Ethnic restaurants are a part of our present-day culture.
We are all familiar with restaurants that specialize in Hungarian, Chinese, Greek, Mexican, and food from other cultures. There’s one ethnic food that has African roots, but it’s become associated with African-American culture today.
Soul food, which became a part of America’s pop culture in the 1960s, has come a long ways from its roots in Africa. But a new business owner is introducing soul food to East Toledo.
Six months ago, J.R. McCardell and his family opened Serenity Family Soul Food Restaurant at the former location of O’Malley’s Pub at the corner of Woodville Road and East Broadway.
“Our food is good down to your soul...,” is the restaurant’s motto, and McCardell stands behind that.
“It’s just something that has stuck with us ever since we’ve been from down South,” McCardell said. “Like my Mom — it’s just stuff that’s from her recipes. I guess with a lot of our food we have our own recipes. The thing is in us just knowing how to do it — knowing how to make that fried chicken taste good, you know — taste unlike other fried chicken you have tasted. Oh yes, it’s very, very good (laughing).”
On the menu is Southern cuisine, including fried okra, fried chicken, fried fish, and fried shrimp. Desserts include sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. Much of the menu sounds like food Redd Foxx’s character, Fred Sanford, would have worked up on the television show “Sanford and Son.”
“We got into it because we are from the South, and we just wanted to do something on this side of town to accommodate all people,” McCardell said.
“So, we’ve tried to do something to accommodate every nationality of people. So, one day we were just thinking a Soul food restaurant in the East Side was missing. It was something that in Toledo wasn’t really popular, period.”
McCardell hopes soul food will become popular here as restaurant food, and not just as food cooked and eaten in homes. He wants it to become part of Toledo’s restaurant culture. But the whole idea started in McCardell’s home — in his kitchen.
“One day I was at home and I made a hamburger. It was so good the way I made it I said, ‘Wow, I’ve got to sell this thing.’ Then, I said I can’t sell it from my house because of tax reasons, so I said, ‘I’m just going to try and open up something,” McCardell said.
“Then I made some chicken, I made some fish. I just made myself a whole meal. They often say that if you do all the cooking at home, then you rarely eat your own food. But at this particular time I ate my own food, so I said, ‘I need to let people taste this.’ Then I said, ‘Well, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to open up a restaurant.’”
McCardell searched for a building, and after meeting with the owner at 932 Woodville Road, he knew he’d found his location. After renovating, Serenity Family Soul Food was open for business.
“One reason we opened is because there is one main thing people like to do, and that is eat. No matter how bad the economy gets, you still have to eat,” McCardell said.
McCardell is assisted by friends, his wife, children, and sister. He also has had help from other extended family members. McCardell was born in Toledo, but raised in Arkansas before returning to Toledo.
“We have other family members that have restaurants out of town,” McCardell said. “We sat down and talked with them and just the real good advice that we received and the encouragement, you understand, regardless how times are, that you should go forth. You should feel that you can do it, and that has given us a boost. We had a lot of support.”
The word has gotten out, too. McCardell said he had a party of 75-100 people come down from Detroit to eat at Serenity. “That was a good day,” he said. Plus, he has regulars from the Sunoco refinery who visit.
“I’d like you to know that the food is excellent and you can smell it. I’ll tell you what, you can be riding down Woodville and you can smell it before you get to the building,” McCardell continues. “It’s like that deep fried fish, that deep fried chicken and pork chops, pork chops and gravy. It’s making me hungry.”
Fish that Serenity specializes in include tilapia, white bass, buffalo, perch, catfish, and more. But for those who don’t want soul food, there are other ethnic foods, including gyros with real lamb, chili cheese fries, and chili dogs.
“We specialize in dressing, turkey, macaroni and cheese, canned yam, cornbread, green beans and all the good stuff cooked the old fashioned way made from scratch,” McCardell said.
“We also cook foods like hamburgers — we specialize in hamburgers called the New Seasons burger. That’s a burger that I’m not going to tell you how it’s made, it’s just that you have to try it. It’s most definitely a different burger.”