In September, 2012, as soon as Wanderingjew arrived at the Charlotte airport, his first stop was Nana’s Soul Food Kitchen, which he enthusiastically recommended. Lucky for me, the hotel for the 2014 Roadfood tour was just a few hundred yards away.
Nana’s was named for the proprietor’s grandmother, but this improbable restaurant looks absolutely nothing like the house of any grandma I’ve ever known. Packed into a fairly new strip mall that includes such cookie-cutter franchised eateries as Jersey Mike’s and Hibachi Express, it evidences no charm from the outside; and the interior is squeaky-clean to the point of sterility. The food you will eat here, however, tells another story. It is extremely grandmotherly – that is, if grandmother happened to be an excellent African-American cook who specialized in classic soul food.
Dark-meat fried chicken is lusciousness incarnate; and even the big white breasts, which do tend to be on the dry side, are saved by a thick coat of chewy-crisp, bacon-rich skin that is itself worth the price of admission. If you are anti-fried, there are dripping-moist baked chicken and smothered chicken; there are curried chicken, chicken Alfredo (Thursdays only), and barbecued chicken. Don’t like chicken? Have the meat loaf, the pork chops, the fried catfish or tilapia.
Whatever your main course, pay special attention to vegetables. Or skip the main course and have nothing but vegetables and side dishes, for these are dandy. Collard greens are spicy-sweet, painfully tender, bracing; lima beans are soft and silky and sopped with piggy liquor from the pot; cabbage is equally voluptuary; curried rice is dirty rice of the best sort, laced with meat and packed with flavor; mac ‘n’ cheese is as rich as butter with just enough tang to make every forkful slightly exciting.
Food is obtained by standing in a cafeteria line and telling the servers what you want. This can be a bit of a problem, since much of what’s available is kept in serving trays with covers, preventing you from seeing it all. The staff is more than willing to lift the covers up to show you anything, and to describe it as well, but the visual experience of going through the line – so much fun at cafeterias where everything is out in the open – does little to prepare you for the deliciousness of what finally winds up on your Styrofoam plate.
There are desserts, which I’ve yet to try. Wanderingjew thought the banana pudding lame, and the pies I saw were not compelling. The red velvet cake, however, is something I’m definitely going to eat next time. It looks very good.