At Next Step Soul Food Cafe in Dorchester, the fried chicken is crisp, the greens are delectable, and the pork chops are tender at the bone. While the owner is keeping mum about her family’s recipes, she happily shares how she became a first-time restaurateur.
“I was trying to figure out the next phase of my life,” says Michelle White, a recently retired early childhood educator. Recalling how friends had always praised her home cooking, she enrolled in a program for budding culinary professionals at the nonprofit Community Servings. She also connected with the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation. When a vacant space opened up on Washington Street, she was excited. “I said, ‘Wow, why not?’” she recalls. “Everyone had been saying, ‘We need more soul food in Massachusetts.’” Last fall, along with her mother and brother, she opened the doors to a 20-seat spot.
This trio is cooking up classic soul food favorites, shaped by the family’s roots in South Carolina. “We always had five different kinds of vegetables on the table,” White says, remembering her grandparents’ lush garden plot. That tradition continues here, celebrated in generous portions of collard greens, flavored with smoked turkey, and tender sauteed cabbage. This spot, where you order at the counter, also has a knack for meat and poultry.
The chicken, for example. It comes as an “every day plate” ($11) with a choice of two sides. The barbecue bird is can’t-put-it-down good. A drumstick, a thigh, and a back portion are slathered with a smoky-sweet glaze. You’ll reach for multiple napkins. On another afternoon, wings — dredged in seasoned flour — emerge golden from their fat bath. With sides of yellow rice and crunchy coleslaw, no one leaves hungry.
Other side dishes (also available for $2.50 each) are equally delicious. Creamy potato salad, flecked with sweet pickles and hard-boiled egg, feels indulgent. Candied yams are cooked velvety soft and speckled with cinnamon. A generous portion of mac and cheese — elbow macaroni with plenty of cheddar — is pure comfort food.
Because this kitchen insists on freshly made fare, be prepared to sit a spell as your order comes together. It’s smart to call ahead. Also, whether you are eating in or taking out, every dish comes in a foam clamshell. Tackling two deliciously seasoned pork chops ($13) with plastic cutlery is tricky in the snug container, so ask for a paper plate.
The cafe’s dining area is humble, with room to grow. Long folding tables are the kind you might find at a church supper, draped with picnic tablecloths. There are a few two-tops and four-tops as well. Breakfast items like fried eggs and grits are just beginning to debut on Saturdays. Fingers crossed that a hoped-for coffee cart within the space will appear in the near future.
On a Thursday, the neighborhood knows the daily special is oxtail dinner ($14). The rustic cuts of meat, braised in plenty of gravy, have a pleasant chew and are deeply satisfying. Chicken vegetable soup ($4.75), full of yellow squash and orzo, is warming on a cold day. Vanilla wafers adorn a silky banana pudding ($3).
When asked about the difference between soul food and Southern fare, White explains that Southern food often refers to a particular regional cuisine, like the Lowcountry fare of South Carolina. Soul food, she emphasizes, is not bound by geography. “Soul food is everywhere, and the people who love it are everywhere,” she says.
To make a point, White begins describing a dish and how it’s made. “Don’t tell the people what I put in my food!” demands her mother from the kitchen.
Fair enough. We’re just grateful to tuck into our full plates.
NEXT STEP SOUL FOOD CAFE
657 Washington St., Dorchester, 617-514-6456. All credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Plates $11-$14. Sandwiches $7-$11. Specials $4.75-$14. Sides and desserts $2.50-$3.
Hours Tue-Sun noon-6 p.m. Closed Mondays.
What to order Fried chicken, barbecue chicken, collard greens, chicken vegetable soup, oxtail dinner.Ellen Bhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.