As I write this I can’t help miss my grandma, Willie Mae Fleming. It was tradition that after Sunday church service, we’d gather at her modest home and enjoy a feast steeped in seasoning, fat, and a history that we could feel more than express. These meals, reminders of the black experience in America of having to make something out of nothing, were what brought our family together.
We may not have always gotten along or agreed, but on Sunday around grandma’s table, the only thing of real concern was who made the greens, who brought the potato salad, and who was getting the last slice of sweet potato pie. This was soul food — those meals that were prayed over (usually for far too long), took all day to prepare, and made with so much love by people who had learned to turns scraps into delicacies.
After my grandmother passed, we stopped getting together like that. I grew up, went off to college, had an identity crisis or three, went vegetarian then pescatarian then briefly vegan and back again. As I learned better eating practices over the years (since truly good mac n’ cheese is straight up lethal for your waistline), soul food became less and less a part of my diet. Gone were those Sundays of homemade cornbread, deviled eggs, honey ham, fried chicken, yams, okra, pigeon peas & rice, and Auntie Shirley’s famous chocolate cake.
Even when I return home, it’s not the same. The cousins have grown up to have kids of their own. The aunts and uncles have retired to different states. And Sundays like those are but a distant and fond memory.
One day when I was sitting around reminiscing over those Sunday meals, desperately craving good collard greens, I tried to make a mental list of the best places in Miami to have a good plate of soul food. I came up with a sadly short list (that was mostly places like “Rod’s Mama’s house”). I enlisted the help of friends, because I knew I wasn’t the only person suffering from this need to taste home when home was out of reach.
Jackson Soul Food (Overtown, Opa-locka)
For more than 30 years Jackson Soul Food in Overtown has been serving up the best catfish and biscuits around. It’s run by Shirlene Ingraham, whose family has been in the business of soul food for more than 45 years. First of all, I trust anyone with the name Shirlene to bring the heat in the kitchen. This was easily the first spot that came to mind when I thought about where to get my fix. It’s not fancy. But you walk in and Patti Labelle is playing and you can already smell the candied yams in the oven. The portions are what your grandma would serve while telling you that, “You need to put a little meat on them bones because ain’t no man want a skinny woman,” and the service is a little too familiar. That’s what I want out of my soul food restaurants. They have a location in Opa-locka too.
People’s BBQ (Overtown)
They don’t have a proper website, but I imagine that it’s because they’re too busy making those amazing ribs. This is technically a BBQ joint, but soul food is really all about the side dishes anyway. Let me save you a little time with some pro tips for People’s: The ribs and cornbread are the reason you go. If you leave without trying either you have failed. The mac n’ cheese is also legit. The sweet tea is diabetes inducing. People’s is an Overtown staple and it’s full of regulars who have grown up coming here, so the family vibe is felt and appreciated.
MLK Restaurant (Liberty City)
If you’re gonna invoke the name of the great Dr. King, you’d better bring it. This is the most Southern down-home style cooking you’ll get in Miami. Period. And they don’t disappoint. It’s small and pretty much always packed, but it’s worth the wait. Do you remember that scene in The Color Purple when Miss Celie made that bomb-ass breakfast for Shug Avery and you’re just staring the screen getting hungry af? You can almost smell that good cooking through the television. It’s like that. The breakfast there is no joke. The grits are always the perfect consistency, and always hot and buttered. (No sugar grits served here, because that’s just rude.) Couple that with the fluffiest scrambled eggs, Georgia sausage, smothered pork chops and biscuits and you’re in heaven. Oh, and the chicken and waffles, yes. Just yes. Again, they don’t have a website, but if you find the dude selling Gucci knockoffs at the front, you’re in the right place.
Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (South Beach)
I know I’m about to catch hell for this one. Yes, I know this isn’t technically soul food. Yes, I know it’s pricey and super bougie. To quote my homie L. David Stewart, “Upscale soul food is what we serve the Bougie members of the family who got too good to get they hands dirty.” Well sometimes I am very much that family member and I just want a fine meal with a sexy ambiance and a plate presentation that I can Instagram — and Yardbird is the place for it. So while no, it’s not “soul food” in the purest sense of the word, it’s some of the finest Southern food you will taste in your life. That place makes me feel unapologetically Black and the best kind of bougie at the same time. It makes no sense, but I don’t need it to.
Amaris Jones’ Sunday Remastered at The Forge (South Beach)
This is equivalent of someone’s mama’s cooking, but with that ultra chic atmosphere of The Forge. As my boy Rod Deal tells it, “Oh, I remember baby girl who used to own Southstreet in the Design District who does the parties at the forge on the weekends… I’d say she is in the top bracket. Ms. Amaris Jones makes the best soul food I’ve had in a restaurant in Miami.” I’d have to agree with him there. Not only does sistah girl SLAY in the kitchen, but she also knows how to curate, because you get a damn fine home cooked meal paired some of the best R&B and soul music performance you will see live in Miami. She’s the cook your momma wants to be like and if you can catch one of her events, I suggest you not only go, but bring your whole family, including your sadiddy cousin.
Truth be told, the best place to get soul food is and will always be “prolly someone grandma with cigarette holes in her robe with a cap on and shuffling slippas named Edna or Martha listening to Luther when she cooks,” as my friend David puts it. But at least you’ve got a handful of good alternatives in Miami. But there aren’t enough, so I’m hoping this list inspires some more to spring up. And if I forgot any, let us know in the comments.