For a humble city, New Haven offers a surprising variety of cuisines for the average gastronomic explorer. But a foreigner to southern cooking myself, the prevalence of mutations like Popeye’s and KFC, or even Stop ‘N Shop’s ‘fried chix’ that allegedly ‘can’t be beat’, has long tickled my intrigue and provoked me to ponder, “where can I get some good soul food?”
Tucked away on College Street, where the blocky hospital buildings give way to ramshackle neighborhood homes, a young couple have turned their love of their hometown food into a full time job. Locals Steve Ross and Shayla Crawford opened Cast Iron Soul after Steve grew tired of working for other restaurants and Shayla sought more from her career than law school could provide. The couple first cooked for friends and family until Steve’s mother helped them open the restaurant. Now they are two successful years in with a baby on the way and with plans to open in another New Haven location. While many of the recipes built upon those Steve learnt over the years in hospitality, his mother and grandfather, both skilled cooks from the south, have injected their influence on the soul/‘nu soul’ menu.
A simple setup, we are immediately seated with syrup-sweet tea and made to feel at home – which is ideal, because it is all about homey comfort food here. You’ll find both Cajun and Creole influences – think loaded Po’ Boys, fish fry dinners and wings marinated every way. We decide to try the plates to sample a bit of everything. Pick from mains like Cajun fried chicken, blackened salmon or seafood jambalaya, and don’t forget the sides. I partner the BBQ pulled pork with the five cheese mac-‘n’chz and candied sweet potatoes, while my dining companion goes for the Creole roasted chicken with ‘the best damn red beans’. Everything slides down your throat with the comfort of slow, soulful cooking. The tender flecks of pork, the creaminess of beans. It’s the food you never have time to cook yourself and appreciate all the more for it. A tip for your plate: order complementary flavors so you don’t overload your sweet or salt.
Despite our heaving bellies, we manage to make room for a towering slice of butter pecan cake. “It’s Steve’s favorite ice cream flavor,” Shayla says. “So I thought I would trying making it into a cake.” As pastry chef, Shayla is always experimenting with new recipes: “I’m always playing with them until I make them my own.” Likewise, Steve loves the potential in food to create more than simply its elemental ingredients. “Food is definite,” Steve says. “You put beans and water in a pot, they’re going to cook. But I like seeing how I can make it different, something more.”
Cast Iron Soul is a satisfyingly excessive experience, one to be enjoyed wholeheartedly, on occasion. And it’s a step outside the East Rock/Downtown food bubble from which many never stray, but surely should. Why? Because it’s good for the soul.