Food Like Your Southern Mama Made
Good ole down-home southern cooking has come to the District with the opening of chef Lance London’s The Carolina Kitchen in the new Rhode Island Row at 2350 Washington Place NE in Brentwood, between the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station and Rhode Island Plaza with Giant, TJ Maxx and Home Depot.
The restaurant’s newest 6,000 square-foot location opened Mar. 13, joining other locations in Hyattsville and Largo.
Tom Mulhern of 2 Scales Interiors designed the contemporary-country themed space. The Carolina Kitchen combines traditional country-style wood paneling with swirling iron accents to create a modern-rustic interior design in yellow and burgundy. The 152-seat restaurant features a wall lined with vintage whiskey bottles guiding patrons up the stairs to the second floor King Kong overlooking the space, which accommodates an additional 40 guests for private events.
In front of the open kitchen are stacks of industrial-sized Campbell’s soup cans, a nod to London’s love of Andy Warhol. In one corner of the casual dining room are framed posters of jazz artists. In another section, there is a selection of carousel horses. Here a display of clocks, there a collection of musical instruments. Upstairs in the King Kong room, there’s an illuminated vintage city skyline along the wall and a classic model car collection in a custom glass display.
Carolina Kitchen offers both carry-out and sit-down service. The grab-and-go section is a cafeteria line at the front of the open kitchen. Go through the queue, tell the servers what you want and pay at the end of the line. If you’re not in a hurry, you can dine in one of three dining rooms. The more casual front dining room, the more formal “tunnel” dining room with a curved ceiling and glowing floor-to-ceiling yellow lights or the upstairs King Kong room. There’s also a small bar beside the tunnel room.
Guests, whether in person or on the phone, are greeted with “Welcome, welcome, welcome!” a phrase you’ll hear over and over during your meal. The greeting goes back to the original Silver Spring restaurant, which opened in 1996 but is now closed. Faced with overwhelming crowds coming in with coupons London had distributed in advance, he found it a way to calm his nerves and contain the chaos. His crew picked up on it, and the cry stuck.
London, who was born in Washington but raised in North Carolina, learned how to cook from his grandmother, Ma Pearl. Her recipes inspired the menu at Carolina Kitchen. Each meal starts with The Carolina Kitchen’s honey butter cornbread muffins, which are tasty and moist and some of the best cornbread I’ve had sprinkled with cinnamon.
After three visits to the restaurant with different people, no one had a meal they didn’t like. Entrées like the seafood platter with a southern fried (breaded) lobster tail, crab bites (crab balls), country fried oysters, grilled jerk wings, sweet and spicy Thai chili wings, firecracker shrimp and country friend croaker; the Creole grilled salmon with a New Orleans-style cream sauce, lump crab meat and grilled shrimp over garlic mashed potatoes; Mom’s meatloaf; Mama’s stewed chicken over rice with grilled vegetables; smothered chicken over rice covered in gravy; spicy chicken chunks over rice in a sweet and spicy sauce; and the BBQ beef short ribs. Most dishes come with two home-style sides including some of the best macaroni and cheese in the area, garlic mashed potatoes, baked beans, collard greens, black-eyed peas, buttered cabbage, candied yams, string beans, corn, cinnamon apples, potato salad, coleslaw, mixed vegetables or rice pilaf.
Appetizers include crab claws, pan fried asparagus hand-breaded with parmesan cheese with spicy Creole dipping sauce; five flavors of Rocky Mount wings, southern fried lobster tail hand-breaded with dipping sauce; and fried green tomatoes, although the fried green tomatoes are a bit pricey at $11 for four slices.
The restaurant also has homemade southern desserts such as banana pudding with fresh bananas topped with whipped cream and vanilla wafers; Granny’s sweet potato pie, red velvet cake and peach, apple and blueberry cobblers. The desserts we sampled were passable, but a better bet for dessert are the milkshakes, which were delicious. The banana pudding and sweet potato pie milkshakes were both excellent and tasted like their namesakes. And any milkshake can be turned into an adult beverage with the addition of alcohol.
One complaint is that many of the dishes are overly sweet. We had to mix the house-made half iced tea-half lemonade with water to cut the sweetness. The blackberry cobbler and the red velvet cake were also too sweet. Even the BBQ sauce on Mom’s meatloaf and the firecracker sauce on the shrimp were sugary.
One southern trait I could have done without was the slowness. I know the stereotype is that people down South aren’t in a hurry, but service from getting seated to getting food out of the kitchen was too slow (and there were several empty tables near the host stand). Pluses include the friendly service and the large portions. On two of my three visits, we took leftovers home – enough for lunch the next day.
The Carolina Kitchen is open from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.