Blackened Fish, Kale Greens and Candied Yams at Sandra’s Next Generation, New Haven

Kindred Soul

New Haven-born Sandra Pittman cooks food so homey, and treats her diners with a hospitality so warm, you would swear she were southern, and that’s because, in a way, she is.

Pittman owns Sandra’s Next Generation, a soul food spot on Congress Avenue. One of three Connecticut soul food joints the Cooking Channel visited for an episode of Road Trip with G. Garvin, the other two were chosen for their innovations on soul food (a la Espresso-Rubbed Short Ribs and Spiced Duck Tortillas). Sandra’s, however, was chosen for its authenticity.

Pittman’s recipes trace back to mid-century Selma, Alabama, and beyond. She learned to cook from her mother, Mary Harris, who left ’Bama in 1958, about seven years before the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march. To get away from life under Jim Crow—what Pittman calls “the struggles”— Harris followed her brother to New Haven, bringing her own aunt’s cooking with her.

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While living in the Dwight Gardens co-op at 99 Edgewood Avenue, Harris daily prepared large batches of southern grub, enough to feed some 20 people: Harris, her husband, their six kids (including Sandra) and about a dozen other people that would come by throughout the day. Mom built a reputation for good cooking and generosity. “If you told someone ‘Edgewood Ave’ and ‘Mary Harris,’ people knew that meant a good meal,” Sandra says.

When she was 8, Pittman began learning to cook, and she learned fast, practicing the breading of the fried chicken and the kneading of the dough for the peach cobbler. During the week, she’d mostly watch her mother, but on Saturdays, it was her mom’s turn to watch.

Today, Pittman’s Saturday cooking is available five days a week. The Blackened Fish, a catfish entree, came zigzagged with a chimerical sauce of mayo, ketchup, hot sauce, horseradish, mustard and spices of Sandra’s own invention. Between the fish and the sauce was a charred layer of paprika and other seasonings that gave a light crisp to the otherwise gentle meat. Not so delicate was the aggressively buttery flavor of the cornbread, though its constitution was. Shined with a layer of melted, churned cream, the bread crumbled at the touch of a fork.

The Kale Greens were a spin on the familiar collard greens of soul food fame. Like the collard counterpart often is, the standard dish at Sandra’s is prepared with a smoked turkey wing for flavor. (Vegetarian greens can be prepared by request.) If you like both your sweets and your veggies on the same fork, the Candied Yams kill two birds with one potato. Blazing orange, its soft, smooth chunks covered in cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and sugar, it tasted like dessert. Eat it too fast and a sugar rush will hit you faster than a wad of cotton candy.

It was Miguel, Sandra’s husband and business partner, who first proposed she start a restaurant. In 1989, with nothing but $1,200 in savings and a space in Miguel’s father-in-law’s building, the couple opened the first Sandra’s at 560 Congress Avenue. Too small for tables and seats, it was takeout-only and staffed exclusively by family. Six years later, they were able to open shop at their current location, just up the road. There, the space and the staff are bigger, though family’s role is about as big as it was. All four of the Pittmans’ children either work or help out at the restaurant.

Perhaps the most notable transformation occurred not inside Sandra’s, but around it. Miguel recalls how the atmosphere of The Hill neighborhood has shifted over the decades. “In the early-mid 70s, service members returning from the Vietnam war with opioid habits. … It took a toll on the neighborhood. It went from a business district to a drug district.” That’s not so true today, Miguel says. “You can sit down outside and you don’t have to worry about being shot, robbed or panhandled.”

He says the turnabout happened thanks to the activity of civic organizations, block watches and the “community-based policing” introduced in the 1990s by former NHPD chief Nick Pastore, which encourages officers to get to know the people they’re meant to serve and protect. “You wouldn’t even think it was like that years ago,” Sandra says, comparing The Hill as it stands today to the neighborhood she remembers.

Even when things were bad, it wasn’t enough to stop people from coming to Sandra’s. Along with new faces from the neighborhood and the nearby hospital complex, those old-timers still come around, she says.

Her mother’s recipes have stuck around, too. So has her mother. One dish she doesn’t make quite as well as Mom is the family meatloaf. So instead of selling customers short, Sandra has her mother come in every Wednesday to make it.

At 75, Mary Harris is still cooking. She sticks to the old ways—using a knife instead of a chopper and a spoon instead of a blender. “I don’t care what you buy, she will not use it,” Sandra says. “That’s probably why it’s so good.”

Sandra’s Next Generation
636 Congress Ave, New Haven (map)
Wed-Fri 11:30am-9pm, Sat 1-9pm, Sun 1-7pm
(203) 787-4123

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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