feel a strong sense of nostalgia about a friend whose family place had a similar “down-home,” open-door feel. No matter the time of day, or how busy life became, I’d stop by her house to see what her mother had left on the stove from dinner the night before. If we couldn’t stay at the house to eat, we’d get our lunch to go–wrapped in foil on paper plates.
When my dishes arrived, the smell of fried chicken made my appetite go into overdrive. My main dish came with Priester’s highly reputed buttermilk chicken (chicken marinated in buttermilk, breaded and fried), blackeyed pea chili, slaw, and cornbread. If you’re a first-timer like me, this plate is the perfect introduction to Priester’s Southern-style comfort food. The cornbread was a meal highlight. Slathered in honey butter, the sweet concoction was the first thing to disappear from my plate. (If you are Southern-born, you’ll just have to deal with the fact that out here, we like our cornbread sweet and cakey.)
The Mac n’ Feta is definitely not a light dish. I couldn’t believe the portion for the price. I’m not sure what I was thinking when the words, “…and I’ll also have the…” came out of my mouth. I suppose I assumed that, like most mac and cheese side dishes, this one would be served by the scoop–a la a macaroni salad side. But when I saw that Priester’s Mac n’ Feta, served in a bowl filled to the rim, I knew this dish was no sidekick.
After taking my first bite, a sharp richness of feta and creamy cheddar consumed my taste buds. My body became limp, my shoulders dropped, and my eyes seemed to roll back in my head. I knew right then and there that, despite my initial fears of the dish’s size, the larger-than-life portion was well worth it. This is one dish I could eat by the tub. Along with the cheeses, the sauce’s touch of garlic awakened my stomach–a kind of wake-up-call I wouldn’t mind enduring over and over again. Added appeal comes from cornbread crumbles sprinkled generously atop the bowl, a sweet and surprising element. If you’re feeling a bit more on the adventurous–and even hungrier–side, Priester gives you the option of adding bacon ($9) or crab ($12) to this heavenly bowl of goodness.
To wash it all down, Li’l Soul offers two drink options. There’s Southern sweet tea, which instantly cools your mouth upon scarfing down a steaming hot plate of food, and which saved my poor tongue from eating the vegetarian chili way too fast. The second choice, a ginger-lime cooler, made with fresh ingredients, is a sweet yet sour mixture that became my personal favorite.
Can’t decide between the two? Try a combo, Li’l Soul’s version of the famed Arnold Palmer Half and Half Iced Tea. The best part: Drinks are free with a meal.
Other items on the menu: SOULful BBQ Chicken ($10), Carolina Pulled Pork Adobo ($10), and Chicken & Waffles ($8/$10). But don’t be surprised if the menu changes. “Our goal is to be creative, keep it fresh, and keep you interested; to be this busy, to have this kind of excitement,” Priester says.
Although I left the restaurant smelling like fried chicken–and in need of a nap–my satisfied stomach thanked me for its first Li’l Soul experience. It won’t be its last.