“Let’s just change the narrative of soul food,” said Karter Louis, former musician and restaurateur. After nearly three decades and six brands, Lewis opened his newest venture, Soul Slice, on June 19 in Oakland, a date chosen to honor the Juneteenth holiday and the roots of soul food. Since then, the restaurant has already gained attention for its menu of unique, biscuit crust “pizzas,” topped with Southern-style foods like black-eyed peas and hot links.
5849 San Pablo Ave (at 59th Street), Oakland
At first glance, Soul Slice’s menu is intimidating and adventurous, a wide selection of traditional soul foods all served in pizza form. For anyone who grew up on traditional soul food, the presentation seems downright sacrilegious. But while Soul Slice uses the word “pizza” on its menu, Louis told Nosh that “We play in the genre of pizza but it is not pizza. It is basically soul food on an open face biscuit with soul food ingredients.”
The preparation of Soul Slice’s vegan-friendly biscuit crust is one big difference between its offerings and Italian-style pies. The crust contains no butter, is not spun or twirled and doesn’t contain traditional elements of pizza dough, Louis said. And while there are five pies that have a tomato sauce base, Louis says that none of them use oregano or any other Italian seasonings in the flavor profile.
“The tomato sauce is not to mimic the sauce of Italian [pizza]. If you taste it, it’s a little bit sweet” Louis said. “Our tomato sauce carried all the flavors of the ingredients on the biscuit crust.”
The most gutsy pie might be Soul Slice’s black-eyed peas pizza, which contains slightly crunchy but meaty black-eyed peas, the sweetness of sweet potato, and savory roasted garlic, green onion, alpine cheese and (for acidity) tomato sauce. Less the alpine cheese, Louis said, the BEP is a vegan pie.
“Black eyed peas on a biscuit crust actually taste like meat,” said Louis. “It’s kind of hard to wrap your brain around. Even I thought someone put meat on it. It was captivating to me.” It’s Soul Slice’s second best selling pie, Louis said.
Soul Slice’s best seller is its Cajun shrimp pizza, which is topped with Cajun shrimp, beef hot links, tomato, green onion, pickled peppers and tomato sauce. The standout element here is the all-beef hot link instead of the pork links one might expect on a traditional soul food menu.
“I wanted different expressions of proteins on the menu,” Louis said. He chose a beef hot link for this particular pie to honor some of his Muslim family members, as well as other folks who eschew pork. It’s also a nod to his roots in Louisville, Kentucky, where beef hot links are more prevalent. “It gives more variance … and I try to be inclusive on the menu.”
There’s even a pizza form of dessert at Soul Slice, a peach cobbler topped with a single large marshmallow, served on that biscuit crust with a dollop of non-dairy ice cream.
But though Soul Slice’s focus is on “biscuit crust with soul food toppings,” as Lewis puts it, there are also selections on the menu that are presented on their own. Consider the Hoppin’ John, a hearty and vegan dish of pressure-cooked black eyed peas, chives, garlic, onions and Carolina Gold’s rice. The term “Hoppin’ John” refers to a story in one of the earliest American cookbooks, “The Carolina Housewife, 1847” in which a man named John “came a-hoppin” when the dish was prepared. “There are so many ways to use black eyed peas and I think it’s one of the star ingredients of our menu,” Louis said of the dish, which he says is an underutilized day-to-day food beyond the Southern tradition of serving BEPs as a New Year’s day meal.
There’s also a play on salmon croquettes, only this time it’s a catfish croquette, a patty of fresh tender catfish and potato served with “soul sauce,” for a spike of heat. “In our house it was made with mackerel,” said Louis “In Kentucky, it was never made with salmon.” The dish is plated with al dente garlic collard greens and roasted sweet potatoes.
Washing down your tastings on tap at Soul Slice are brews from Oakland’s Federation Brewery and the Bay Area’s first Black-owned beer company, Hunter’s Point Brewing. Louis says that his goal is to ensure that much of Soul Slice’s drink list is from Black and brown-owned alcohol producers. “We have an opportunity to present products that are made by Black and brown people that actually makes it more accessible,” Louis said including Chardonnay from the first Black-owned winemaker in California, House of Brown, and red blend wine from Black winemaker Danny Glover of Healdsburg-based L’Objet Wines.
All of this is a big departure for Louis, who was an operating partner in San Francisco mini-tea chain Samovar before founding the now-shuttered Appalachian-style restaurant Hillbilly Tea in his former hometown. “I’ve done all these restaurants, I love food, but how does it really connect to me?” Louis said of his previous ventures. In many ways, Soul Slice is an attempt to bring all those Bay Area-meets-Louisville threads together.
What’s being cultivated at Soul Slice is an offering that pushes its customers out of their comfort zone while still honoring traditional elements in soul food. “Soul Slice is non-pretentious and celebrates the heritage of soul food in a very progressive and modern way,” said Louis. “Basically to give glory and honor to a cooking that is not focused on as much and doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves.”
Soul Slice is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 3 p.m.- 9 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.