Heart and Soul
Nice N Ful bounces back
Walk into Kenny Dorham's Backyard these days, and it's immediately apparent that something special is happening at the revamped East Austin venue. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Bob Marley booms from speakers atop the live music stage as folks enjoy the Downtown skyline peeking behind huge shade trees. It has always been a community space, with scattered toys and neighborhood artwork. And now trailers such as the newly reopened Nice N Ful scatter the grounds too – making the familiar event space a food lover's paradise.
For five months last year, owners Myrna Nicely-Fulcher and Larry Fulcher ran their original Nice N Ful trailer outside Ideal Soul Mart, about a half mile down the road from their current digs. It was their first foray into the restaurant business for the busy couple, but word of mouth soon spread. Myrna, surely one of Austin's friendliest restaurateurs, served a small vegetarian menu of mostly burgers and à la carte treats under a cozy, reggae-filled canopy. About the time Austinites began to fall in love with the bold flavors of the tofu Thai burger – a week before the Chronicle was set to run an article about the trailer – life happened, and they suddenly decided to close shop.
But their business phone kept ringing, and within a few weeks, Kenny Dorham's Backyard started calling, too. They'd saved Nice N Ful a spot. After a surprise cover story ran in the January issue of AAA Travel magazine, Larry and Myrna decided to reopen, just in time for SXSW 2015. "It's been a roller coaster ride," Myrna happily admits. Their new home now sits just a few blocks down from world-famous Franklin Barbecue and the Longbranch Inn – sharing space with Arte & Son (Colombian cuisine with fresh juice), Wasota African Cuisine, and Bua Loy Thai Cuisine.
This may be Nice N Ful 2.0, but the focus is still the same. "We wanted to make it desirable for different people – all ethnicities, all income levels, all ages," explains Larry. "Food is universal. Food and music break barriers." The name Nice N Ful is a combination of their last names, and also serves as a longtime umbrella for all their ventures, including a music company. "We're indulgent in pleasure, so we're trying to establish and brand that music and food makes the soul happy," Myrna says.
Incorporating music and community events into their schedule is almost as important as the food itself, making Kenny Dorham's the perfect spot for their vision. "There were tons of soul food places, and barbecue places, that were owned by African-Americans thirty, forty years ago," Larry says. "So we thought, with the neighborhood gentrifying and being a totally different demographic, we'd try to preserve some of this." Nice N Ful retains the spirit of those lost community gathering spaces. Their schedule is packed with events – Hump Day Happy Hour on Wednesdays, live music almost every night of the week, spoken word on Sundays, and more. Myrna says they've frequently welcomed new diners who wandered in from that hours-long line at Franklin. "They enjoy our food because it's tasty to people whether they eat meat or not. It's not like a cult club. It's a taste club."
For the couple, it's all about that explosion of spices and flavor. "[Vegetarian food] doesn't have to taste like somebody's shoe that you chewed on," quips Myrna. Their new menu, doubled in size, has many of the original favorites like the "chickn" nugget burger, but they've added several new items. There are a variety of burger and wrap options like Ethiopian potato, black bean, and falafel. Sides include a fresh kale salad and sweet potato fries that nail the crispy outside/soft inside ratio. They also serve veggie soft tacos with a variety of fixin's, and several Soul Bowl options, too. Myrna frequently whips up specials that end up on the permanent menu, like a recent stuffed tomato and black-eyed pea dish, or the "vegan-n-gluten-free prawns," sautéed in tandoori sauce, served over jasmine rice on a bed of kale salad. Their crave-worthy Soul Rolls – deep-fried egg roll wrappers filled with savory or sweet flavor bombs – are back with a vengeance, special every day. Last week I was lucky enough to try an in-the-works recipe: a custom spinach wrap with the rice and vegan sausage and veggie filling for an upcoming bell pepper dish. Delicious.
Neither Larry nor Myrna, who met on a blind date in the Seventies, were raised vegetarian, but they have enjoyed a plant-based diet for years. Myrna explained a time when they would go to Whataburger and have to say, 'Just hold the meat,' and still pay for the whole cheeseburger anyway. "You can imagine the looks you'd get when you went through the window," she reminisced. Larry, an inducted Blues Hall of Fame bassist for the Grammy-winning Phantom Blues Band, comes from a family who owned "juke joints and livestock." His vegetarianism (save for an occasional "weakness for salmon") stems from the late Sixties "hippie movement" and decades of world travel. Tasting the spices from cuisines across the globe also inspires Myrna, an international flight attendant raised in an Air Force family. "It's the way we eat at home and it's recollections and memories from around the world ... a re-creation of what a soul food house could be." Their daughter, Dominique, a teacher, is the "sexy chef" coming in this summer, and Myrna says her vegan co-chef plans to incorporate some "low calorie, no guilt" items with a Middle Eastern flair she picked up while at college in France.
But whatever the culinary influence, it's still soul food. "Both of us are African-American and we grew up eating, you know, 'black food,'" explains Larry. "I played reggae for a long, long time, and traveling, I got to taste that food from the West African diaspora, and that way of flavoring and seasoning food, that vibe and rhythm you put in the food. We try to incorporate that to keep that culture, but do it in a healthy manner."
Myrna says, "It's so funny that everyone always associates soul food with an ethnic food. We say we're giving you soul in your food, and it's food for the soul. Nothing dies; everything is fresh."