I t’s the kind of spot where a few hours can slip by with little notice, measured only in glasses of caramel-colored sweet tea (or your favorite wine or beer; it’s BYOB). The walls are wine-red, framed vintage posters of jazz and soul greats. Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix or Dizzy Gillespie are on the speakers and that tea is (just) sweet enough to make you forget the meetings and emails and errands and work that remain.
Cast Iron Soul is on Congress Avenue a few blocks from the Yale School of Medicine and just a hop from downtown. I brought Christine Kim along with me. Rather I should say, she brought me. Christine, a trained chef, is one of those New Haveners who really explores this city, pushing beyond the obvious. She and her husband have been Cast Iron fans since it opened. They go for the feel, the flavors, the people. “You’re going to love it.” So there we went, on a Tuesday afternoon, in search of soul food. And oh, what we found.
After a sit-down with chef and owner Steve Ross to talk Cast Iron history and inspiration, we ordered a feast. Christine’s jambalaya arrived a fiery red-orange, stark against a clean white plate, perfectly nuanced with that familiar bite of spicy sausage, sprinkled with fresh green herbs. A plate of New Orleans style barbecue shrimp circled a pile of steamed white rice, slightly charred, drenched in sweet and spicy sauce. Our mac and cheese and candied sweet potato sides were perfectly comforting, salty and sweet. And the Cast Iron Cajun Fried Chicken was crispy, spicy, textured golden goodness. It’s worth the wait.
And there’s the slight catch: you’ll just need to be a bit patient. Christine and I spent a leisurely two hours at Cast Iron, munching and doing justice to all that flavor. This southern belle of a spot takes its time. Service is kind but there’s no rush. If you’re pressed for time, try the take-out. If not, stay a while and get to know Steve and his wife and co-chef Shayla Crawford, partners in love and work. Steve cooked for years at New Haven foodie staples Barcelona, Scoozzi and Zinc with a quick stop at the Connecticut Culinary Institute. “But the best education I got was working at Zinc,” he says. “I wouldn’t have this restaurant without them.” Shayla, on the other hand, is an accomplished pastry chef. Her bread and banana puddings, coconut pineapple cakes and sweet potato pies are deadly in the best sense.
Steve and Shayla started small, with catering, with their eye on the prize of a real, flesh-and-bones restaurant. The budding restaurateurs got their spot in 2010, with a little financial and emotional push from Shayla’s mom, opening for business in June. With two full-time and four part-time employees, Cast Iron still does catering every week. The clientele is a mix of neighborhood folks, med students, doctors, wanderers and road-tripping soul food searchers.
Steve says he and Shayla are happy with their menu, a sampling of the most famous Cajun staples with a good South Carolina influence. It reflects the dishes they know how to do well. He’d love to get a little crazy—think alligator—but he’s keeping it simple for now. “We’re looking for perfection.” Hush puppies, crab cakes, fried shrimp, wings and po’ boys, sides of greens and bigger plates of grilled and barbecued meats and fish. It’s well curated, and you’ll have a tough time choosing.
A young Steve spent Sundays after church at his grandmother’s house in Bridgeport. Family cooking was his first training as a chef. “Yams, mac and cheese, turkey, pot roast, you name it. My family’s from South Carolina, so I learned all those Southern staples by helping in the kitchen. Because you know, after football season, there’s nothing to watch on TV.” Recipes for a killer banana pudding and a spicy not-to-be-messed-with barbecue sauce came from his Grandfather (they’ve been known to use his recipes at Cast Iron). “Taste is the best teacher,” Steve nods. The Cajun influence comes from trips he and Shayla made to New Orleans to visit family and friends and fall in love with that cuisine and tradition. “We’ve been together for 7 years and always talked about doing something like this. After New Orleans, we realized no one else in New Haven was doing Cajun Creole.”
Big Jen’s Blackened Salmon is their most popular item, named for Shayla’s mom. Steve’s favorite is the barbecue shrimp, and Shayla loves the salads. That’s right: salads. “Shayla pushed it from the start. We wanted soul food with healthy alternatives.” So we find roasted chicken alongside fried, chop turkey barbeque as an alternative to pork and beef. Greens are cooked with smoked turkey instead of ham hocks. “We’re responding to the community getting more health-conscious, and encouraging it from this end.”
Christine, Cast Iron veteran that she is, shares some tasting notes. “What they do well is flavor. There’s pride, love and soul poured into the food, that’s clear. It’s a place that has amazing potential to grow; it’s just about getting their name out there.”
Cast Iron Soul
550 Congress Ave (map)
Mon 11:30am-8pm, Tues-Fri 11:30am-9pm, Sat 1-9pm
Written and photographed by Uma Ramiah.