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Front man draws diners to I Rise Soul Food Cafe

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Antonio Lewis' New Orleans roots show clearly on Mondays and Tuesdays when he "barks" in front of I Rise Soul Food Cafe on Charleston's East End. It's a habit he picked up from crowded Bourbon Street where restaurant owners drum up business by putting an employee out on the sidewalks verbally encouraging passers-by into the eatery.

"Here we go. Ya'll stop that car and come on in and give us a try," Lewis calls to people in cars stopped at the intersection of East Washington and Elizabeth streets. His cheerful face and persuasive voice beckon walkers to try the Cajun and Creole cuisine he cooks.

Lewis, who also works at Embassy Suites, shares the kitchen two days a week with I Rise owners Leigh Staunton and his wife, Kawanna Honeycutt-Staunton. The couple opened the restaurant in January and serve soul food like roasted and barbecued chicken, creamy macaroni and cheese and greens. On Wednesdays, the fare is Jamaican -- jerk chicken with mango sauce and curry chicken and lamb.

The menu changes daily and features a generous serving of the daily entrée like spinach lasagna, tilapia, beef ribs or turkey, plus side dishes that might include red beans and rice, mashed sweet potatoes, pumpkin rice or cornbread stuffing. The portions are generous, but homemade blackberry cobbler, lemon mango meringue pie, bread pudding with rum sauce, bananas foster or sweet potato cheesecake still tempt diners who swear they're too full for dessert.

They named the restaurant I Rise in honor of Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise," a poem Kawanna finds inspiring.

The Stauntons and Lewis make everything in house. Lunch is $7 and dinner is $10. Breakfast items are priced at $1 each. Choose from waffles, French toast, grits, omelets, breakfast casserole, chicken or turkey sausage gravy or hot cereal.

None of the food at I Rise, not even the collard greens, contains pork, which Staunton doesn't eat. That might have been a problem for some Cajun cooks, but Lewis didn't blink an eye when Staunton stipulated that the jambalaya would not include pork sausage. He uses beef sausage instead.

So how'd a nice man from New Orleans end up barking in Charleston? His complicated journey started with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  He'd worked in the hospitality business in New Orleans for more than 20 years and was living in the ill-fated Upper Ninth Ward when urgent bulletins urged residents to evacuate.

Like much of the 65 percent of the population who relied on public transportation, Lewis had no ride out of the city, so he headed to the Super Dome just ahead of the deadly storm surge. He spent five miserable days in the stadium that was woefully unprepared to take on the role of housing the suddenly homeless residents.

After five days, they were allowed out of the stadium and confronted the sobering sight of flooded streets and pervasive destruction. Lewis boarded a bus to Fort Worth for shelter in Will Rogers Memorial Center. He returned to New Orleans five months later and found the road to his house still blocked and realized he'd lost everything. It was time to move on.

He worked in Waco, Texas, where he met his future wife, Tatia. In 2010, the Lewises moved to Charleston, where his sister lived. "We left Texas with $150 and a full tank of gas," he said.

The changing scenery bemused Tatia Staunton, who had never seen hills. "I saw the signs that said to watch out for falling rocks. Then we found out about deer crossing," she said. After getting settled in their new home, she stopped into Peculiar Boutique & Thrift Store, a business Honeycutt-Staunton operates to benefit missionary work. The shop shares an entrance with I Rise.

While shopping, Tatia Lewis mentioned that her husband cooks Cajun, which the Stauntons thought would add dimension to their soul food and Jamaican menu. Both Honeycutt-Staunton, a Charleston native, and Staunton, who grew up in Oak Hill, cook. Her specialty is baked chicken leg and thigh quarters.

"It's so tender, the meat comes right off the bones," said Staunton of the fragrant chicken. "You've heard of the Colonel's 11 herbs and spices? It doesn't touch Kawanna's."

  Staunton learned to cook from his mother, whose food he describes as gourmet, and still uses her recipes for apple pie and blackberry cobbler. He honed his appreciation of good food when he traveled through Europe during a stint with the Air Force. "I was a taster. I'd eat out and try to figure out what was in the dishes," said Staunton.

Staunton's talents extend outside the kitchen. He renovated the building, adding light to the artsy dining area by uncovering a large window. He pulled off yellow siding to reveal the window and a brick façade and fixed up the adjoining thrift store, where the profits of the donated goods benefit Missionary Outreach Ministries. In it, Honeycutt-Staunton sells adult clothes for $1, shoes for $2 and children's clothes for 25-cents apiece.

The owners welcome catering and take out orders and say they can package buffet items as quickly as a fast food restaurant, but then they miss the pleasure of seeing customers enjoy their food when they order take out.

"We like feeding people. Their plates come back empty," Staunton said. "I think we really do something different here. You have all kinds of flavors -- Cajun, Soul and Jamaican."

I Rise Soul Food Cafe, 1599 Washington St. E., is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday, from 7 a.m. to midnight Friday and from 1 to 7 p.m. Sunday. Closed on Saturday. Call 304-421-7283 or 304-410-2465.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.

 


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