I was skeptical when I first heard about Soul Groove. A soul food restaurant that features vegan and vegetarian food alongside meat dishes almost sounded like blasphemy.
Then I had a taste of their collard greens, zesty with vinegar and hot sauce and studded with smoky ham, and my skepticism began to melt away. The leaves, braised to tenderness but still retaining bite, showed care in their creation, ensuring that the vegan version (sans pig, but with the addition of smoked paprika) was just as tasty and satisfying as the pork-laden one.
In fact, all of the meatless dishes here are thoughtfully put together, so that they don’t come off as simply lesser versions of their carnivore counterparts. The vegan “chicken” and waffles dish was voraciously consumed by myself and my companions, all staunch omnivores. The crunchy breading and peppery flavor of the soy patty had us fighting over the last maple-bourbon syrup-covered bites.
Iterations of chicken and waffles make up the bulk of the menu at Soul Groove, some creative, some classic, all made completely from scratch. The Chicken Fried Soul is the signature item, a bacon-wrapped deep-fried chicken breast topped with jalapeno slaw and couched between two thick waffles spread with maple barbecue sauce. A spectacular sandwich—sweet and spicy, moist and crunchy— it’s only eclipsed by the slightly superior Conundrum, its twin with the addition of a fried egg. The runny yolk drips into the hollows of the springy waffles, creating a viscous bond that holds each succulent bite together.
Soul Groove’s classic chicken and waffles dish is exceptional because of two things: the dollop of praline butter that melts like sweet silk, and the warmly seasoned, flawlessly crispy chicken. The buttermilk waffle upon which all of this perfection sits is fine if not noteworthy, a serviceable vehicle for the butter, syrup, chicken and hot sauce.
My favorite take on the waffle was the “doughffle”—yes, another in the line of trendy pastry hybrids a la the “cronut,” but no less delicious for its hipness. The fillings and toppings vary daily; my bacon-topped, caramel-filled doughffle was a rich explosion of sugar and smoke.
The mac ’n’ cheese here is a Southern-inspired masterpiece. Coating hefty spiral noodles, the sauce is pure velvety bliss, thick but not goopy, and laced with tangy housemade pimento cheese. A layer of herbed breadcrumbs on top lends a toasty counterpoint to all the richness.
Other sides played second fiddle — good, if not memorably great. The red beans and rice was flavorful, but turned pasty pretty quickly. The paprika-dusted potato salad zinged with crunchy bits of red onion, which was invigorating at first, but became pungent after a few bites.
While the food alone is worth a visit, Soul Groove’s atmosphere is an integral part of its draw. The crookedly hung paintings (which are for sale, proceeds benefiting Today’s Future Sound, a kids’ music education charity) and the remarkably warm staff, who will often stop by to have a conversation with your table, make you feel like you’re in a family kitchen.
If you’re lucky, a local musician might stop by and play a few songs on his sax as he waits for his takeout. It’s a crazy city out there, but Soul Groove makes it feel a little more like home.
Location: 422 Larkin St., S.F.
Contact: (415) 734-7598, www.chickenandwafflesandwich.com
Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Recommended dishes: The Conundrum ($9), chicken and waffle ($8.75-$12.50), vegan chicken and waffle ($14), mac ’n’ Cheese ($3.50-$6.50), collard greens ($3.50-$6.50)
Price range: $2.50 to $14
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted