I was floored to find out that, because of your votes, I was not only 1 of only 12 blogs to move on to round 9 of Project Food Blog, but was also Readers' Choice! FLOORED. Thank you times a million for your amazing support! Challenge #9 was to write a restaurant review. After telling you about my head-on collision with the homelessness epidemic in San Francisco, I heard about The King's Kitchen and its mission to "feed the hungry and heal the brokenhearted." Please read my review below and consider supporting me in this round! VOTING IS NOW OPEN! Please sign in to your Foodbuzz.com account (or register if you don't already have one). Then go to my official entry here and vote by clicking the heart next to the words "Vote for this Entry." I'd be so grateful for your continued support.
Dorothea sat across from me, a child of God in the kitchen of the King, and wore a sweet grin on her face, though she was recounting times in her life that were anything but happy. She described herself as a character, and you could see by the way she lit up her coworkers' faces that it was true. She's worked her way up from dishwasher to prep cook at The King's Kitchen, a new restaurant in uptown Charlotte, but what she was remembering during our conversation were the times before she had this opportunity -- darker days of her life.
"I was wild, a troublemaker," she said, and "it was a hard struggle to get back. People do make mistakes, and when you want to do what's right, it's hard because [jobs] look at your background, not realizing that we all make mistakes." But The King's Kitchen, a restaurant that donates 100% of its profits to help feed the hungry and employs workers others might consider "unemployable," recognized that all she needed was an opportunity.
After my first anonymous visit to the restaurant, I returned to get to know some of its amazing staff. From L to R: Dorothea, Sous Chef Sam Stachon, and my fantastic server, Charity.
When we got up so that I could take a photograph of Dorothea, she pulled Sous Chef Sam Stachon along with her, saying affectionately, "I want a picture with my chef, my chef." Her words seemed to communicate a particular emotion to me, but I reflected on them all night before finally recognizing what it was: acceptance. The King's Kitchen is a family, and Dorothea is -- as she deserves to be -- a beloved member.
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Restaurants are part of the broader hospitality industry -- but what does hospitality mean in the world today? In America? In my city, in my neighborhood, in my heart? Does it mean good food, attentive service, a comfortable seat, a cordial smile? Maybe all of those things, but even more than that, hospitality carries with it a deeper sense of welcome. It's an opening of one's space and talents, an expression of love, and a willingness to serve. As Dorothea's story illustrates, both the staff and the customers have found hospitality in The King's Kitchen.
The King's Kitchen
The ninth (!) challenge of Project Food Blog is to write a restaurant review -- something that's never happened on Willow Bird Baking! Especially after listening to the judges talk about exploring the "folklore of the meal," I felt inspired to resist the traditional tone of restaurant reviews. The point of this blog is not to write to you from an expert standpoint -- it's to talk to you, one home cook to another, and to tell you my stories.
A WBB style restaurant review will tell you, first off, about a place that touched my heart -- and I hope you're already seeing how The King's Kitchen did just that. Second off, a review here will tell you about my honest, individual experience with the food a restaurant served and the atmosphere they created. Finally, it just wouldn't be a Willow Bird Baking post without a recipe. Sous Chef Sam Stachon gave me one of my favorite King's Kitchen recipes to make at home and share with you: Southern Pimento Cheese with Lavash Crackers.
One of my favorite dishes: Fried Flounder with Butter Beans, Macaroni and Cheese, and Coleslaw
The King's Kitchen serves comfort food that amplified, for me, the feeling of hospitality. Every dish became an allusion to something in my past, some memory of home or family. I sampled biscuits, cornbread, one appetizer, three entrées, six side dishes, and two desserts in all. And apart from feeling a little humiliated to have just admitted that on the internet, I had a fantastic experience.
The Fried Flounder, for instance, had a light and flavorful breading and was served with a tangy, house-made tartar sauce with capers. Another entrée, Aunt Beaut's Fried Chicken, transported me to the Fridays in high school when my dad would bring fried chicken by my summer job as a special lunch. It was juicy, crisp, and nestled next to a bank of corn and perfectly flavored collard greens.
Aunt Beaut's Fried Chicken with Collard Greens, Macaroni and Cheese, and Corn
The Shrimp and Grits were unexpected. They had a more intense tomato flavor and were lighter than a typical spicy andouille sausage incarnation. As Mike and I ate this dish, I remembered Charleston and cobblestones, buying a bouquet of flowers from a peddler in the night -- flowers I still have tucked away somewhere. Mike enjoyed the dish more than I did, but we both agreed that there didn't seem to be a way to go too wrong when choosing anything on the menu. Everything felt like home.
Shrimp and Grits
Other odds and ends at our table were also impressive. The biscuits were fluffy and make-your-knees-buckle good when slathered with the housemade strawberry jam. The veggie side items were all fresh and perfectly seasoned. And one of my favorites, the pimento cheese on housemade lavash crackers, reminded me of many a fond moment spent devouring pimento cheese from a spoon over my sink -- except it was handmade and had a much better flavor than the sort from a plastic tub.
Odds and Ends (from top L, going clockwise): Pimento Cheese and Lavash Crackers, Biscuits with fresh housemade Jam, Butter Beans and Macaroni and Cheese, and Aunt Beaut's Chicken and Collard Greens
Finally, the dessert options at The King's Kitchen are exciting and varied. My pet peeve about some restaurant dining is that many a restaurant neglects the dessert menu, offering pedestrian dishes that are meant to appease rather than delight. Dessert is important, y'all, and The King's Kitchen boasted plenty of it: Banana Pudding with housemade vanilla wafers, Coconut Chess Pie, Deep Dish Apple Pie, Pecan Pie, Chocolate Pie, and Aunt Esther's Brown Sugar Pound Cake.
Mike and I come from families with legendary banana pudding recipes, so we were a bit biased. We found the Banana Pudding with toasted marshmallow topping a little too sweet and would've loved more wafers. The Coconut Chess Pie, however -- which was made by Dorothea herself! -- was a work of art with a flaky crust and a dense, coconut filling.
Banana Pudding (top row) and Coconut Chess Pie (bottom)
The food was matched by the exceptional, warm service and comfortable atmosphere. Matt, our first server, was always ready with recommendations or a refill of the best fountain soda everrr (side note: hurray for fantastic fountain drinks). When I returned alone to meet some of the staff, Charity was equally attentive and kind.
More than just the servers' personalities, though, the mission of the restaurant creates its environment. Even as you sit in the beautifully appointed dining room with lovely upholstered booths, a glossy bar, and, now, a shining Christmas tree, there's a sense that you're not the center of the universe, but part of a broader community -- a web of people who have and have not, people of all races and classes, and people who are necessarily interdependent. In addition to enjoying the nostalgic food, I so appreciated the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself.
- Location: 129 W Trade St #100, Charlotte, NC 28202-5305; on the web; or by phone: (704) 375-1990
- Hours: Lunch is served Monday through Friday, 11 am-2:30 pm; Dinner is served Monday through Saturday, 5 pm until
- Cuisine: Southern soul food (lunch menu; dinner menu)
- Price Range: Dinner appetizers: $4-13, Dinner sandwiches: $8-13, Dinner entrées: $12-24, Desserts: $7.5
- Favorite Picks: Aunt Beaut's Fried Chicken, Collard Greens, Fried Flounder, and Coconut Chess Pie
- Cool Notes: The King's Kitchen donates 100% of its profits to feed the homeless, and also employs and trains members of society who others may consider "unemployable."
- Dress: Casual
- Parking: Parking is relatively easy to find. We parked in a lot just behind the restaurant on Trade Street that was $6-7 for evening parking. There are also metered spaces nearby.
- Overall Willow Bird Baking Rating: 4.5 out of 5 spoons
If you'd like to enjoy a little bit of The King's Kitchen in your own home, whip up some homemade pimento cheese and lavash crackers. The recipe below is simple and satisfying.
What small choice could you make to show hospitality to someone today?
The King's Kitchen Pimento Cheese and Lavash Crackers -- this time made in my own kitchen!
Southern Pimento Cheese with Lavash Crackers
Recipe by: Adapted from The King's Kitchen
Yield: about 4 servings of crackers, about 2 cups of pimento cheese
Lavash Cracker Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry active yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon butter, melted and cooled
1/3 to 1/2 cup room temperature water
water for misting
Southern Pimento Cheese:
2 cups extra sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 cup gouda, shredded
1/2 cup roasted red peppers, diced (I used half pimentos)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Make the lavash crackers: Sprinkle yeast into 1/3 cup room temperature water to dissolve for 5 minutes. It should start to foam a bit. Combine this yeast mixture, flour, salt, honey, and melted butter in a medium mixing bowl and stir to combine into a ball. You can add up to 1/4 cup more water if needed, but add the smallest amount needed.
Flour your counter and knead the dough on the counter for 10 minutes until it has medium firmness, is not tacky at all, and is supple enough to stretch if you pull it. Place the kneaded dough into an oiled bowl, cover it, and place it in a draft-free area for around 90 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spray the counter with cooking spray and transfer the dough onto it. Roll it out until it's paper thin, stretching the corners periodically, and about 15 x 12 inches, so it'll fit on a sheet pan. Stop every now and then to allow the gluten to relax if needed. Let it relax for 5 minutes once finished rolling, then transfer it carefully onto a baking sheet. Trim any excess that falls over the side of the pan with scissors.
At this point, you can mist your sheet of dough with water and coat it with sesame seeds, black sesame seeds, cayenne pepper (go easy!), cumin, poppy seeds, or scores of other fun things.
Bake for 13-20 minutes, watching carefully to ensure your crackers don't burn (full disclosure: I was distracted and some of mine did!), before pulling them out and letting them cool on the pan for 10 minutes. Break them into shards.
Make the pimento cheese: Mix everything together in a bowl. Allow to chill for at least 20 minutes or so for the flavors to meld before serving. Sprinkle with fresh cheddar shreds to serve (and serving on lettuce is a nice touch).
Lavash Crackers with various toppings
P.S. One blog I love is Evangitality, where Kamille charges herself to share the love of Christ (with her family and others) through hospitality. Go see and be inspired!