With waves of new culinary hot spots hitting the Tampa Bay area is easy to pass over the types of food that have been the foundation of this community for a long time. Al's Finger Licking Good Soul Food opened in December and serves dishes that brings me back to my Southern roots. Fried and baked chicken? Check! Pot roast and liver and onions? Check! Collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried okra? Yaas!
There are no chitlins or pigs feet thank goodness. I don't think the tourist strip in Ybor City would do well with the smell of cooking chitlins. Nonetheless, the menu features many southern classics
It's not the kind of soul food place that I'm used to. There's a well appointed and nicely lit dining room and the walls are adorned with murals of (mostly) soul artists. It's sort a hybrid between fine dining and typical soul food places. Elton John Rod Stewart don't really fit in with the likes of Mary J Blige, Prince, and Ray Charles, but artist Rob Brown who also works the dining room says that they were his mother's favorites so he included them. He reports that it took him two months to complete the work on the murals.
It's a mid Thursday afternoon and the dining room speakers fill with Ray Charles singing Hard Times. It's one of my favorites from him so it's a great start. I begin with an order of fried green tomatoes as an appetizer ($6.95) and the small plate fried pork chop ($10.95) for an entrée. Choosing side dishes is difficult because they all sound mouthwatering. I settle for green beans mixed with potatoes and mac & cheese. There really are no healthy options for sides, but even if there were this is soul food! All meals come with house made cornbread
The cornbread muffins (2 per order in a basket) are delicious. They are just sweet enough to satisfy my palate and the texture from that cornmeal gives them just the right amount of resistance with the first bite. They are perfectly baked with a crispy brown ring around the top for some crunchy texture.
The fried pork chop is a righteous size for a small portion. It is dredged in flour and spices, pan fried, and served with a small pitcher of pork gravy. It's cooked so the meat is tender and juicy! The breading is peppery and crispy and when I ask about what's in it, I'm told that it's a special kitchen creation. Whatever it is, it's got soul!
The mac & cheese is fairly standard. It's typical elbow macaroni mixed with velveeta cheese and served in a side bowl.
The flavorful green beans are southern style (of course) cut into 2-inch pieces, stewed to softness, and served with boiled potatoes mixed in. The beans are peppery and savory from the pork they are cooked with, and get a thumbs up for being authentically Southern. Nicely done!
The Fried Green Tomatoes are quarter inch thick slices of green tomato goodness, battered with a cornmeal, flour, salt and pepper coating and pan fried. The slight bitterness of the unripened fruit kicks in as that tomato flavor and tasty crunchy coating mix like a good blues tune.
I just do not have my belly to try any desserts, but I need to come back and have the OMG Cake (flavor of the day). I don't know what it is, but I want to try it!
Al's Soul Food has some tweaking to do. My appetizer of fried green tomatoes doesn't arrive until after the meal is served. I am told that another appetizer- boiled peanuts with neckbones- is not available but am not given a reason. Flatware needed to be requested after the meal is served and is not on the table upon arrival.
I am pretty sure they will pull it together. Al's Finger Licking Good Barbecue has been in business around the corner in Ybor City for a long time, so they have the experience it takes to be successful. They just need to work out the kinks here.
The service is fast and the food arrives promptly. I went back and forth on whether to say this, but here goes. The server keeps calling me boss. He is black and I am white. It makes me uneasy because somehow it subordinates him to me. I don't correct him but call him sir in return. I think to myself as we move toward greater equality in our culture I hope there are certain Southern ways we leave behind.
Prices are moderate and parking is pretty easy. Need some soul food? Al's is the place. But, come hungry.
Chip Weiner is a Tampa food blogger and an award winning freelance photographer specializing in portraiture, food photography and photojournalism . He has been a photography instructor for over 10 years and teaches Tampa photography classes throughout the year. Have a suggestion for a food event or restaurant? Contact him here
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