Good for the Soul

Southern traditions get a healthier spin on Detroit’s east side
Detroit Soul Turkey Wings
Turkey wings with yams and green beans. Meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and stewed collard greens in back.

With salt, fat, and sugar as additives central to Southern cooking, soul food has long carried connotations of being unhealthy. At Detroit Soul on the city’s east side, owners Sam Van Buren and Jerome Brown are working to change that.

The restaurant, which stands off the corner of Harned Street and East Eight Mile Road, is run and operated by Van Buren and Brown along with their wives, Doreen and Yovonda. Detroit natives, both men are the descendents of parents and grandparents who relocated from Selma, Alabama, during the Great Migration between the 1940s and 1950s, bringing with them recipes that became the basis for Detroit Soul’s menu. Only their versions have been tweaked with healthier ingredients while maintaining the signature flavor, comfort, and nostalgia that defines soul food. “When Grandma cooked collard greens, she used salted pork and ham hocks,” Van Buren says. “We use smoked turkey as a healthier alternative.”

It’s a counter service restaurant with daily offerings of combination meals, sides, and desserts, and weekly specials like fried fish on Fridays, and BBQ dinners on Saturdays. Combination plates feature a range of meat options, such as fried or baked chicken, smothered pork chops, or baked turkey wings — vegetable oil is used in place of lard for fried dishes. Among several side options are candied yams, baked or pinto beans, macaroni and cheese, rice, green beans, collard greens, and cabbage.

Brown, left, and Van Buren

I visited the restaurant on a Thursday evening and ordered a turkey wing dinner with green beans and yams. The green beans were tender and seasoned with fresh onion and garlic, and some of that smoked turkey flavor Van Buren mentioned — not overpowering, but just enough to round out the dish. And while yams have a tendency to be so sugary they often tip into dessert territory, that wasn’t the case. The yams at Detroit Soul are sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds, boiled in water, and baked with cinnamon, butter, and just enough sugar to enhance the natural sweetness of the potatoes.

The owners tell me that before the turkey wings can reach the plate, they undergo a three-hour baking process. While cooking, the turkey creates its own juice, which is used as the base of a savory broth. Onion, garlic, and bell peppers are added to the juice, creating a umami flavor. Ultimately, it’s the broth that gives the turkey wings their rich flavor profile and moisture.

Cornbread, a staple in Southern homes, is the focus of one of those long-standing culinary debates. There are diehard fans of the Southern inspired cornbread — sweet and cake-like texture — while others prefer the Yankee (or Northern-inspired) version — savory with a crumbly texture. Detroit Soul offers a Northern-style version. “Most Southerners love really sweet cornbread,” Van Buren says. “I don’t particularly like sweet cornbread. I wanted to distinguish the difference between cake and cornbread.” While I’m on team Southern-style, I’ll admit that Detroit Soul’s version is the perfect prop for soaking up all that flavorful turkey juice.

2900 E. Eight Mile Rd., Detroit; 313-366-5600; L & D Tues-Sun.