On the airy eastern edges of metro Phoenix, about a 40-minute drive southeast of downtown, smack in the middle of one of the fastest-growing suburbs of the Valley, there’s Rhema Soul Cuisine in Queen Creek. Queen Creek may not immediately spring to mind when you think of first-rate soul food, but maybe it soon will.
If you are not a local to Queen Creek, the hardest thing about eating at Rhema will be finding it. There is no obvious signage, so you will have to trust that your instincts — and your GPS — have led you to the right place. One thing is almost certain, though: Whether you made the pilgrimage here from as near by as Gilbert, or as far away as Surprise, once you eat at Rhema, you probably won’t regret the effort spent to get there.
Rhema (the restaurant’s name is an allusion to the Greek word for the spoken word of Christ), as it turns out, is tucked into an obscure corner of a sprawling strip mall. Inside, the small café sports a cheerful and bold orange-and-blue color scheme. Owners Via and Ron Childs are from the Bronx, and the brightly hued walls are an homage to their favored hometown team, the New York Mets.
A flat-screen TV streams episodes of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives in the background, but not even the screechy narration of Guy Fieri will be enough to distract you from the immediate appeal of the Rhema menu, which is notably creative and eccentric, drawing inspiration from traditional Southern, Caribbean, and Jamaican cooking, with the occasional nod to local Southwestern gastronomy.
You put your order in at the counter — where you can also request a cup of sweet tea or Kool-Aid — and the plates tend to stream out fast from the partly-open kitchen. You might start with something from the “Everyday Delights” menu, the closest thing to a starter menu at Rhema, which is where you’ll find a very good dish of beer-battered pollack. The two fillets are skillfully deep-fried in a thick, almost fluffy batter that’s expertly seasoned. It’s just what you want from fried seafood: hot and fresh, crispy but not at all greasy, with the natural richness of the fish still deliciously intact.
There’s an excellent fried shrimp plate, too. The jumbo shrimp come caked in a nicely seasoned batter. As with the other fried seafood, the shrimp are best enjoyed with a swab or two of the house-made aioli, which is creamy and citrusy.
The dish most likely to turn Rhema into something of a local legend is probably the very photogenic chicken and waffles plate. The fluffy, oversize red velvet waffle comes encircled by chicken thighs. The waffle is as good as they come, thick and spongey, with a drizzle of sugary icing. But the chicken is what you’ll dream about on the ride home. The meaty, juicy boneless hunks are burnished to a gorgeous brown crisp, and the meat is so tender that it seems to flake apart on its own.
Another signature dish at Rhema is the Symphony Fries, a sort of soul food analog to carne asada fries. It’s a small mountain of crispy, gooey, melty foodstuff: fingertip-length fries (both of the regular and sweet potato variety), thick flakes of chopped pork, five types of melted cheese, and a torrent of the house barbecue sauce. You can elegantly pick at the cheesy ball of fries and pork with your fork, or you can dig right in and pull it apart with your bare hands, tossing one delicious bite after the other into your suddenly ravenous mouth. Either way, it’s good.
The inherent playfulness of the Rhema menu culminates in the “Brorito,” a kind of soul-food take on the burrito. It’s also sort of a Southern meat-and-three meal wrapped up in a sturdy flour tortilla, with slices of moist smoked chicken layered against bundles of meaty black beans and the house Caribbean rice. The whole thing is deliciously sluiced with the house “magic sauce,” a blend of the house sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauce.
The Brorito is good, but the restaurant’s smoked Boogie Down wings are even better. The plump, meaty wings come glazed in your choice of homemade barbecue sauce. The pineapple habanero is very good, tinging your meat with faintly sweet and smoky flavor.
But you’ve no doubt come for the barbecue. Thankfully, the Rhema menu of “Uncle Ron’s BBQ” rarely disappoints. Whether you’re a brisket or ribs type of person, you can safely assume that at least one option will be sold out by the time you make it to the café (diners can call ahead orders).
But no matter, because all the meats at Rhema tend to reflect the work of a first-rate pitmaster. Pretty much everything is cooked on-site daily over local pecan, and pretty much everything is delicious enough to make you forget your cares, if only for the length of your meal.
There are St. Louis-style ribs, the small, neat bundles of ribs so tender that you can pull the bones right out and practically fold the meat into your mouth. The meat comes slathered in your choice of sauce — the magic sauce proves handy here again — but no matter what sauce you choose, there’s likely to be a nice, underlying smoky punch to the meat.
Pork barbecue, in particular, is top-notch. By the time the chopped pork and rib tips land on your plate, the meat has been deliciously reduced to a spongy, flavorful muddle. And there’s also a very good half-chicken barbecue option, the big, smoky, and markedly juicy chicken pieces so abundant that they demand to be shared.
Part of the joy of barbecue is, of course, putting together your dream Southern-style plate. The Rhema menu of sides is not extensive, but the choices are uniformly good. There is a baked macaroni casserole, with thick, buttery noodles stuck together with a seven-cheese blend. The most notable thing about this mac ’n’ cheese is that it’s faintly sweet — a kind of summer corn sweetness that can quickly turn very addictive.
The collard greens are delicious, more earthy than bitter, a classically good companion to your otherwise heavy, meaty plate. The house Caribbean rice is good and lightly spiced. A more interesting side is the homemade potato salad, which is extra-rich and mustardy. There is also a carrot and Craisin salad, which is just what you might imagine: sweet and juicy, a kind of bright, orangey stand-in for coleslaw. And there’s an excellent cornbread cake side, served in a thick wedge that is lightly iced with sugar.
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Speaking of sweets, Rhema offers a revolving assortment of homemade desserts. On a recent visit, we ordered a big slice of dense chocolate cake, which disappeared from the table before it could be fully wrested from its plastic packaging. Like nearly everything else at Rhema Soul Cuisine, it was magic.
Rhema Soul Cuisine
21803 S. Ellsworth Rd., Queen Creek
Hours: Wednesdays through Sundays noon to 7 p.m.; Fridays noon to 8 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays
Beer battered pollack $7
Chicken and red velvet waffle $9
Barbecue chopped pork with sides $13