Even before you’ve had your first bite of food at Kendall Karsen’s Upscale Soul Food, you’re immersed in the family of its chef and owner, Kevin Winston.
Look down at the tables. Into their tops, Winston carves names and numbers: the name of his grandmother, Aunt Lou, who in his childhood cooked Thanksgiving dinner for the Dallas VA hospital; the names of Winston’s high school and the phrase “Aggies ’96;” the date of his first catering job; the Bible verses to which he turns most, such as Psalms 23.
The restaurant’s name honors his sons, Kendall and Karsen. Its phone number ends in 2171, just like Aunt Lou’s did. And its hospitality welcomes everyone who walks in the door. There aren’t many friendlier restaurants in Dallas.
For Winston, Kendall Karsen’s represents a midlife revelation.
“I was kind of tired of being in corporate,” he says of his past life, which includes a doctorate in health management. “I wanted to do something that was more fulfilling for me. Cooking does that for me. Being in corporate, you can get all this success; I loved being there and making profits for the company. But I also wanted to be able to make an impact that my sons can look back on, that they can carry on to their family.”
His sons like vegetables. That’s part of the reason their namesake restaurant presents a fresher, leafier take on the genre in its title. The term “soul food” has become somewhat loaded, used by some to pigeonhole African American cooking, or to imply grease and the deep fryer.
“I know a lot of times people think of soul food as heavy grease, very saturated,” Winston says.
The food at Kendall Karsen’s takes the opposite approach. Winston prefers olive oil to butter or lard. Collard greens are cooked down without benefit of bacon, but they’re still tremendously flavorful. Or try the creamed spinach: It’s so richly creamy that it’s practically a cheese. It just tastes sinful. It’s too good not to be.
But ask Winston what he’s putting in there — cheddar? gallons of cream? — and he plays it coy.
“I put love into it,” he says, with a hearty laugh, before admitting that one secret might be cream cheese. “It’s very healthy for you, as a matter of fact.”
Main courses, too, are pared down to their essentials, then presented in brilliantly flavorful renditions. The menu at Kendall Karsen’s is as small as the kitchen — not much more than a half-dozen mains and about 10 sides. Pick a main and the two sides that come with it, and you’re set.
Try, for example, a quartet of extra-thick baked pork ribs ($13). It’s a dry rub, with sauce served on the side. But what sauce it is: sweet, smoky, spicy, with a deep pull that’s as comforting as fuzzy blankets. (Winston makes the sauce in-house.) The meat doesn’t fall off the bone; instead, it pulls off with a gentle tug of the teeth, which in our book means it’s cooked perfectly.
Or grab catfish fillets battered in cornmeal and fried ($11). They’re some of the most glorious fried fish in Dallas, period, deeply golden and blessed with a loud crunch. If the seasoning in the batter isn’t enough, the remoulade served on the side has enough spice to deliver a gentle kick in the pants. Ask for an extra cup.
The catfish is also available in a sauteed version coated in Cajun spices ($11), which, by some miracle, isn’t wildly oversalted. But that’s the game at Kendall Karsen’s: Nothing is over-anything. Flavors are dialed in.
There are two varieties of cornbread here, traditional and hot, both classic examples of their styles. “Hot,” if you’re unaware, doesn’t refer to any spicy additions. It’s about the use of hot water to make the dough.
“There’s an art to it because you have to put really hot water on it and then cool it down,” Winston explains. “A hot water cornbread has a more grainy texture. Regular is kind of the cake style, not soft, still grainy, but the hot water cornbread has a better crunch to it. It has a more buttery, sweeter taste. The difference would be the crunch and the sweetness.” The hot water version is airier, with a bigger flake.
Traditional cornbread also appears in dressing — don’t call it stuffing — alongside a half rotisserie chicken ($9). The dressing, under a cap of gravy, is the highlight of the plate; juicy roast chicken is hidden under a small outer layer that’s a little bit dried out.
For all the clean and direct flavors at Kendall Karsen’s, a couple of the side dishes are pure crowd pleasers. The macaroni and cheese arrives under a molten cap of even more cheese; it tastes like childhood, but the real stuff from when you were a kid, not the kind from a box. And then there’s the cup of “loaded” mashed potatoes, which might inspire you to ask, “Are those bacon bits?”
Now that he can laugh about it, Winston recalls that he actually first opened by mistake.
“I invited my church family over one Sunday after church, but my niece ended up posting something on social media,” he says. “Thank God I had everything over here working, the point of sale software and everything, because I had a line out the door.”
He says his family told him, “You asked God for it, He’s telling you to go ahead and do it.”
Soon enough, visitors like Bun B were spreading the word, and last month Kendall Karsen’s appeared in the Observer’s Top 100 Restaurants list. In the next few weeks, Mondays and Tuesdays will become special nights, with a revolving set menu: maybe steak night or burgers.
The great strength and weakness of this restaurant are two sides of one coin. A couple of diners have complained online that food here takes time, and that’s true; our meals averaged about a 25-minute wait. But that’s also our favorite part about it. They’re cooking everything fresh back there.
And when the food arrives, friendly surprises often do, too. Once we’d ordered a side dish of okra stew and the kitchen had run out. Substitutions were made. Then, presto: “We found one more!”
On another visit, a cook came out of the kitchen with a new plate.
“We thought your fish piece was a little scrawny,” he said, as he handed over another, free of charge. Where else in Dallas would that happen?
Kendall Karsen’s Upscale Soul Food, 3939 S. Polk St., Suite 305. 214-376-2171. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.
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