Carmi's food warms the soul, satisfies the body
Mike and Carleen King didn't intend to open a restaurant, but when they needed a larger kitchen for their catering business six years ago, the couple known as the Catering Kings found a ready-made spot on the North Side.
They christened their Western Avenue eatery Carmi Soul Food Restaurant, a destination featuring such southern classics as fried chicken smothered in homemade gravy or grilled and coated in barbecue sauce, shrimp and grits, smoked pork ribs, sweet potato fries, cornbread stuffing and candied yams.
“We started with a general menu like our catering menu and over time found that what people wanted most were the soul foods,” says Carleen, who left a job in corporate communications to run the restaurant full time. “We found our niche.”
Mike, 45, and a graduate of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, grew up in his father's restaurant, Rib and Chicken King, near Crafton, and spent much of his career with Darden Restaurants, a corporation that owns The Capital Grille, Longhorn Steakhouse, The Olive Garden and other brands.
Although Mike does most of the cooking, Carleen says, “When I'm not busy with the front end, I get into the kitchen to play.” The couple collaborates on the menu, using family recipes for inspiration. “We specialize in the foods we grew up with,” says Carleen. “This is authentic soul food. It's good home-style cooking.”
Carmi is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Waffles, grits and other staples appear on the menu for all three meals. Lunch and dinner offerings are similar and Carmi specialties, like the fried, stuffed pork chops with gravy, and shrimp with Cajun-spiced cheddar grits, are available all day.
“The great thing about grits is how flexible they are,” says Carleen. “They're kind of a blank palate when it comes to flavor, so you can add cheese or seasonings and use them for every meal.”
Mike makes his own rubs by grinding and blending a variety of spices, and his barbecue sauce is a tomato-based concoction that gets its sweetness from honey and brown sugar and its bite from Cayenne pepper, Carleen says.
Sandwiches range from the catfish or shrimp po'boy to Cajun-spiced chicken, and salads come with choice of proteins, including steak. “Our chicken and dumpling soup is a big seller,” says Carleen. “We probably sell five gallons a day.”
Although desserts aren't listed on the menu, homemade pound cake, sweet potato pie and banana pudding are typically offered.
Cornbread dressing is a soul food staple and quick and easy to make, Carleen says. “You can use it to stuff a turkey or serve it right out of the pan. You don't need to bake it, but you can if you want a crusty top.”
As a substitute for any other starchy side, it works well with most proteins, ranging from chicken to fish, she says. “You can also tailor it by adding things like raisins, oysters or crabmeat. In fact, you can make delicious crab cakes by combining crabmeat with leftover stuffing.”
Jiffy or any other boxed cornbread mix is fine, and so too, is canned chicken broth, although homemade broth and pan drippings will impart a richer flavor, Carleen says. “If you're roasting a turkey, use the pan drippings instead of broth, or make a broth by boiling the innards — the liver, gizzard, heart and neck.”
½ cup butter
½ cup celery, medium-diced
½ cup onion, medium-diced
½ cup green pepper, medium-diced
1 Tbsp chopped garlic
2 Tbsp chopped parsley
8 cups cooked cornbread, crushed fine
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. poultry seasoning
½ tsp. salt
1 cup hot chicken broth
In a sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat, add celery, onion, green pepper and garlic and sauté until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add parsley and continue sauteeing for about 1 minute more. Remove the vegetable mix from the heat. In a large mixing bowl, add the crushed cornbread, the sautéed vegetable mix, the chicken broth, salt, pepper and poultry seasoning and mix well. Serve warm by itself or with your favorite gravy. If a crusty top is desired, put mixture into casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.
Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.