The last time we checked in with Columbia City’s Island Soul was in 2009, when the Caribbean/soul food restaurant moved from Judkins Park to Columbia City. Only a few things have changed in the intervening years. After a bar was added, the name changed to Island Soul Rum Bar & Soul Shack. Plus, owner Theo Martin says his son Bryce and daughter Caitlyn have “put their own spin on it.”
Caitlyn works the front of the house while Bryce oversees the buying and food costs. Martin says he still does catering but mostly gets to “stand back and watch them run the restaurant.”
Otherwise, the sunny yellow restaurant bustles with people wolfing down rich gumbo, jerk chicken, seafood curry and other Caribbean/soul-food dishes, still made by chef Bobby Laing, who’s been with the restaurant for 15 years.
Martin says he thinks people come back (and bring their friends) partially because he serves healthful soul and island food that you can eat every day, but also because “it’s never a second guess.”
Many of Martin’s customers are regulars who love the menu so much Martin thinks he would have to “close down” if he ever changed it.
One of those regulars is Kim Kogane, whom I met for lunch at Island Soul a few weeks ago. Kogane is the owner of Fresh Tangerine, a jewelry shop with locations in Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill. She’s also a total foodie, constantly on the hunt for her next favorite restaurant. The day we meet is Kogane’s third visit to the restaurant that week.
Kogane lives just down the street from Island Soul. She says she stumbled upon the restaurant shortly after she moved from Pioneer Square to Columbia City in 2018 and was exploring her new neighborhood to find restaurants that felt community-driven.
“When you come here, it’s a small serving staff; you see the same people. There’s a lot of regulars that come here and the food is just really good,” Kogane says.
Her favorite dishes include the oxtail stew, vatapa (a stew with Afro-Brazilian roots) with snapper and prawns, and the seafood fritters — which are unfortunately only available for dinner. (Don’t ask for them at lunch. I tried.)
If the weather is going to be as terrible as predicted these next few weeks, ordering either that oxtail stew ($19) or the vatapa ($17) are prescriptive.
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The oxtail stew is one of the signature items on Island Soul’s menu. Martin says it’s so popular that he goes through 200-300 pounds of oxtails per week. The stew is a rich, deep brown, packed with a copious amount of flavor thanks to garlic and hot peppers. The oxtail is fork-tender, the pieces large enough for you to easily separate meat from bone. No one will care if you use your teeth to get every last bite off the bones.
The vatapa combines coconut milk with sweet chili; Brussels sprouts and greens bring a subtle bitterness alongside two hefty fillets of red snapper and a smattering of prawns.
Both dishes had the perfect amount of heat and both are served with bowls of white rice to help sop up extra sauce.
The vibe is extremely friendly. Tables are close, prompting strangers to start up conversations about favorite dishes. Martin says on Fat Tuesday he has a full-on soul-food menu with blackened catfish and crawfish étouffée. He brings in a zydeco band to add to the already convivial atmosphere.
“People go crazy for it,” he says.
Another thing to go crazy over are the desserts. Martin says he doesn’t write a specific dessert menu, it’s just whatever they feel like making. This translates to sweets like red-velvet cupcakes, rum pound cake, coconut cake or sweet-potato pie. Check the case near the kitchen to see what’s available, or ask your server.
We went for slices of the coconut cake ($6.95) and the rum pound cake ($6.95). The coconut was so rich and moist it was too heavy to sit upright — which was amazing. There was a layer of coconut frosting sandwiched between two layers of cake and more whipped coconut on the exterior. A generous shower of powdered sugar finished things off. The rum pound cake was just as good; topped with pecans and a caramel drizzle. It was deeply soaked with rum, providing great flavor.
The menu is solid, the food is consistently wonderful and the atmosphere is a warm party, on even the grayest days.
It’s why Kogane loves it here. She’s a staunch supporter of small businesses, and not just because she’s a small-business owner.
“It’s about supporting people and knowing their stories. I think it’s really important to choose to be a regular somewhere,” she says.
Are you a regular somewhere in your neighborhood? I’d love to know where and why.
BY: JACKIE VARRIANO / SEATTLE TIMES FOOD WRITER | PHOTO BY: KAT YOUNG