POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 25, 2010
I think a lot of people were surprised when Sean Priester left his long-standing, lofty perch at The Top of Waikiki to roll out his lunchwagon Soul Patrol.
There was more to it than Southern soul food; Soul Patrol started as a mission to help nurture and feed hungry and homeless souls in Waianae a few days a week, and soon afterward, took on a life of its own.
Once lunch crowds got a taste of his honey-topped cornbread, fried chicken and jambalaya, there came requests for him to put down some permanent roots, and the lunchwagon proved to be just a pit stop en route to finding a home at the base of Waialae and St. Louis Heights.
These days, the Soul Patrol truck still makes the occasional guest appearance at community events (for locations, follow @pacificsoul on Twitter.com), but with two babies on his hands, Soul restaurant, and a newborn daughter, Priester has a lot to juggle.
Even so, those who see him at the restaurant will find him to be ever warm and gracious, and ready to talk about food.
The restaurant occupies humble quarters, with a couple of tables outside if you don't mind next-door shave-ice seekers hovering over you. Don't get too comfy when you're seated because you'll have to stand up again when placing your order at the outdoor counter. It will take time to make your decision, though. How do you choose from such soulful favorites as buttermilk-fried chicken and chili ($12) and crabcake po' boys ($14)?
That's not to say it's strictly Louisiana style, which has its limitations. Priester has been in the islands too long for that, and injects his recipes with what he calls "aloha and spice." So, you may find a dice of daikon in his Sassy Southern Vegetarian Chili ($12), probably unlike any other chili you've had, made with black-eyed peas and only a modicum of spice. (It's good for vegetarians, but typical chili fans might look elsewhere.) Or, order the gumbo, accented with sweet potato and slices of spicy Kukui Portuguese sausage ($14).
Ordering jambalaya always gives me pause. The name is more exotic than what the rice dish delivers, even when in New Orleans. I typically end up disappointed. Not here, however. Soul's flavorful jambalaya ($20), or Creole paella, is generous with its layer of shrimp atop rice shot through with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and seasonings, plus chunks of chicken and sausage.
This turned out to be my favorite dish ... on this particular day, anyway. On another day, it might be Priester's fried chicken, plain and simple, served with buttermilk cilantro cole slaw, cornbread and Ma'o Farms collard greens.
Oh, wait. Then there's the irresistible combination of mac-and-feta cheese with cornbread au gratin ($7/$11 with crab meat), piled so high it was oozing over the side of the dish. For all the cheese flavor, the crab presence is negligible in the upgrade version, so I'd stick with the plain if you need to save money. If not, go for it.
No doubt Priester will be adding more local-inspired specials with time. For starters, in addition to crabcake and catfish po' boys, you can also get a kalbi-braised short-rib po' boy with creamy kim chee ($16), heavy on sweet-soy sauce flavor and studded with sesame seeds. Wrangling the sandwiches can get messy, so make sure you're prepared with plenty of napkins.
One of the best days to drop in is Sunday, when it's a little slower in the evening, and you can take advantage of an all-day Sunday brunch menu. That means additional options such as Crab Cake Benedict with seasonal Kaimuki mango hollandaise ($14), chorizo scrambled eggs with the Sassy Southern Vegetarian Chili sauce ($12), or Southern-spiced sweet potato pancakes with bananas and maple butter ($8), which is something I'll have to try next.
You're welcome to bring your own bottles, and if not, there's Southern sweet iced tea ($2), which is not quite as sweet as that served Panhandle-Arkansas way, where one of my exes is from.
I was asked if I wanted dessert, but the tea already fit the bill, and besides, I told our server, I just needed to polish off the cornbread that comes with most plates. Sure enough, when I looked at the menu, there was cornbread as a dessert special as well, this time topped with butter pecan-mac nut ice cream ($7).
The experience was good for my soul, and multiplied over hundreds of diners weekly, that's got to be good for Priester's spirit as well.