Soul Food With Soul

The Onyx Room fills a gap in Tucson's culinary scene

OK, so maybe the reason fried chicken was in short supply on the night of our first visit to The Onyx Room was because it was National Fried Chicken Day and there had been a run on the stuff earlier in the day. Or maybe it's because the word is spreading that the fried chicken at this midtown restaurant/nightclub is so damn good that it took everything this writer had to not go back the next day for more. That's how good the chicken is.

The poor server was embarrassed to inform us that the white-meat chicken dinner ($10.99 for the two-piece dark meat, plus $1 for two white-meat pieces) we'd ordered was not available. Neither was the dark-meat dinner, so we settled for the six wings that were offered, hoping the serving would be enough.

We really didn't have to be concerned, though. Dinners come with a small yet tasty garden salad, a piece of cornbread and a choice of two side dishes.

The chicken was superb! With a crisp, light outside and a moist, almost sweet inside, this was everything fried chicken should be. I couldn't tell you what the chicken was seasoned with, but I do know the flavors were in balance and fantastic.

Part of the test of good fried chicken is how good it tastes cold. And the one wing that I brought home did not disappoint. In fact, the chill only highlighted both flavor and texture.

The spare ribs ($15.99) were also quite wonderful. Although there were only three ribs, they were oversized and meaty. The house Onyx sauce complemented the meat instead of overpowering it. The sauce was not too sweet, not too smoky, and helped add a nice char to the tender meat.

The pork shoulder ($13.99) almost melted in my mouth; a knife was barely necessary. Covered with the savory house onion gravy—which shows up on a lot of menu items—the good-sized serving didn't have a trace of greasiness.

Another pork entrée, the pork chop ($13.99), comes several ways: grilled, fried or smothered in the onion gravy. We opted for fried. The chop was breaded in soft, nicely seasoned breadcrumbs that sealed in the juices and made the whole thing amazingly tender with golden-brown edges.

The majority of the vegetable sides (à la carte $3.50) we tried were impressive, easily the best that we've had in a long, long time. The only side that really didn't work was the french fries. Yes, they came to the table all golden-brown and sizzling hot, but the insides were undercooked.

We really enjoyed the other side dishes, which, like the entrées, demonstrate that the kitchen staffers not only know what they're doing, but enjoy their work and take pride in their product.

The mashed potatoes were thick and, while not lumpy, had not been over-whipped into a tasteless mess. Served with the onion gravy, they tasted homemade and were so good, we ordered them twice.

The mac and cheese was not quite what I expected. At first bite I was disappointed because noodles and cheese had all been smashed together. But with each bite they got better and better, and before I knew it the wonderful cheesy mess of noodles was all gone.

Some no doubt would call both the green beans and collard greens overcooked, but in reality the long, slow cooking had infused the vegetables with natural juices and ideal seasonings. No doubt there is a touch of pork involved; how else to get that soft, smoky flavor? We dipped the cornbread in the pot likker so as not to waste a drop.

We also tried the yams, which, like the other vegetables, had been cooked down to a meltingly sweet softness.

Pork played a role in the black-eyed peas. Every bite had fine, tasty shreds of meat, which brought the simple peas to a whole other level of goodness. This side would be a great stand-alone meal, perhaps with a piece of cornbread.

And speaking of cornbread ... the serving here is quite small and decidedly dry. It is served without any butter, but as mentioned, a little bit of pot likker helps.

Desserts are all $3.50. Peach cobbler is a must at a soul food restaurant. The portion was pretty small, but after all that food, we didn't mind. While I've certainly had better, we enjoyed the cobbler. The sweet potato pie was also quite good.

The dining area is big and roomy and allows for live music and dancing after 10 p.m. Murals of mixed images (a piano, people dancing) cover the walls. An overhang with mission tile lines the far wall (maybe a leftover from the previous incarnation as a Mexican restaurant). Every table is painted with a different design in shiny black and silver. A bar, the hub of most of the activity on both visits, is trimmed out in golden wood. The Yankees game was on the lone big-screen TV that sits above the bar.

Service was genuinely friendly and the owners were visibly involved in the process. On both visits there wasn't much of a crowd, but something tells me later in the evening the place might be busy. On Wednesdays there is karaoke, so if you have an inner American Idol lurking somewhere, that might be the night to visit.

Not that the Onyx Room is perfect. Our salads, for example, were inconsistent (shredded cheese on one night, no shredded cheese on another). The bourbon bread pudding wasn't available at either visit. They've already removed some items from the menu you see online. Plus there was that shortage of chicken. But these are merely growing pains, which if they care—and it's obvious that they do—they can work through.

I hesitate to use the word "transcendent" when describing the food at Onyx, but this was some of the best food we've had in a long time. We talked about the food quite a bit the next day, and the theme that kept coming up was how perfect everything was: well-seasoned, not greasy, cooked just right, and how it just made you feel good (even the next day). All I know is I can't wait to go back.

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