Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Keeping the spirit alive

This is a Christmas story. It’s the story of a family that worked hard to make a dream come true, and that works hard every day to keep it alive. It’s the story of a woman stretched to her limits, who still does everything she can to help others.

Coincidentally, it’s a story of one of the best restaurants in the Valley: Soul in the Hole, which is conveniently within a quick drive from the Kyrene Corridor—a drive, incidentally, that’s well worth it.

Soul in the Hole opened on Sept. 11, 2002. It’s owned by Toni Lopez, also the cook, who moved to the Valley from San Jose, Calif.

Actually, she was pulled here. Her son, Tee Smith, attended Arizona State University, and it didn’t take him long to realize that the Valley was missing his mom’s cooking. He nagged her for years to come open a restaurant in Arizona.

When she finally did, it was the realization of a lifelong dream--Lopez had wanted her own restaurant since high school.

Now, if you made cornbread like Lopez makes cornbread, you’d probably feel pretty good about your restaurant’s chances.

In fact, Soul in the Hole has never had a problem getting raves. Its fried chicken, mac and cheese, chili beans and catfish have been applauded by most critics in the Valley (including this one). Nikki Buchanan at Phoenix Magazine counts Soul in the Hole as one of her top restaurants.

But killer recipes are only half of the battle. The rest of a restaurant is keeping books, juggling bills, and the hot, hectic business of getting food onto tables.

You only need to drop by the restaurant once to see how hard Lopez works at her job.

Clearly, she’s not doing it for the money, but for the love. What I think is so terrific is that Lopez’s “love” includes love of neighbor.

Lopez realizes the unique leverage that even the smallest business has to help its community. That’s why, every year, her restaurant serves free dinners on Christmas Day.

“It’s just something we started doing when we first opened and we kept doing it,” says Lopez, who is getting ready for her third annual event, from 3 to 6 p.m. Dec. 25.

“It’s been a struggle doing it, but we do it every year.”

Soul in the Hole will serve turkey and all the trimmings to anyone who shows up. No reservations are necessary. Neither is proof of need.

“There are people who come in who don’t need it, but there are a lot of people who do,” Lopez says. “Last year we had a gentleman come in and say, if we hadn’t been open on Christmas, he would have had nothing to eat and nowhere to go.”

The patrons aren’t the only ones who benefit. Volunteers, too, come away fulfilled.

“There are so many people out there who don’t have anything to do on Christmas Day,” Lopez continues. “So they come and help out.”

Lopez can always use more hands. She can also use donations of food. Robert’s Catering and local churches, like Gospel of Life, help with supplies, but last year, demand outstripped supply.

“We were starting to cook up rice,” she recalls, adding, “we’re hoping to have even more people this year.”

Finally, Lopez is accepting donations of toys to pass out to the kids who show up for supper. Since my husband and I will be out of town on Christmas Day, we dropped off our bag of gifts this week.

I hope you’ll consider adding Soul in the Hole to your own list of Christmas causes.

Best wishes for a deliciously happy holiday.

Soul in the Hole, 601 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler, (480) 963-7787.