Conventional American cuisine, as we know it today, mostly gets its cues from European traditions — the British in New England, the Italians and the Dutch in the Mid-Atlantic. But if there is one cuisine that is an identifiably American invention, it’s soul food.
“It’s a different kind of animal—soul food,” said Leah Sherer, the owner of Soul Shack. A self-proclaimed “die-hard southerner,” Sherer envisioned not a restaurant, but a space where you feel as if you’re eating at home.
Soul Shack is tucked in the corner of Northeast Gainesville, just off Waldo Road. A small lime-green building, it is a relatively simple operation, but with overwhelming charm.
Two small windows, open directly adjacent to each other, designate “order here” above one and “pick-up here” above the other. The framed menu next to them details the options: oxtail, BBQ ribs, fried pork chops and the quintessential fried chicken. All meals come with twaaaao sides, a base of yellow or white rice and a corn muffin; a 10 dollar meal special offers a robust and filling experience. To the untrained eye the place might look small and relatively idle, but it can get busy fast.
Soul Shack is not Sherer’s first restaurant, but it was, admittedly, the more difficult one.
“It was hard at first,” Sherer said, wandering through her office at Celebrations Catering, Soul Shack’s parent company. “We evolved. We’re all thinking, it’s so good, but the clients let us know how to cook the food.” Sherer emphasizes that the patrons, mainly east Gainesville folks, help shape the menu, sometimes more so than the designers themselves. After two months, Soul Shack was already doing double the sales of Cafe C, the other restaurant she owns.
Robert Simmons, the head chef at Soul Shack, has a very specific goal in mind: “We try to cook like grandma cooked.” Grown on Miami soul food, Chef Robert is extremely proud of the diverse influences that drive his cooking.
“Food is like America; the more diverse it is, the better it is. I grew up with Latin flavors, Chinese flavors, Italian and Jewish foods,” he said, adding his secret seasoning to the rich gravy that accompanies many of the dishes. “It helped me as I got into cooking. I learned to incorporate a little bit of all to it.”
Chef Robert echoes the multi-ethnic evolution of soul food in the United States. Composed of primarily Native American influences and African-American improvisation of the food available in Appalachia and the Southern United States, soul food combines West African staples, like rice and okra, with southern U.S. elements like corn and cassava. Enslaved Africans were often given the cheap, discarded cuts of meat, forcing them to be resourceful. Soul Shack has an impressive range of available meats, offering poultry and pork, but also oxtail, gizzards and livers.
Places like these often give vegetarians headaches. However, soul food has a long tradition of using crops as main staples in its cuisine. At Soul Shack, a combination of zipper peas and potato salad with lima beans or filled peas and cabbage creates an equally hearty meal. That, combined with their other vegetarian-friendly dishes, like candied yams and mac and cheese, satisfies even the most stringent palate. The desserts also follow the tradition of using lowcountry crops — like sweet potatoes and pecans — and create a sugar-sweet finish to its savory main entrees. At Soul Shack, the essential sweet potato pie and the banana pudding will quench any sweet tooth, paired, of course, with a juicy slice of Big Mama’s Red Velvet Cake.
Ultimately, said Chef Robert, it is his love for cooking that makes the food better.
“I always try to add something from here,” he said, pointing to his heart.
104 NE Waldo Road | Website
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday, 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Homemade Southern Style Cabbage
- 5-6 pieces of turkey tail (turkey butts)
- 1 large cabbage
- 1 whole onion
- 1 whole green pepper
- 1 whole red bell pepper
- ½ tbs accent seasoning
- 1 tbs onion powder
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large pot, boil the turkey tails until they’re cooked through. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Chop up the cabbage, whole onion, green and red peppers.
- Mix vegetables together in a bowl.
- Remove turkey tails after cooking.
- Season broth to taste.
- Add the mixture of vegetables to the broth.
- Season with 1 ½ tablespoon of Accent and 1 tablespoon of onion powder.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Cook until cabbage is soft.
- Let it sit for an hour.