Green Soul plays fast, casual and healthy with soul food

    This just in: There is no way to make a healthy mac ‘n’ cheese. I learned this from Akil Collins, co-owner of Green Soul restaurant in the 7100 block of Ogontz Ave.

    Green Soul is what those in the restaurant business like to call a fast casual dining establishment. It’s devoted to preparing healthy versions of soul-food favorites in an environmentally conscious way. Collins says the goal is to be “a catalyst for better eating in the neighborhood.” So when he tells me that there’s no way to make a healthy mac ‘n’ cheese, I have to take him seriously. This does not mean, however, that I have to like it.

    Green Soul opened its doors for the first time right before this year’s West Oak Lane Jazz Festival with a menu well-researched and planned by executive chefs Al Paris and Benjamin Bynum. If the Bynum name sounds familiar, it’s probably because brothers Robert and Benjamin are behind some of the more successful restaurants in the city including Relish, Warmdaddy’s and the now closed Zanzibar Blue.

    The current Green Soul menu contains familiar soul-food items like collard greens, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. The collards are made without the usual smoked meats which can increase fat and sodium, while the cobbler is prepared with Greek yogurt and a granola crumble on top — both low fat alternatives to more traditional recipes which call for sizable amounts of sugar and butter.

     

    Not a cobbler gobbler

    “I’m not a peach cobbler type person,” admits Collins, who assures me that customers love the cobbler. In fact, it’s one of their more popular desserts.

    As for myself, I am starting to not like this guy. First, he ruins my dream of a nutritious, tummy-trimming mac ‘n’ cheese. Then, he rains on my parade by telling me he’s not into cobbler. Next thing you know, he’ll be telling me that unicorns aren’t real.

    I just can’t let this mac ‘n’ cheese thing go. I am mentally caught in its gooey, cheesy snare, compelled by its mouth-watering goodness that never fails to elicit a guttural, Homer-Simpson-like moan from the depths of my throat. How, in a menu that boasts a healthy peach cobbler, can there not be a healthy mac ‘n’ cheese? It’s a soul-food staple for crying out loud!

     

    A neighborhood of foodies

    It turns out that several of Green Soul’s customers wondered the same thing. This being West Oak Lane, they did not hesitate in bringing this to Collins’s attention.

    What people don’t know about this neighborhood is that it’s choc full of foodies. I don’t mean those new jack foodies on the Food Network who will politely say things like “this ganache is way too granular.” I’m talking about OG foodies who will flat out tell you to check your ganache before you wreck your ganache. They aren’t shy when it comes to pointing out what’s missing from your menu. They are involved in their local restaurants.

    So, when Green Soul got called out for not having mac ‘n’ cheese, the chefs went back to the kitchen to experiment. They tried a number of combinations and healthy substitutions but the end result wasn’t up to par. “But what about cottage cheese?” I wail. Like cottage cheese just goes around saving high fat foods everywhere. Like you could just slap some on a Big Mac and it would suddenly have the nutritional value of tofu.

     

    Mac gets the knife

    This doesn’t merit a response from Collins and, in my heart of hearts, I know why. In theory you could make mac ‘n’ cheese with cottage cheese but in flavor, it would be a sad affair.

    It all boils down to Green Soul suffering from a case of flavor integrity.

    When it comes to the choice between a gross, low-fat mac ‘n’ cheese and a delicious one that’s bad for you, the choice is clear; the dish simply doesn’t make the menu. Instead, patrons have to make do with specialties like a mango jerk salmon salad so good that, according to Collins, “customers order them two at a time” and a turkey chili with tender pulled turkey that has garnered quite a following.

    I’ve had the Barbecue Black Bean Veggie Burger and Green Soul Chopped Salad featuring black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, and cheese over romaine lettuce with a roasted Vidalia vinaigrette.

    I’m not a huge Veggie Burger fan in general, but this one passed muster. It was well-seasoned and the barbecue sauce was applied with a light touch so that it didn’t overwhelm the sandwich as a whole. As for the salad, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The ingredients were crisp, fresh and inventive, and the Vidalia vinaigrette was a tangy delight.

     

    An apple a day

    Green Soul prides itself on getting fresh produce delivered daily from local farms, for which the shiny green Granny Smith apple served with every meal serves as a reminder. It’s also symbolic of their pledge to customers.

    It’s a pledge to provide an affordable fast-food alternative to places like McDonald’s. So far, the restaurant is living up to its intention to the point that I can almost forgive them for crushing my mac ‘n’ cheese dreams.

    Green Soul is located at 7169 Ogontz Avenue in Philadelphia, 19138. It’s open Mon. – Sat 12 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call 215-924-4200 or visit www.GreenSoulLiving.com for more information.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.