With its decadent and addictive Cornish hens, lamb chops and fried smothered chicken, patrons as far away as Houston have Soul Shack sizzling as an overnight success story and a symbol of pride for Black Chicago
By Erick Johnson
The wait was two hours. It was a slow day. On many days, the wait peaks at three hours.
For the past two weeks, the talk of Black Chicago has been Soul Shack, a small restaurant that has attracted patrons near and far to the corner of 53rd & Kenwood Avenue, or Chaka Khan Way.
Planted on the street named after the famous soulful diva from Chicago, Soul Shack is serving up hits of its own. They include jerk-flavored Cornish hens, lamb chops and fried smothered chicken. Well-seasoned and prepared by professional chefs—many of whom run their own catering businesses—Soul Shack has turned first timers into regulars in a short period of time.
Despite the long lines and limited parking, many guests have frequented the restaurant multiple times in the past two weeks. During one visit by the Crusader, the restaurant’s entire supply of caramel cake, banana pudding, peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream was wiped out from the throngs of patrons who have kept the Soul Shack humming non-stop all day. That same day, the restaurant ran out of lamb chops.
Black-owned and operated, Soul Shack is the latest fairy tale, overnight success story that has spiced up Hyde’s Park bustling downtown. For Blacks, the Soul Shack has become a symbol of pride in a city where many iconic soul food restaurants have closed over the years.
The idea of Soul Shack was cooked up a year ago. Owner Rico Nance and co-owner Keisha Rucker decided to open up a soul food restaurant after Nance’s wife, Quiana, cooked him soul food for dinner. Rucker’s husband, Terry, joined in on the plans. They chose Hyde Park’s downtown because of its prominence and diversity. Located within two blocks from President Barack Obama’s favorite hangout, Valois, Soul Shack occupies the former space of Wingers, an eatery that sold chicken wings, Italian beef and gyros.
The Soul Shack is Nance’s latest restaurant. He also owns two Litehouse Whole Food Grill restaurants and two burger-centric Mikkey’s Retro Grill. This is Rucker’s first restaurant. She also owns a clothing boutique.
On Soul Shack’s opening day on March 10, crowds jammed the restaurant, surprising its owners and overwhelming its staff who have worked non-stop to keep up with the high demand. Many patrons say they heard about the Soul Shack’s opening on Twitter, Facebook or simply word of mouth.
It is Soul Shack’s menu that keeps them coming back again and again. For appetizers, there are fried green tomatoes and soul rolls—egg rolls stuffed with yams, jerk chicken, greens and macaroni and cheese. Served with a sweet and sour sauce, they have become the most popular appetizers on Soul Shack’s menu. Two patrons say they have made several trips to the restaurant just for the soul rolls.
The restaurant’s entrees include jerk Cornish hens, fried smothered chicken, lamb chops, chicken and waffles, grilled salmon and braised short ribs. The entrees are served with two side dishes that include a choice of macaroni and cheese, candied yams, collard greens, cornbread and green beans.
Rucker, who is Quiana’s best friend, created the menu. Rucker said they experimented five times with creating the recipe for macaroni and cheese before they got it right. They have quickly identified the most popular dish as their Cornish hen, which is marinated for 48 hours with jerk spices, then grilled. Rucker said she is considering adding more soul food items to the menu.
For religious reasons, she said the restaurant will not serve catfish or shellfish. The restaurant is closed during the day on Saturdays out of respect for Nance’s faith as a Seventh-day Adventist. The restaurant is open from 8 p.m. to midnight Saturdays and operates 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. In preparation for the Sabbath Day, on Fridays, Soul Shack is open only from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m..
Rucker said the lamb chops are the second most requested item, followed by the short ribs.
To some, the menu may be pricey, but many patrons say the food is worth the cost and the long lines that spill outside of the restaurant’s door. The restaurant seats about 30 people. That’s far less than what the Soul Shack owners are anticipating they will need for their new venture.
“We did not anticipate the outcome to be this big, so this has been the biggest challenge,” Rucker said. “We’ve had people from Wisconsin and Michigan come here. One man from Houston called us to tell us that he will stop by, after hearing about it on social media. So it’s been great.”
The Crusader visited the Soul Shack for three consecutive days this week. On March 17, this reporter waited nearly two hours before he ordered his food. The vibe was upbeat as patrons marveled as workers passed them with tray after tray of golden macaroni and cheese. Despite the long lines, one patron told the Crusader that she frequented the restaurant twice that day to order the fried smothered chicken. Overall, it was her third trip to the restaurant for the dish since it opened March 10.
The next day on the Crusader’s visit to Soul Shack, the restaurant ran out of lamb chops and cornbread. Having sampled the tender lamb chops the day before, I ordered the crispy fried chicken and waffles for the Crusader staff, which gobbled them up in minutes.
During a third visit on March 19, Sharon Small, an employee at the nearby Sophy Hotel, visited the restaurant for the first time after hearing about it on social media. She ordered four entrees, including two orders of fried smothered chicken with macaroni and cheese and collard greens. Small also ordered Cornish hen and barbeque chicken.
“But two of these orders are going home with me for my husband. I ain’t cooking tonight,” Small said.