Located in a former Popeye’s set amid a highway strip mall, Porter Soul Food is dishing up Southern classics and beating the odds that come with being a Black-owned restaurant on the Eastern Shore.
After opening in January 2020, it had to operate as a carryout only during some of its earliest months in operation due to COVID. That might have doomed any new business, but the surrounding community in Cambridge embraced the restaurant. Online reviews reflect the cult-like status the restaurant has built in under two years.
“Can’t wait to return to one of our favorite restaurants in the country.”
“Best catfish on the East coast!!”
Other draws for their customers include fall-off-the-bone turkey wings and oxtail smothered in gravy. And of course, there are fresh cooked collard greens and macaroni and cheese, made just the way co-owner Cynthia Porter grew up eating them.
In the kitchen, her husband, Rod Porter, cooks up turkey wings, pigs’ feet and North Carolina-style barbecue. The restaurant’s tagline is “Southern food with an attitude,” which Rod says reflects the generous seasonings that go into every dish, be it candied yams or catfish.
The Porters married in 2010 after meeting in North Carolina, where Rod is originally from. They returned to Cambridge, where Cynthia is pastor at one of the area’s largest Black churches, and Rod is an elder and co-pastor.
In some ways, the restaurant has become an outgrowth of their ministry.
“People call this ‘church,’” said Cynthia. If someone comes in seeming distraught, she has been known to take them aside. “Do you mind if I pray with you?” she said. “They’re so grateful.”
For Black customers, soul food restaurants offer “a taste of home and memory” said soul food scholar Adrian Miller, a James Beard award recipient. Soul food staples like collards have roots in the cooking of enslaved people and combine the traditions of multiple continents — from West Africa to Europe and the Americas.
Beyond sustenance, soul food restaurants also serve an important social purpose, providing a haven for Black customers, said Miller.
Many guests stop by Porter Soul after a visit to the Harriet Tubman Museum, devoted to Dorchester County’s most famous resident. Born into slavery as Araminta Ross, she led family and friends on daring escapes North. Today, Dorchester County is around 29% Black and its residents include some of Tubman’s distant relatives.
The pandemic shuttered Minty’s Place, one of the only other Black-owned restaurants in Cambridge and named in honor of Tubman. Owner Teresa Lamar, who grew up on the lower Eastern Shore, says she has been struggling to find the staff to get restarted but hopes to reopen next spring.
The small number of Black-owned restaurants in the area speaks to some of the structural racism Black people face in Cambridge and beyond. Lamar calls the historic port city along the Choptank River “a growing, thriving area that is trying to catch up with the world in some ways.”
She notes that while the majority of her customers are white, some people haven’t been has been tolerant. “I’m not there to fight, I’m there to bring a community together,” she said.
Randy Potter, president of the Delmarva Minority Business Coalition, noted that there are multiple Black-owned caterers in Cambridge, but very few Black-owned restaurants. “You’ve got to have a place to put your business,” he said, adding that some would-be entrepreneurs lack knowledge about what’s needed to start a business, or have trouble getting loans.
Potter’s group, which falls under the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce, hosts free networking events for minority entrepreneurs and lectures on topics from cryptocurrency to starting a business. And he sees signs of progress, including another Black-owned restaurant, ArtBar2.0, that is set to open soon in historic Cambridge next to the Tubman museum.
Customers’ enthusiasm for Porter Soul Food reflects, in part, just how long it’s been since there was a soul food restaurant like this in Cambridge. “It’s long overdue,” said customer Gloria Woolford, who lives a few blocks away from the eatery.
The Porters have become a surrogate family for Jessica Heath, 44, who was a regular customer after the restaurant opened and asked for a job as a server this summer. “They’re all I have.”
She and other employees of the restaurant call the Porters “Mom” and “Dad,” although neither Cynthia or Rod would reveal their ages.
Cook Pat Gray, 77, had retired from her job in the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis before joining the team at Porter Soul. (Before the Academy, she was a cook at the White House during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.) But she grew “tired of sitting at home,” she says.
During a recent visit, construction workers Mike Dashiell and Jerome Holbrook stopped by to pick up lunch. Though they live in Salisbury, they work in Cambridge and stop by every day that the restaurant is open. “I try a little bit of everything,’ said Dashiell. He even comes with his wife on his days off.
Angela Riley of Parkville came with a group of friends from Baltimore. “It didn’t disappoint,” she said.
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A sign outside cautions diners that the restaurant is not a fast-food joint. Meals are cooked to order and can take time to come out. Woolford, 75, sat a booth as the cooks at Porter Soul Food prepared her lunch order. “It’s worth the wait,” she said.