In a city where Black Americans are only 15 percent of the population, you wouldn’t expect it to have one of the oldest and best soul food restaurants in the country. My awful time in Oklahoma City was made far better by visiting Florence’s Restaurant, which has been serving up amazing farm to table style soul food for 70 years and is still operated by an almost ninety-year-old matriarch, Florence Kemp. Her daughter, Victoria Kemp, serves as owner and general manager.
Ms. Florence is sassy, sophisticated, intelligent, and wise. Just sitting in her presence serves as a window into the days of Black America where family values were at the center of our existence, where helping each other wasn’t a thought but a routine practice, where food was used as a beacon of community and fellowship and not simply an economic transaction. Photos of her journey and other nostalgic memorabilia chronicling its seven decades adorn the restaurant.
Ms. Florence said she learned how to cook by simply following her mother around and that they cooked tons of vegetables grown in her family’s gardens and fresh meats from animals they raised on their farm. Victoria is now a part of the business helping to modernize its service and ordering.
I am going to say this and mean every word of it. I had the BEST SOUL FOOD IN MY LIFE, and I think this is the BEST SOUL FOOD IN THE COUNTRY at this modest space! Like, who is almost 90 and has run their restaurant for 70 years? Who? She is more than likely the spiritual teacher of grandmothers all over the United States who can cook just about anybody under the damn table. There, I said it. She is YOUR grandma who can cook, spiritual culinary guide.
We started out with the cornbread, considered sacred in the homes of Black Americans even though the preparation differs depending on where you are from. Just about everyone has an opinion on how it should be made. Is it primarily sweet, or is it savory? Do you add sugar or molasses? Should you add actual corn kernels, blueberries, or even cheese? Northern cornbread is less sweet than its Southern counterpart.
Whatever cornbread you prefer, Florence’s is a one size that fits all perfectly baked cornbread muffin. It was buttery, soft, and well composed with a celestial sweet and savory balance. My pinto beans, cabbage and collard greens fought to get the most of my cornbread muffin combination. I can’t tell you which cornbread/side combination was best. THEY ALL WERE EQUALLY AMAZING, so I ate the last piece of cornbread solo to avoid having my sides feel insecure.
Speaking of sides, these are your grandmother’s, grandma’s collards. Along with the cabbage, the collards were a good type of earthy, well-seasoned, and soft yet dense and so bountiful that two more scopes with cornbread, and you’d have yourself a meatless dinner. The other sides were candy yams and mac and cheese, which is only second to Chef Eric William’s mac and cheese at Virtue in Chicago.
Ms. Florence’s Midwest version was significant since Oklahoma City’s few other Black-owned spots do NOT know how to make a good mac and cheese. Most of them were equivalent to Kraft box mac and cheese. I was really struggling so you can imagine how excited I was to experience her delicious creamy, flavorful and buttery rendition! The yams were so fresh, I thought she had her mom’s garden behind the restaurant. Each square was caramelized to perfection with a glaze that I found myself sipping like Japanese Sake!
It only made sense that this Queen mother took her world class fried chicken and rolled each piece in this yam glaze in creating her one-of-a-kind YAM FRIED CHICKEN! The best fried chicken I have had out of 445 Black owned restaurants in the nearly six years of running www.thehungryblackman.com.
Comprised of an in-house blend of herbs and spices, flowered and deep fried, this chicken is juicy, crunchy, almost crackly with a transparent crust of decadent sweet and salty mashup that had me experiencing the same type of euphoria I did while on painkillers for my tooth a couple years ago. So, that means her food is addictive like a drug. That’s crazy as hell. I’m shocked I just wrote that, but it was that serious. I could write an entire article about the YAM FRIED CHICKEN alone, which reminded me of a Black American rendition of Korean Fried Chicken.
Next was the Thanksgiving plate with roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, string beans, and mashed potatoes smothered in a white gravy. Heaven on earth. That’s all I can say. I ate this entire plate. No review sampling. No shame. I just pigged out and Momma Florence was staring at me with a “your Fat A$$ better eat all that food” look. I happily obliged her telepathic messaging.
I thought I was finished until I glanced at a neighboring table with neck bones and grilled cheese for the kids. We ordered both. I need to know why those neck bones were so goddamn delicious. I have no words. I was in a food coma. I was trying to talk to Victoria but couldn’t. I could only savor the flavors from these neck bones and perfectly cooked white rice.
After coming back to earth, I devoured the buttery grilled cheese sandwich only to have a fluffy, super soft buttermilk waffle waiting with crunchy edges, perfect for containing the syrup as I drizzled it. The fried chicken is so heavenly that pairing it with the waffle is actually now illegal in Oklahoma. Yeah, it was just too good guys.
For dessert, Momma Florence ex the last shred of respect I had for myself with her banana pudding. GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY!!! Laura Kerley would have handed over the creator title to Florence after eating just a spoonful of this custard.
I mean, Momma Florence left nothing to be imagined with the entire experience at her outstanding establishment. Each entrée complimented or outdid the previous one with the love and attention a newborn baby would receive. That’s how intentional each entrée and plate was. I pray that the good Lord continues to bless Momma Florence with long life because future generations NEED to understand what this chef is all about.
Ms. Florence’s spirits and her food reminded me of my own grandmother’s warmth and love, a memory that had me eating uncontrolled, unbothered, and happy. Florence’s Restaurant was so much more than just amazing food. It was family, culture, and community.
It is a family business with two queens taking this 70-year-old landmark to new culinary heights and feeding the likes of Kanye West to Guy Fieri with the humbleness of a grandmother simply watching her children eat her masterful culinary creations.
I say this with all sincerity, if you can get there, get there. It is by far one of the best soul food restaurants in the nation. You can visit Florence’s at 1437 NE 23rd St, Oklahoma City, OK 73111 or give them a call at (405) 427-3663.
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