Digging in to Long Island's soul food scene

Fried chicken with red velvet waffles served with warm syrup and whipped butter at Carolyn's Southern Comfort Cuisine in East Meadow.

When Victor Hickson rolls his flame-colored food truck into the parking lot of Home Depot in Coram every Saturday, he parks it right in the center of the lot, fires up the fryer and readies trays of smoked chicken and brisket, candied yams and collard greens. Then he opens his takeout window.

The line forms quickly — for plates of sticky barbecue ribs, the pork pulling easily from the bone, or peppery fried chicken wings with sides such as mac-and-cheese the texture of velvet.

Fried fish and home-made iced tea at Vic's Heart N Soul...

Fried fish and home-made iced tea at Vic's Heart N Soul Food Truck. Credit: Raychel Brightman

“What’s not in it,” jokes Hickson when asked the components of the latter, before rattling off a list of at least seven cheeses, including gouda and cheddar, that distinguish the version he sells from Vic’s Heart N Soul Food Truck.

Hickson launched his truck in early June, part of a soul-food boomlet that had been taking shape on Long Island since the winter. That is, until COVID-19 swept Long Island this spring and battered the restaurant industry. Until then, soul food — a cuisine shaped and continuously reshaped by African Americans — seemed headed toward a local heyday, with chefs putting new twists on the fried chicken, ribs and sweet-potato pudding long associated with the cuisine. Long-standing places such as Mista’s Takeout in Roosevelt were busy, and newcomers such as Carolina Kitchen in Medford (opened in January) and Carolyn’s Southern Comfort Cuisine in East Meadow (opened in February) had joined the scene.

Only one of those three businesses is currently open. Carolina Kitchen remains closed, and Mista's recently reopened for two days a week. For all, the sense of soul food-as-a-calling remains strong.

“Soul food is the original comfort food. It’s like a hug,” said Cheryl Grigg, the buoyant chef-owner of Chara’s Kitchen and Catering in Bellport. “It’s anything that makes you feel good, that you taste and then can’t speak after.”

Left: Cheryl Griggs, chef-owner of Chara’s Kitchen and Catering in Bellport, with her husband Emile Arthur-Ricketts and their son Ethan Ricketts. Top: Fried chicken at Chara’s Kitchen and Catering. Bottom: Cheryl Griggs fires up the shrimp for shrimp and grits at Chara’s Kitchen and Catering. Photo credit: Raychel Brightman

Grigg's fried chicken, marinated for 24 hours in seasoned buttermilk before being fried, certainly fits that bill. Tear into the gloriously crunchy exterior and you encounter meat so fall-apart tender that it could have been braised. To get some, though, you first need to find Chara’s, tucked away in the basement of Shiloh Temple Church of God in Christ. There, just barely visible from the two tables, the chef preps and cooks everything herself. “I’m a perfectionist,” she said. “If I wouldn’t eat it, I won’t serve it.”

Thirteen years ago, Grigg and her sister Thelma Varno founded Chara’s on Route 112 in Coram and named it after their mother, Cheryl Beatrice, who had recently died. “We had the idea to open a restaurant with all of her recipes,” said Griggs, 34. “That was how we would grieve.”

Their mother had once owned  a restaurant in Medford, Bea's Place, and that cooking DNA passed to Grigg — though it took her a little while to realize it. ”I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do as a living,” she said. “I went to school for a lot of things — I was in school for business management, I went to school for nursing. I didn’t realize I wanted to cook until after she passed.”

Many soul food dishes, such as candied sweet potatoes, boiled greens and dirty rice, can be traced to the South, back through slavery and to West Africa, or sometimes Europe. The iconic American dish mac-and-cheese, for instance, has European roots but was perfected by enslaved Black chefs, namely brothers James and Peter Hemings, chefs for Thomas Jefferson at Monticello (James Hemings accompanied Jefferson to Paris, where he trained in French cooking, and Peter Hemings was also an accomplished brewer).

These dishes and recipes have been handed down through families, and are constantly evolving. Grigg took her mother’s recipes for mac-and-cheese, as well as candied yams, smothered cabbage, and yeast rolls, and imposed her own style.

Grigg also re-engineered some dishes for vegetarians. For instance, her grits — a dish milled from white corn, and typically cooked with lots of butter — can come fattened with cheddar, but she also makes a vegan version with coconut milk and dairyless butter.

An hour or so away, at Carolyn’s Southern Comfort Cuisine, J. Carolyn Thompson has a similar commitment to all kinds of eaters. At Carolyn's, which she opened in East Meadow in February, there are three fryers — one each for meat, fish and vegetables. “People change their diets, and I want people to come in here and don’t want them to say, ‘there’s nothing for me to eat,’” said Thompson, who herself gave up pork years ago. 

J. Carolyn Thompson opened her soul food restaurant, Carolyn's Southern Comfort Cuisine in East Meadow, amid the coronavirus shutdown. Credit: Newsday / Rachel Brightman

Thompson grew up in Uniondale and spent summers in Great Neck, where she learned to cook from the women of her family (her mother, aunt and grandmother, whose roots were in South Carolina). As an adult, Thompson began to refashion those family recipes. “I started tweaking things to my own liking, and experimenting with different spices,” she said, such as adding garlic to meat, much to her mother’s chagrin.

As she became a nurse and raised two children, the urge to cook never dissipated. “I remember one day standing on the nursing unit and thinking, ‘I know there’s more to life,’” she said.

In 2014, Thompson opened Carolyn’s Cuisine in Amityville, a takeout spot showcasing her Southern-style dishes, from fried chicken and meatloaf; she closed it three years later due to slow business in the village.

Thompson used the next few years to earn her MWBE (Minority Woman Business Enterprise) certificate, boost her catering business and scour the Island for a more high-profile spot — which she eventually found in a former gyro shop in East Meadow. It had a dining room and a bar, which she had lacked in Amityville, and before coronavirus hit — just a few weeks after she opened — Thompson was planning a schedule of live music and eventual addition of beer and wine.

She initially closed for two weeks in March, but reopened for curbside delivery, with her daughter, Shakilah Kennedy, helping in the kitchen and her son, Jordan Thompson, helping out front; Thompson also began cooking trays of food for the staff of two hospitals. “You feel so helpless, and I wanted to do something,” said the former nurse.

Left: Fried chicken with red velvet waffles served with warm syrup and whipped butter at Carolyn’s Southern Comfort Cuisine in East Meadow. Top: Cornmeal-dusted fried okra at Carolyn’s Southern Comfort Cuisine. Bottom: A fried turkey wing with sweet potato pudding at Caroline’s Southern Comfort Cuisine. Photo credit: Raychel Brightman

Open Thompson's takeout boxes, whether fried chicken and waffles or smoked turkey wings, and the attention to detail is immediately apparent. Her fried chicken is zesty, her smoked turkey wings succulent and peppery, her fried okra, coated in cornmeal, a rival for fries everywhere. She also fries whiting and catfish, as well as cooks vegetarian grits and collard greens. “I feel like if you know how to cook, you can season vegetables without meat,” she said. 

But Thompson has plenty of that, too, such as barbecue beef ribs that “need to fall from the bone,” to meet her standards.

Over in Coram, Hickson dry rubs his ribs before smoking — they part easily from the bone, too — and uses marinades for other meats. “There’s a lot of different methodologies, and no right or wrong way,” said the chef, who said he prefers his brisket “with a little tug to it.”

Hickson learned to cook at his mother’s elbow while growing up in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. After high school, he attended the now-defunct Culinary Academy of Long Island in Syosset.

Though his career path took him away from restaurant kitchens, Hickson continued to cook for family, friends and church events. Along the way, he began to sell meals from his home and cater professionally, as well as give trays of food to homeless neighbors in his community. “I didn’t broadcast it,” he said.

About eight years ago, Hickson upped the cooking ante and drove to Georgia to pick up a commercial smoker, which he installed in his backyard. And a few years after that, he first encountered a 30-foot Chevy truck in a Coram backyard, offered to him for free as part of a business deal gone sour. “It was a piece of garbage when I got it,” he said. “The engine didn’t even run. At one point I almost gave up on it.”

Victor Hickson, owner of Vic's Heart N Soul Food Truck, with...

Victor Hickson, owner of Vic's Heart N Soul Food Truck, with his smoker. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Over time, Hickson replaced the engine and outfitted the inside with all of the accoutrements of a food truck. One key element eluded him, though: A name. “For maybe a month, I was writing stuff down, and thinking, ‘This has to be really important',” he said. Then it came to him: Vic’s Heart N Soul Food Truck. “I’d been putting my heart into this thing … it sort of clicked.” 

His first foray at Home Depot was in early June. The fried chicken wings, the ribs, the candied yams — glistening with butter and vibrating with orange zest — the mac-and-cheese, all went fast. “I sold out my first day, and also the following weekend,” he said. 

Hickson’s wife, Alicia, and sons Victor Jr. and Noah help out in the truck. On the wall above one counter is a handwritten Bible verse, from Proverbs. “Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established.”

“A lot of people don’t follow their dreams,” said Hickson. “By God’s grace, I’ve been doing well.”

Where to find soul food on Long Island

Carolyn’s Southern Comfort Cuisine (2564 Hempstead Tpke., East Meadow): Owner J. Carolyn Thompson, a former nurse, opened the second, larger iteration of her Southern-food eatery in February serving dishes such as cornmeal-dusted fried okra, fall-apart smoked turkey wings, creamy grits and peach cobbler. Vegetarians can find much to eat here, such as vegan sausage and peppers, and Thompson’s excellent fried chicken can come by itself or over red-velvet waffles. Though it’s takeout only for now, once the dining room reopens, Carolyn’s will serve beer and wine and host live music; at Thanksgiving, the owner plans to revive a tradition of inviting the homeless in for a festive meal. More info: 516-396-0660, carolyns.kitchen

Pretty Toni’s (759 W. Merrick Rd., Valley Stream): Chef and co-owner Toni Clifton has run this tiny, vibrant spot since 2012, serving up soul food with a light touch. While the dining room is currently closed, the takeout game is still strong, from banana smoothies to crab cakes with spicy mango drizzle, a fried catfish po’boy on perfectly chewy French bread or half a chicken (roasted or fried) smothered in onions and gravy. The brunch menu features fried chicken (or even fried whiting) and waffles — and once the dining room is open, you can grab drinks such as the Billie Holiday, a blend of gin, lemonade and blue curaçao. More info: 516-285-8664, prettytoniscafe.com

Benny B’s (2092 Grand Ave., Baldwin): This 8-year-old soul food spot in Baldwin, owned by longtime chef Benjamin Bodley and his wife, Renee Bodley, is a homey, understated gem. Inside are a few tables — though dine-in is suspended at the moment — and an epic breakfast menu with sausage, grits, eggs and whiting galore; the French toast is a standout. Later in the day, the Leary Junior — a beef brisket sandwich on toasted brioche bun with bright, crunchy cabbage slaw — is a fork-tender showstopper. (Many of the dishes are named for regulars and their usual orders). There’s no website, but you can order directly through the usual delivery services. More info: 516-632-5528

BGF Bobby Q’s (447 N Main St., Freeport): Owner Bobby Ford lives a double life, as a Freeport police officer and chef. Bobby Q’s is known for its smoky St. Louis-style ribs, but there’s a wealth of other meat here, too, from oxtail to pastrami, fried turkey to burnt ends. Lovers of lobster can indulge in myriad ways, from lobster tails to jerk lobster over pasta to lobster mac-and-cheese and even lobster fries. While the casual space has a few tables, it's takeout only for now. More info: 516-544-4407, bbqeastofharlem.com

Chara’s Kitchen and Catering (515 Atlantic Ave., Bellport): It’s hard to take a misstep at Chara’s, a tiny kitchen beneath a Bellport church, but don’t miss the fried chicken, marinated in seasoned buttermilk for a day before frying. Cheesy cheddar grits (or vegan “cocogrits”) serve as a fluffy base for shrimp or hibachi-grilled vegetables, and coconut rice is among chef Cheryl Grigg's sublime sides. On the dessert front, peach cobbler gets drizzled with candied-yam juice, and banana pudding is featherlight. More info: 631-355-5929, charaskitchen.com

Vic’s Heart & Soul Food Truck (Home Depot, 346 Middle Country Rd., Coram): Every Saturday, Victor Hickson rolls his boldly colored food truck into the parking lot and dishes out ribs, brisket, smoked chicken and other meat cooked on his backyard smoker — as well as fried chicken wings, fried whiting and bassa (a flaky catfish cousin), molten mac-and-cheese and buttery candied yams. Iced tea with mango and strawberry helps wash it all down. Text 'VICS' to 21000 for hours and location, in case plans change. More info: vicsheartnsoul.com

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