This soul food can be your resolution: Chef Ken's Café adds healthy touch to old favorites

Ken Roberts at his Mount Airy eatery, Chef Ken's Café.
Ken Roberts at his Mount Airy eatery, Chef Ken's Café.
Posted: January 15, 2010

IT'S THE TIME for resolutions, and no doubt eating healthier and sticking to a budget top many lists.

Chef Ken's Café on Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy might help you take baby steps in the right direction.

Soul food is often considered a nutritional minefield, and while Chef Ken's cuisine is anything but austere, it does make healthier substitutions to lower saturated fat while offering a value priced meal.

Owner and executive chef Ken Roberts says, "It's not what you cook, but how you cook it." His menu includes standard dishes such as BBQ chicken, collard greens and fried whiting, however, he eschews animal fats in cooking and substitutes canola or olive oil.

He cooks all of his vegetables without meat or animal fat so that they are appropriate for vegetarians and also eliminates all pork from the dishes in order to avoid any dietary restrictions.

Roberts credits his culinary skills to growing up in a diverse family - he has a Cuban father, Italian mother and two African-American grandparents. His cooking style has roots in the Deep South, particularly Alabama.

The café is set up cafeteria-style with some dishes made to order.

Frustrated by a lack of parking at his location, Roberts is hoping to move Chef Ken's Café east to the Girard Avenue corridor in Northern Liberties known as MARS (music, arts, restaurants) by spring.

There are about eight entrées in the hot case and all meats are served with a choice of two sides from about 10 selections.

The Angus Beef Ribs in sweet BBQ sauce ($16.95) were cut with more bone than meat, but that makes the meat succulent. And I have never been one to complain about having a bone in the refrigerator for a midnight snack.

The BBQ Chicken ($12.95) was one of my favorites. Two legs meant I could have a portion hot and a cold one for later. The meat was falling off the bone and the sauce left a jammy exterior to complement the meat.

The sauce for the ribs and the chicken is the same and is made in-house. It is definitely on the sweet side so you might want to give it a few hits of hot sauce for balance.

The Blackened Tilapia ($12.95) received high marks from tasters. The trick with this dish is to keep the fish moist while cooking over high enough heat to create the blackened exterior. Mission accomplished.

Roberts is a little heavy on the thyme in many of his dishes, and in my opinion, the tilapia was one example. I prefer a little more sweet paprika in the mix. Still, the result is a fine dish and the tilapia works well as a substitution for the traditional redfish.

Another dish that I felt had too much thyme was the jambalaya rice side, but it was less noticeable because of the spicy overtones. This is one side that could be a main dish.

The collard greens ranked as another taster favorite and worked well without the traditional fat back.

The string beans suffered without the meat. The long cooking process that breaks down the fibers doesn't work as well without some kind of fat, and the bottled liquid hickory smoke that was substituted for the smoked meat overwhelmed the beans.

I missed the flavor that even smoked turkey would have added.

While the Macaroni and Cheese will never rival my grandmother's, you can never go too far wrong with pasta and cheese sauce.

The Garlic Ranch Potatoes tasted better than their appearance. Roberts said this brownish tinge comes from roasting the garlic and the potatoes and mixing them with boiled potatoes. This results in a texture of creamy and chunky.

The Cabbage also suffered from the brown appearance but made up for it in the taste department. Roberts said that is part of his signature style of marrying flavors.

He takes the juices (known as "pot likker") from cooking down the greens and uses that to cook the cabbage. The chlorophyll gives the cabbage a darker appearance than one would expect but adds a layered flavor.

The Potato Salad ($4.95) comes in a 12-ounce container. All of the tasters agreed it was heavy on the mustard, but not unpleasantly so. And it was far superior to the chemical-tasting salad that comes from many places.

Desserts ($4.95) are made daily and selections rotate from a variety of fruit cobblers to a sweet potato bread pudding that takes three days to make.

My favorite is Robert's sweet potato pone, a recipe of his grandmother's from Dothan, Ala. The sweet potatoes are mashed with brown sugar and molasses and baked until there is just about nothing but a pan of caramel. Think sweet potato fudge. A streusel topping is superfluous but does add texture.

And if you are resolute in your resolutions, you'll go easy on the desserts and portion sizes.

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