A man with two sleeve tattoos sits at a table in a chef's apron and white shirt

Viola & Agnes’ chef Aaron Davis

A sign on the door at Viola & Agnes’ Neo Soul Cafe in Seabrook proclaims: “If you are in a hurry or want fast food, this café may not be the best choice.”

Some may see that as a playful warning. But it’s really part of a promise, one that includes the reward of a “fresh, local, honest meal,” according to chef and owner Aaron Davis. Because real food takes time. And diverse, deeply flavored dishes as good as Davis’ island-tinged soul food can take as long as they please.

Viola & Agnes’
Neo Soul Cafe

3659 NASA Road 1,
Suite A, Seabrook.
Open Tue-Sat
11 a.m.-8 p.m.,
Sun 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
281-326-2226;
neosoulfood.org

Take his filé gumbo, for instance, which has deep umami notes from the use of dried shrimp—something more often seen in Asian cuisines. It’s an eclectic ingredient borrowed from his grandmother in Louisiana, who included it in her own version of the stew, and also snacked on them like chips. Rounding out the bowl are fresh okra, crab claws oozing sweet salinity, smoked sausage, and a quartered chicken, all set atop Cambodian jasmine rice purchased from a local Filipino market.

“But the thing that brings it all together is that dried shrimp,” Davis says. Sitting inside his counter-service spot, located about 30 miles outside Houston, the chef is surrounded by the purples and golds of Mardi Gras—the walls decorated with Jazz Fest posters, black-and-white French market drawings, and fleurs-de-lis.

An overhead view of golden fried chicken on a white platter

Fried chicken plate

Regular customers of the eight-year-old restaurant are so enamored with the dish that, come the holidays, they often ask him to make large portions for private parties. Davis obliges because his hospitality runs deep, but the requests still mystify the chef.

“You don’t have a pot at home?” he laughs. “Just being from Louisiana, everyone cooks for themselves. It’s serious out there.”

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The cooking gene was ingrained in Davis from an early age, most notably by his grandmothers, Viola Malone Griffin and Agnes May Davis, for whom the restaurant is named. Photos of both women are framed in biographical collages near the entranece, and though they passed in 2022, their impact is reflected in the restaurant’s warm hospitality and comforting fare. Whether he was eating his grandmother Agnes’ smoked turkey wings or rifling through the pantry to determine what made their grandfather Felton Davis Sr.’s coubion so spicy, Davis grew up surrounded by culinary intrigue.

“I think I was always meant to be a chef,” Davis says.

The dreadlocked cook moved to southeast Texas after Hurricane Rita marooned the riverboat casino where he’d been working in Lake Charles. But Davis and his girlfriend, just days after welcoming a daughter, decided to take the proffered Federal Emergency Management Agency money and move to Maui.

“It’s crazy how much everything is the same in Hawaii,” Davis says. “In Louisiana, they eat everything with rice. Same out there. Or how much pork we eat in Louisiana with our smoked sausage. In Hawaii, it’s just Portuguese sausage.”

A person pours a small cup of sauce over bright red chicken

The sticky chicken is influenced by Davis’ time in Hawaii

The Spice is Right

Three unexpected ingredients elevate chef Aaron Davis’ approach to soul food

Madras curry
Rajiv Naik, owner of Raj Grocers in Webster, introduced Davis to the idea of using this Indian spice blend in a braised oxtail dish, as a dry rub for pork ribs, and more.

Fenugreek
An herb similar to clover, fenugreek is most often found in Mediterranean and Indian cooking. At Naik’s suggestion, Davis utilizes the slightly nutty flavor of the ingredient to finish dishes like his beef cheeks and gravy.

Kasoori methi leaves
In addition to fenugreek seeds, Davis reaches for the intensely fragrant, flowery dried leaves of the herb to garnish his butter chicken wings—a creation inspired by his time spent perusing Indian markets.

You can taste the Hawaiian influence at Viola & Agnes’ in the restaurant’s most popular dish: sticky chicken. Marinated in lemongrass, ginger, and jerk and Hawaiian barbecue spices, the chicken is cooked sous vide and flash fried to order. After- ward, it’s mopped with a glistening garlic chili sauce sweetened with cane syrup and brown sugar.

 

The 50th state also shows up in dishes like shrimp fried rice ringed with hunks of fresh pineapple and studded with Chinese sausage. The latter touch was recommended by Jingo Calvelo, the Fili- pino owner of nearby Jingo’s Asian Mart. Calvelo was also responsible for the nor- ifumi present in the dish. A Japanese spice mixture consisting of seaweed, sesame, and orange peel, the norifumi blend ties the fried rice together in tropical harmony.

Davis’ unofficial band of international consiglieri in his diverse southeast Texas community also includes Chinese fish- monger Lynn Q. of Rose’s Seafood in Seabrook and business owner Rajiv Naik of Raj Grocers in Webster. Naik introduced Davis to Indian ingredients like mango powder, fenugreek, and curry powder, the last of which the chef uses in the rub for gargantuan fried chicken wings further warmed by spices like clove and cinnamon.

 

“It’s fun going around town and having people teach me stuff all the time,” Davis says. “When I was in Louisiana, I could cook pretty good, but being down here, it’s just so international. This is my 22nd year of cooking, and it’s fun to still be learning stuff.”

Layering this multiethnic toolkit of ingredients onto a Creole foundation already forged by French, Spanish, and Italian influences creates a depth and richness of flavor that would be overwhelming if not handled with such expert care. Yet Davis seems to put it all together with ease on his ever-changing menu.

The globe-trotting roster of components and the familial service of the staff at the restaurant attracts a crowd as eclectic as the record covers that line the walls of the restroom. For instance, at a lunch service last November, a table of ladies old enough to remember the original pressing of the restaurant’s framed Johnny Mathis LP shared a dining room with a solitary NASA worker, four Gen-Xers in fishing gear, and two metalheads in Pantera shirts.

“I think everybody just feels comfortable here,” Davis says with a shrug. “I spend 80 hours a week up here, so it’s like my house. I just want people to come in and hang out.”

Or, as the closing words of the message posted on the front door declare: “If you have time, come on in, relax, enjoy a good meal, and leave knowing we love you.”

Menu items, including fried catfish, shrimp and grits, collard greens, gumbo, and black eyed peas are hand-painted in bright colors on a wooden pallet

A pallet doubles as a menu

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