"What is soul?" the great Ray Charles once said. "It's like electricity--we don't really know what it is, but it's a force that can light a room."
Soul food, however, should be a little easier to pin down. Our dictionary defines it simply as "items of food popular originally in the South, esp. among blacks, such as chitterlings, ham hocks, yams, corn bread and collard greens."
That's no too bad as dictionary definitions go, if you forgive the omission from the list of catfish, grits, hot biscuits, peach cobbler, fried chicken, sweet-potato pie, pork chops, macaroni and cheese, short ribs, oxtails, black-eyed peas, banana pudding and fried green tomatoes.
Of course, a soul food restaurant doesn't have to serve all those dishes, but it had better have a lot of them, it ought to serve a decent breakfast, and it should not try to get too fancy.
We took a South Side sojourn, and found plenty of places that fit the bill. Here are five favorites.
BJ's Market & Bakery is like the Soul Food version of Corner Bakery: fast food, served in a more pleasant than usual setting, that doesn't taste like fast food. It tastes home-cooked, and the kicker here is that chef John Meyer is creating healthier than average soul, which relies less on frying and more on punched-up flavor. You can get baked catfish, or steamed salmon with mustard dill sauce, or a smothered turkey wing, accompanied by such sides as greens flavored with smoked turkey, red beans and rice, green beans, or cornbread dressing. Which is not to say he doesn't fry anything. In fact, a critics' favorite is his mustard-fried catfish, but the two dishes we still dream about are his wonderful and spicy fried green tomatoes and the peach cobbler, which is the real thing, with a buttery, sugary crust and lots of cinnamon. On Sundays at the Stony Island location, there's a huge buffet; otherwise, you view the big spread through glass, place your order, park yourself and wait for your number to be called. There's also a location on Western Avenue.
Captain's Hard Time Dining is decorated with black-and-white portraits of black (and white--Bill and Hillary are here) cultural heroes, wedding photos, mirrors, pink curtains and a little card at each booth letting customers know that most of the food is cooked to order, so your entree might take up to 45 minutes unless you're having short ribs or turkey or baked chicken. Our advice is to have the short ribs even if you've got all day to wait, because they are insanely tender and plentiful, and come with a choice of two sides for just $9.50 (candied sweet potatoes and mixed greens--mustard and kale on a recent afternoon--go particularly well). The Cajun chicken wings do indeed take a long time, but they are quite tasty.
Izola's has been serving South Siders for more than 40 years and is presided over by Izola White, who has beautiful white hair and kindly keeps her restaurant open 24 hours (though closed Wednesdays) just in case you find yourself hankering for salt pork with greens or stewed chicken and dumplings at 2 a.m. You can get out of here pretty cheaply if you stay away from the most expensive items, like chitterlings ($12, but all the most expensive entrees come with two sides, and chitterlings should probably be an occasional splurge anyway) and focus on the a la carte. The dining room minimum is $2.18, which means you'll have to have soup ($1.50) with your one-egg sandwich ($1.25) if you don't want to sit at the counter.
The motto at Jackie's Place is "Sunday Dinner Any Day of the Week," and the place does have the everyone-is-family feel--it's a real neighborhood joint (since 1949, it says on the menu). Some of the tables are a little tottery, but from the looks of it, the customer loyalty is pretty strong. The breakfast menu (which includes things like salmon patties with 2 eggs or liver and fried eggs, each served with a choice of sides) is available any time of day. The grits are the best you'll get, but don't ask us why. Some cooks just have the touch. There are also honest-to-goodness hoecakes from the griddle instead of the usual baked cornbread. The dinner specials here include neck bones or hamhocks on Tuesday; oxtails, smothered chicken leg or smothered pork chops on Thursday; and on Friday several kinds of fish, along with an extensive array of sides including okra both boiled and fried, fried corn and lima beans (on Sundays and Mondays only). Why are limas served only Sundays and Mondays? "That's just the way she does it," said the waitress Barbara, who volunteered that her favorite lunch at Jackie's is fried wings and potato salad.
The look of Pearl's Place, a sterile, great big rec-room of a restaurant attached to a motel it has no association with, makes you worry that they serve fake soul food like those places in Manhattan that hang tractor parts on the wall and put too much liquid smoke in the food. On the contrary, the food ("Southern Soul with a Touch of Creole," as it's billed on the menu) is really good and does not smack of motel dining at all. After having a terrific lunch of fried chicken (cooked to order) with rich macaroni and cheese and collards and some of the best fried catfish we've ever tasted, we can't wait to go back for the breakfast buffet some Sunday morning before everybody gets out of church. And next time we'll try Pearl's crab cakes and the sweet potato pie.
Emily Nunn and Itasca Wiggins are Tribune staff reporters.