The first thing we noticed when we walked into RCL Enterprises was the line, which snaked from the steam tables to the far wall and alternated between church goers and locals dressed for a lazy Sunday.
B.B. King, Muhammad Ali and Billie Holiday posters hung from warped wood paneling. Obama’s face was painted onto a mural next to the dessert refrigerator. All three flatscreen TVs were tuned to BET.
Women in yellow head scarves stood watch over a 20-foot buffet, scooping impossible mountains of food into styrofoam boxes.
“No Fish” signs scribbled in red magic marker were taped to the door and the walls. (I later learned that James and Helen Sanders – no relation to the Colonel – came from the South and opened RCL as a fish and chips house back in 1972. Despite serving only once a week, they developed a devoted following in the neighborhood and later brought on chef Conroy Walker to expand the soul food menu).
As we studied the menu on the wall – pigs feet! oxtails! jerk chicken! ham hocks! – I remembered taxi driver Troy Johnson’s recommendations. Troy was the reason my three co-adventurers and I were at RCL in the first place, and I wanted to be sure we tried his turkey wings and smothered pork chops.
When it was finally our turn to order, we discovered they were out of pork chops. And salisbury steak. And meatloaf. RCL caters for many of the churches around New York – Sunday must have been especially busy. We readjusted our feasting plan.
Each of us ordered a “dinner” – which could also be described as a super-sized meal for three – that came with a main and two sides and cost $9-12 depending on your chosen protein. In the interest of research, we also picked up three pieces of fried-to-order chicken ($5), a small sweet potato pie ($3) and banana pudding ($5).
RCL has no tables – unless you’re part of a planned event that happens on their second floor – so we took our black plastic bags across the street to the stoop in front of a closed cake shop and set up a magnificent soul food smorgasbord (Trying to capture it in a photo was as impossible for me as communicating the grandeur of the Grand Canyon in two dimensions. You think I’m exaggerating? Ask my fellow feasters.)
Passersby looked on as we opened containers overflowing with oxtails, turkey wings, pot roast, collard greens, cabbage, sausage rice, string beans, macaroni salad, rice and peas, cole slaw, mac and cheese. A pit bull lunged toward our feast, but his owner held him back. I unwrapped the fried chicken to let it cool while we dug into our dinners and began the first in a series of grateful moans.
“Oh, my God” was the general consensus. Oxtails, stewed in a rich brown sauce, fell off their bones. So did Troy’s gorgeously spiced turkey wings. (One adventurer said it was the best turkey she’d ever had. If you don’t think you like dark meat, these might convince you to cross over.)
Medallions of pot roast, ringed with fat and covered in chocolate-colored gravy, were tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. (My dad, who harbors a deeper passion for pot roast than anyone I know, would have loved RCL’s version, even though I could imagine him saying “It’s not as good as mom’s.”)
Our sides paled in comparison to our meats. We all appreciated the integrity of flavor in the collard greens and cabbage, but both the sausage rice (heavy on celery, light on sausage) and the rice and peas tasted dull. I had high hopes for the mac and cheese – they’d brought out a fresh tray as I was ordering it – but it was also plain to the palate.
Despite having the green cooked out of them, my co-adventurer appreciated her string beans. But she – and the rest of us – liked her macaroni salad even more. Miracle Whip had gone nowhere near it – and the ratio of mayonnaise to macaroni to paprika was just right. Next time, I’ll order it instead of cole slaw, which was definitely fresh but had a blue cheese aftertaste.
Even though it was still dangerously hot after fifteen minutes, I couldn’t wait to tear into the fried chicken, which raised our chorus of moans to a louder pitch. This was masterful fried chicken – crispy and subtly seasoned outside, moist and surprisingly lacking in grease on the inside – even the breast. One of my co-adventurers who had sampled KFC in the U.S., Peru, and China – and had never tasted better than Chinese KFC – said RCL’s topped it. I suspected that it might even be better than my mom’s.
We went back and forth between pie – smooth, rich, and buttery with just a touch of all-spice – and pudding – a delicious mishmash of bananas, custard, soft meringue and yellow cake. We were split on which we liked better. We paused. We dove back in. I still couldn’t decide. I ended it with fried chicken and collapsed on the stoop.
We broke down our rapture on the bus back to the E train. One co-adventurer said it was better than the super-fancy meal she’d eaten at Esca the night before. Another said she’d planned on going back to her office after dinner to do some work, but the soul food convinced her to forget it.
I said that this was the food you’d eat if you were in serious need of nurturing – and that RCL would easily make it into my New York top ten. We traded happy sighs.