In Hell’s Kitchen, Zora’s Café Rethinks Soul Food

Through creative use of spices, alternative flours and plant-based fats, specialties like fried green tomatoes and collard greens are as satisfying as the classics.

Linda Browne knew Hell’s Kitchen was ripe for a soul food spot. The Maryland native with Mississippi roots has lived in the neighborhood for four years, and whenever she craved a taste of the fried chicken, collard greens and red beans she grew up with, she’d have to go down to Brooklyn or up to Harlem. That’s how Zora’s Café—named for her business partner and daughter, Zora—was born at the start of August.

Not just the location is setting the restaurant apart from other soul food restaurants. Inspired by her background as a U.S. Air Force physician, Linda wanted to offer some healthier takes on the historic dishes. “Traditionally, soul food has been kind of fatty, had a lot of calories, so I said, ‘How can we kind of adjust so that it still tastes as good, but the calories are less and it doesn’t hurt your cholesterol?’” she told me. “So we said, ‘Let’s have some vegan options.’”

That’s why you can order the collard greens without pork, and the red beans are intensely flavorful without any animal fats. Gluten-free folks can also eat with abandon here: The fried green tomatoes, catfish, baked chicken and Southern potato salad are all made without wheat. Chef Eugene McCall Jr. has succeeded in creating these dishes without dumbing them down at all; through creative use of spices, alternative flours and plant-based fats, these are as satisfying as the classics. It was his idea to make the collard greens vegan on the menu, with pork a last-minute addition for those who crave it.

“We didn’t want to leave anyone out,” she says, and it seems they’ve succeeded in creating a place that you can return to again and again. If you ask Linda what her favorite dish is, though, it’s still the buttermilk-soaked fried chicken. Not all traditions can be tampered with.

Photos by Michael Tulipan

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Alicia Kennedy is a Long Island–born, Brooklyn-based food writer and recipe developer.