Khalilah Liddell believes all soul food has something in common: It’s prepared by a cook who puts her heart and soul into it.
The 39-year-old former caterer recently opened Khalilah’s Soul Kitchen in Alorton, where she follows recipes from her grandmother, the late Willie Mae Richards.
“She was the ‘Big Mama’ of the family,” Khalilah (Kuh-LEE-lah) said. “She always cooked large meals and always had leftovers. She fed people in the neighborhood who were down on their luck. She was just that kind of person.”
Today, Khalilah whips up fried and baked chicken, turkey wings smothered in gravy, macaroni and cheese, mixed greens, candied yams, fried corn, boiled cabbage, string beans and mashed potatoes every day. A plate with a meat, two sides and cornbread costs $10.
The restaurant also offers daily specials, ranging from chicken and dumplings to meatloaf, Cornish hens to beef brisket, steaks to boiled gizzards, as well as fish on Fridays.
“I just love it,” said customer Lisa Joe, 51, who has driven from her home in Cahokia four times since the restaurant opened in March. “The quality and quantity of food is awesome, and everybody serves you with a positive attitude.”
Khalilah’s is inside the Phillip’s 66 Gas Mart, along Illinois 15, just west of Interstate 255. It’s mostly carryout, but customers can sit at one of two round tables with flowered tablecloths, candles and bowls of complimentary suckers and doughnut holes.
On a recent weekday, East St. Louis resident Rhonda Douglas asked her home-health aide to bring her to Khalilah’s. She ordered mixed greens and candied yams.
“My cousin told me about it, and she said it’s very good,” said Rhonda, 45, who uses a wheelchair. “She cooks for everybody all the time, so if she says it’s good, I know it’s good.”
Khalilah’s opens at 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon Saturdays and Sundays. There’s no set closing time, but food normally is served through early evening. The staff leaves when all the home-cooking is gone.
What many customers don’t know is that tragedy prompted Khalilah to pursue her dream of going into business for herself. She was working as a Walmart manager and catering for friends and family in 2013, when her 20-year-old son was killed. Kenneth Richards was sitting outside an East St. Louis bar called Denese’s Place with about 50 other people shortly before midnight, when two gunmen came out of the woods and shot him repeatedly.
“He was such a wonderful young man,” said Khalilah, noting two suspects were questioned but released because scarves on the gunmens’ faces kept witnesses from positively identifying them.
The trauma caused Khalilah to miss work and eventually leave Walmart. She expanded her catering business and developed a reputation for caramel cakes and macaroni and cheese.
It was her husband, Larry “Teddy” Liddell, who encouraged her to open a restaurant. He works as a laborer.
“Cooking was like my therapy,” Khalilah said. “That’s what made me happy. That’s what took my mind off the situation at hand.”
Beyond Southern food, the most popular item at the restaurant is the loaded Teddy Tator, a large baked potato topped with Italian beef, chicken, shrimp, broccoli, Cheddar cheese sauce, sour cream and chives.
Phillips 66 owner Gus Hamid is thrilled to share space with Khalilah.
Gus, 54, of Ballwin, Mo., emphasizes that Khalilah is a stickler for cleanliness in the kitchen.
At a glance
- What: Khalilah’s Soul Kitchen
- Where: 4217 Old Missouri Ave. in Alorton (along Illinois 15, just west of Interstate 255)
- Hours: Opens at 11 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon Saturdays and Sundays and closes when the home-cooking is gone, usually early evening
- Seating: 6
- Carryouts: Yes
- Delivery: Yes (minimum $20 order)
- Handicap-accessible: Yes
- Information: Call 618-696-1318 or visit the Facebook page for Khalilah Richards-Liddell