When Hot & Soul's husband-and-wife owners, Mike Hampton and Christy Samoy, moved to South Florida, "I didn't know anything about Fort Lauderdale," Hampton says. "I'd never heard of Las Olas, and we'd been to Miami once on vacation."
The expense of living and running a restaurant in San Diego had become too much. Samoy had grown up in Central Florida, and the two had met at Florida State University. In 2011, they packed up their car and cats and hit the road. "We just sort of sat down and said, 'Lets go for it,' " Hampton remembers. They considered Miami but decided there was more opportunity to break in farther north.
Be glad it worked out that way. Crowds have already started making their way to the 50-seat restaurant in a strip mall at North Federal Highway and Oakland Park Boulevard near Culture Room, and the couple's beer-pairing dinners have sold out. They serve dinner five nights a week and brunch on Sunday in a simple space with a communal table and local art on the walls. The one-page menu is as much the story of their lives as it is the bill of fare.
"A lot of these items are things we've been doing for years," Samoy says. "It's kind of like our 'best of' menu."
The spicy, salty, meaty Gumbo Yumbo is a flashback to days spent in New Orleans at culinary school. The stew is brimming with chunks of andouille sausage and bits of ham hock. As The Daily Show With Jon Stewart plays on the television, the stew's spicy red-brown broth builds to pleasant burn but never slows you down.
Chicken adobo comes from Samoy, a full-blooded Filipino. A moist chicken thigh is coated with an intensely flavored sauce that mixes soy, vinegar, garlic, and brown sugar and is served over jasmine rice. Logic may tell you a classic Filipino dish might fare better on the West Coast, but after three years in South Florida, Samoy and Hampton are convinced this is the place they belong.
"When we first moved here, I thought we made a mistake," Hampton says. It wasn't until he found his way to Laser Wolf, a popular craft beer bar, that he started feeling at home. "It was one of those places where I walked in and I felt like I'd been going there for years."
In the late 1990s, Samoy, who grew up in Lakeland, wasn't allowed to go out of state for college, so she headed to FSU. Hampton, meanwhile, was looking to get "as far away as possible" from his native Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, famous for its Groundhog Day festivities. Life took them to Boston, where Hampton tried to be a professional runner before a career-killing injury, and Samoy worked in publishing. Then they switched gears and attended culinary school together in New Orleans before trying life in California.
"The first day of culinary school, we... both said, 'We want to open a restaurant one day,' " Samoy says. But it wasn't until they hit South Florida that they found the courage to strike out on their own. "When we came here, we felt we were approaching middle age and this was the time to do it."
When they first arrived, Samoy found a job at Eliot Wolf's Foxy Brown and Hampton worked on the opening of American Social on Las Olas Boulevard. Seeing the unexpected twists and turns of a restaurant opening and watching owners throw fears to the wind was what they needed to turn a long-planned dream into a reality.
"The owners [of American Social] are really smart guys, but they didn't have any experience in terms of back of the house and the kitchen," Hampton says. "They didn't know what was going to happen, but they did it anyway. I think that's what Christy and I needed."
Since opening in early April, Hot & Soul has quickly become a bona fide member of the Broward beer scene. Floridian Hefeweizen from Funky Buddha Brewery (located just up the road) is on tap, as is Due South's Category 3 IPA. Late one evening, Hampton -- who's always wearing a wide smile and bounces from table to table shaking hands and offering beer suggestions -- sat at one of the squat granite tables with Funky Buddha owner Ryan Sentz, plotting a beer dinner.
Although the menu is diverse enough to keep diners entertained and affordable enough to keep them coming back, Hot & Soul is more than a good place to eat. It's a sign that in Broward County, things are changing for the better. That Samoy and Hampton left New Orleans -- a national treasure for its culture and cuisine -- and San Diego -- where the green-market-to-resident ratio is almost one-to-one -- to settle in South Florida and liked it enough to lay down roots is a miracle.
They're following some of the best trends in dining. Appetizers and entrées are offered in full and half sizes, allowing sharing and the opportunity to taste the entire menu.
Those that aren't, like the steak culotte, are worth the stomach space. The top cut of sirloin is cooked to a perfect medium rare and served with slender, crispy, seasoned fries topped with a fried egg. Yet the highlight of the dish is the house-made steak sauce that blends savory Worcestershire with sweet berries and is good enough to lick off the plate.
Even those on plant-based diets get a bit of love with the Vegan Yum Bowl. Polenta cooked in coconut milk isn't overly sweet but smacks of the fresh fruit. Crispy onions add texture while a mushroom gravy offers a bit of the sensation of eating meat.
The dessert they call Dark Bark brings thin sheets of dark chocolate sprinkled with sea salt and crushed pistachios and drizzled with olive oil. The salt intensifies the already rich flavor of the dark chocolate, while the fruitiness of the olive oil and the nuts provides the perfect complement and crunch. They are not the first to plate this combination and will not be the last.
And Samoy is usually on the floor. With olive skin and hair pulled back and covered by a bandanna, she's constantly running food across the restaurant. Petite and all business, she looks almost overcome by a pair of large plates.
With Hot & Soul, South Floridians have another restaurant worth visiting enough to become regulars. As its name suggests, each dish is full of heart, and every bite tastes like a comforting home-cooked meal your adopted Filipino or Creole grandmother might serve on a Sunday night.
Samoy and Hampton are the kind of restaurateurs Broward County needs. Unlike many around town, who plot strategies and promotions from far-off corporate offices, these two are on the floor, just as comfortable running hot plates of food as they are paying the bills.
Let's hope that they're able to pay it forward and that one day when a new cook comes into town, he or she stumbles into Hot & Soul and realizes South Florida is a place with more to offer than beaches, no state income tax, and cheap, bank-owned real estate for grabs.
For more follow Zach on Twitter @ZachIsWeird.
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