City-subsidized restaurant delivers tasty and healthy soul food

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Fried chicken, greens and chicken & dumpling from Taste of the Triad (photo by Lauren Barber)

A 15-minute drive north of downtown Winston-Salem will take you out where Taste of the Triad, a family-style cafeteria, serves traditional Southern comfort cuisine in the Ogburn Station neighborhood.

A colorful mural by Dwayne Howell depicting a lively community meal greeted my partner, Devon, and me to our right. To the left, a brief hallway leads to the cafeteria space, styled in the bland fashion of most public elementary schools (they’re working on it), but the Taste’s atmosphere lives in the seating spaces further back where myriad paintings by Triad artists hang on the walls. A mural by Amber Leverette in the furthest room nurtures a welcoming tone, the words “We are more alike, my friend, than we are unalike,” featured against the Winston-Salem skyline at sunset. Natural light spills through picture windows across from the mural in the large, rectangular space suitable for private events, but from about 6 to 7 p.m. on a Friday, we encountered only six or so other patrons and one gentleman ordered a meal to-go.

Bernetta Oakes, also known by her maiden name Elaine Malone, spent four years gutting the building facing Old Walkertown Road, beginning in 2012 when she decided to breathe new life into what had been Bell Brothers, a highly popular “greasy spoon” in the ’80s and ’90s. In May, her niece Sabrina Wingo took the reins as operator. Born and raised in the Twin City, Wingo now lives in Detroit and visits Winston-Salem twice each month. Manager Paula Thomas holds down the fort between visits.

The city has made a significant investment in the venture and there been controversy as to whether the business is viable and the project is a good investment of public funds. After North State Aviation, an aviation maintenance company, laid off more than 300 employees at Smith Reynolds Airport last March, far fewer customers populated the seats of Malone’s, instigating a shake-up in operations and a change of name.

Irvin Williams, a private chef who runs Nola Catering and has appeared on Food Network shows like “Cutthroat Kitchen” and “Chopped,” stepped in as a volunteer mentor, training cooks for consistency with the new menu.

It seems inherently dishonest to call most soul food healthy, but compared to similar restaurants, the Taste is notably clean and relatively health conscious. Head Chef Steve Waddell, previously part-owner of Simply Soul, doesn’t saturate his cooking with undue salt or sugar, allowing subtle flavors to hold their own. The warmly-spiced yams, for instance, are enjoyable because of the dish’s simplicity and remarkably consistent texture. It’s exactly the type of side I want to warm my soul in the winter months, and one that won’t cause a sugar crash later in the day.

The menu isn’t all Williams and Waddell, though. The cafeteria’ combination of white cabbage and greens is dubbed the “South Carolina mix” in recognition of a regular customer from the other Carolina who repeatedly asked for the combination. Even if you don’t love cabbage as much as I do, it’s undeniable that the combo lends to a more nuanced visual and textural experience. (Taste chefs boil the greens with smoked turkey, by the way.)

Lightly-breaded whiting fish filets are perfectly fried upon order and take a little less time than the pork or chicken (Taste offers a choice between dark and light meat.) Devon and I didn’t sample the pork, but agreed that the breading is light and doesn’t leave you feeling greasy.

If you’re not in the mood for something fried, you can choose from a slew of other meat options like liver and onions, ribs, Salisbury steak and meatloaf. The chicken salad is a lunchtime favorite. Chicken & dumplings aren’t easy on the eyes but certainly satisfy the palette, particularly for fans of chicken pot pie who are willing to go crustless.

Coffee and sodas are available to wash it all down, but most customers request the lead cashier and waitress Shanieke’s “homemade” sweet tea. Among all that is sweet to eat, Devon and I only found room to try Ms. Rudy’s lemon meringue cake, which was a little dry but still fluffy and flavorful. I’m not an icing person, so it means something for me to endorse her bold, lemony rendering that bypassed the vulgar sweetness of most icings. Other desserts include sweet-potato pie, pecan pie, peach cobbler, banana pudding and pound cake. One day.

Beside the kitchen’s restrained preparation, Taste is attractive because it’s considerably less expensive than downtown favorites Sweet Potatoes and Mozelle’s and, frankly, better quality than some of the other Triad soul-food joints we’ve visited.

Visit Taste of the Triad at 4320 Old Walkertown Road and learn more at tasteofthetriad.com

The restaurant will begin to experiment with breakfast on Jan. 20, and more evening events with DJs, poetry readings and opportunities to mix with featured artists, the latter in the hopes of drawing in a younger crowd.

Regardless, Taste of the Triad is welcoming, wallet-friendly and — most importantly — authentic in its execution of traditional comfort foods. Whether or not the venture triumphs will largely rely on the practical matters of filling its long, red, leather booths and expanding the catering side of the business.

As the likeness of Maya Angelou watches over the front seating area with lines from her poem, “Still, I Rise” on the adjacent wall, maybe, from the dust of costly renovations and controversies, Taste of the Triad will rise.

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