In the spirit of Black History Month, Lakeside Dining and Red Skillet Kitchen partnered up every Tuesday this February to bring a taste of Afro-Diasporic soul food to the Stanford community. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to sample a key part of cultural heritage, I headed to Lagunita Court each Tuesday to spend my meal swipes on what promised to be a veritable feast.
Day 1 — Feb. 7
The first night of the special menu did not draw as large a crowd as I had expected. However, the Red Skillet Kitchen displays drew my attention with their platters piled high with fried chicken, bowls of cheesy macaroni and their indulgent dessert displays, so I had to try some!
Vegetarian and vegan options were aplenty on this day, including the headlining King Oyster Mushroom Étouffée. The oyster mushrooms floating in a slightly peppery sweet and sour soup had a nice bite to them, although I questioned how effective the substitution was in replicating the spirit of the traditional Cajun/Creole seafood dish. The creamed spinach was a pleasant surprise, though: its balanced flavors provided a delectable alternative to the fibrous braised green options.
The sheer size of the smoked turkey legs made me picture myself in a Flintstones episode. The sticky, almost teriyaki-like glaze bolstered the otherwise dry meat in flavor; however, eating the dish eventually became a laborious chore. By contrast, the crispy, craggly, deeply-browned buttermilk fried chicken pieces made for a crowd favorite, which, while not spectacular, provided a reliable addition to the plate.
The Red Skillet macaroni and cheese was one of the better iterations I’ve tried on campus. That is probably because this variant had at least three different kinds of cheese, making it a decadent and pleasing pairing with the étouffée and greens. Still, it could have done with a touch more salt and pepper to really bring out the individual flavors.
To conclude the meal, the sticky toffee yams eased the palate into dessert mode. The autumnal vegetables were roasted to perfection, bringing out their natural sugars and layering on a caramel-like sweetness. They perfectly complemented the honey cornbread, a staple item that was not too different from the usual Stanford cornbread offerings. The peach cobbler was a consistent crowd favorite; platters were wiped clean. The tart canned peach cut through the saccharine syrup and buttery pastry crust.
A good start to a month of special menus, this collection of dishes provided a gentle introduction to soul food and got students excited about the food to come.
Day 2 — Feb. 14
With Valentine’s Day came another iteration of the Black History Month Lakeside Dining Menu. While the previous week focused on African-American Soul Food, this week featured an Afro-Caribbean menu with a variety of colorful and flavorsome items. The lines were organized thoughtfully to ensure that the crowds looped through the kitchens in an orderly manner.
The first thing on display in the busy dining hall was the cheddar cornbread, which looked identical to every other type of cornbread the dining halls offer. However, the first bite revealed a pleasant savory cheddar taste. Although it was slightly dry, it paired well with the Jamaican rice and beans, a warm and filling vegan addition to the menu.
Of the two main dishes, the roasted pork was obviously the main attraction, looking and smelling as if it came straight off the grill. Actually biting into it was a difficult task, though, as the meat was overcooked and tough. The honey mustard sauce almost saved it with a mixture of spice and sweetness that aptly complemented the pork and any side dish on the plate. The disappointment of the pork was unfortunately matched by the disappointment of the spiced tilapia, which was, very succinctly, fine.
The fried sweet plantains and Yukon gold mashed potatoes were perfect; the plantains were crispy on the outside and slightly mushy on the inside. The potatoes were seasoned perfectly with butter, salt and pepper, while the succotash provided a slightly lighter side, as a nice mixed bean-and-vegetable dish.
To wash down all of this food, Lakeside also had a specialty hibiscus tea: Sobolo. It was tasty and refreshing, with floral notes to cut through the sugar.
Finally, to end the decadent meal, Lakeside provided a wide range of desserts. The real star was the chocolate chip bread pudding. The ultimate comfort food, it was warm, crumbly and custardy, made especially yummy with the rich caramel sauce. The banana pudding was as one would expect banana pudding to taste like — nothing to write home about, but a fun addition nonetheless. The standard cupcakes and cookies were a thoughtful treat for Valentine’s Day.
The overall feeling at Lakeside on Valentine’s Day was one of satisfaction, despite the disappointment in the main dishes. Though not the initial draw, the sides outshone the rest of the menu options and provided the meal with a well-rounded and comforting feel.
Day 3 — Feb. 21
For the third Tuesday of February, Lakeside Dining and Red Skillet Kitchen brought on the party with their Mardi Gras Special Menu. Students played party music and danced in the main dining area, while line dividers cordoned off the insanely long queue waiting to get to the food.
The drinks station outside the main kitchen area featured the sorrel cooler, the cucumber cooler and New Orleans iced coffee lined up in glasses. The sorrel cooler was a dark reddish-brown drink that tasted like part medicine, part herbal iced-tea and part Harry-Potter-esque potion, but it was overall quite fruity and delicious.
Among the entries for the main course, the Creole Chicken proved to be well-cooked, tender, nicely spiced and not too fiery; unfortunately, it devolved into regular dining hall chicken the more one ate. I strongly opine that marinating it in the sauce for a longer duration might have helped the flavors seep in. The Cajun black-eyed peas stew reminded me of many Indian curries. The lentils were just the right amount of soft, the green peppers contributed to the acidity and flavor while adding some crunch and the dish itself went very well with a side of rice.
My favorite appetizer was the crispy okra; it possessed a major crunch factor on the outside and squishy, well-seasoned okra on the inside. The accompanying remoulade sauce was nice but could have been taken to the next level with a squeeze of lemon; its present version was otherwise similar to a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise.
A standout among the sides, the honey butter cornbread was the best cornbread offering throughout the February menu. It had a subtle sweetness from the honey and a delicate, moist crumb that fell apart as I ate it.
Across the Red Skillet Kitchen special menu, this day’s spicy shrimp and Andouille sausage gumbo was one of my personal favorites. A complex melange of al dente long-grain rice topped with slightly fatty, peppery sausage and flavorsome shrimp compensated for the distinct lack of broth. The cornmeal fried catfish was a disappointment; its flavor was masked by the oily and heavily-fried cornmeal coating and it was slightly overcooked. The more acidic Cajun tartar sauce helped cut through the grease, but the dish itself was underwhelming.
From the dessert section, the beignets — deep-fried spheroids of dough drizzled with sugar syrup — came out much later than the rest of the dishes, but were a clear crowd favorite. They were definitely worth the wait, fueling the last stretch of festivities. The award for “Best Dessert of the Night” would, however, easily go to the sweet potato pie, as I saw people going in for seconds. It had a creamy, not-too-sweet filling with a prominent taste of sweet potato, and the top of the pie was lightly brûléed to achieve a slightly burnt look.
Colorful sprinkles decorated slices of King Cake, vaguely resembling a cinnamon roll made with sourdough bread. There were better dessert options for flavor (see sweet potato pie), but this one was an aesthetic winner. The lemon cupcakes, with their luxurious cream frosting, made for a refreshing and citrusy end to a heavy meal.
Day 4 — Feb. 28
The last Tuesday of February boasted a West African themed menu, drawing crowds from across campus. Students, having experienced the longer lines for the past four weeks, did not even need line makers to organize themselves into lines that wrapped around the inner part of Lakeside.
The most popular item by far of the main dishes was the pulled pork sandwich, which students could customize themselves with coleslaw, sauces and vegetables. The pork itself was perfectly cooked and dressed in barbecue sauce with a crunchy brioche bun.
The smoked turkey gumbo, though not widely popular, was filling and satisfying, and especially nice on such a rainy night. Despite its alluring appearance and bright colors, the salmon was dry and ultimately underwhelming, though the fonio crust was a nice addition.
To go along with these main dishes were some good — and some not-so-good — side dishes. The jalepeño cornbread was a dining hall classic, meaning a little dry but still appetizing, with a spicy kick from the jalepeño. Braised collard greens stole the show for me, with the perfect amount of garlic and olive oil. The sweet potato fries were the clear winner for most students, though; crinkle-cut and crispy, they were seasoned with pepper and salt and paired perfectly with the sandwich.
The other sides did not attract as much of a crowd, though they also paired well with the main dishes. The stew was a very nice vegan item, enjoyable for all who like okra and lentils, and also acted as a comfort on the cold night. The jollof rice and spicy coleslaw were nice, but offered nothing especially new or surprising; both were lacking in heat, contrary to their name.
For drinks and dessert, Lakeside had ginger juice with ginger, lime and pink peppercorns, and beignets (see Day 3). The ginger juice was curious enough to warrant a taste by many, though its oversaturated sugar and ginger flavor did not make many come back for seconds.
The Black History Month menu at Lakeside Dining was carefully designed and well-thought out with a good selection of vegetarian and vegan options. Most of the dishes were classic, comforting staples that had a unified flavor profile, but there were a few truly stellar options, such as the Sweet Potato Pie, the Sausage and Andouille Gumbo, the drinks, the Crispy Okra and the Fried Plantains, that stole the show. I would recommend visiting Lakeside just to experience some of these incredible flavors if you have the chance. For many who are new to the world of Afro-Diasporic cuisines, these dishes may be just one step away from what you might be used to eating, but different enough to present a new culinary experience.