Dinner at Communion might mean clams, pork chops, or even catfish sushi.

One night at Communion, chef Kristi Brown was pinch-hitting on busser duty when a nearby table received their order of neck bone stew. She leaned over to offer these diners, a multigenerational Asian family, some conspiratorial advice: “Don’t forget, when you eat neck bones, you’ve got to suck it.”

The younger of the two women seated at the table 50-something, like Brown—looked skeptical. Her octogenarian mother, on the other hand, grabbed that roasted length of knobby, slip-off tender meat and went after it. Brown still recalls the elder woman’s unabashed bone-sucking gusto with a laugh so big the chef’s trademark statement earrings swing and shake.

Kristi Brown embraced restaurant life after years of catering (and hummus).

Image: Amber Fouts

Her restaurant, Communion, stews its pork necks overnight. The kitchen serves these atop a thick pool of lima beans, seasoned until just this side of fiery. Brown knows some of her diners grew up sucking every morsel out of humble cuts of meat. And that her food “can pull them back” to those memories. For others, she asks herself, “How can I bring these dishes into where we are right now?”

Where we are right now is a weird place indeed. But Brown’s dining room at 24th and Union offers a civic and culinary bright spot amid our ongoing state of turbulence. This much was clear even before the restaurant transitioned from takeout to dine-in back in July: Communion is Seattle Met’s Restaurant of the Year. For its role fortifying Black culture in the Central District. For the constant joyful uproar emanating from its dining room. For introducing Chinatown–International District into a conversation about soul food. All while imbuing beauty and greater meaning into a plate of neck bone stew.

 

Brown signed on to this space with her son and business partner, Damon Bomar, years before construction began—a Black chef known for her catering business and the dynamite black-eyed pea hummus she sold in stores under her label, That Brown Girl Cooks! She knew her shift into restaurant life would anchor the redeveloped Liberty Bank Building. Back in the 1960s, the community mounted this financial institution to make sure the neighborhood’s Black homebuyers and business owners could get loans. Gentrification subjected the Central District to a different sort of siege; Communion occupies a prominent corner of a building designed to counter Black culture’s displacement.

Central District references punctuate Communion’s menu. Crisp chicken wings name-check Thompson’s Point of View, the restaurant that once stood at the end of the block. The section devoted to Brown’s ingenious “po’mis”—a po’boy crossed with a pate-swiped, pickle-stuffed banh mi—shouts out local soul food legend Helen Coleman.

Those sandwiches also connect this neighborhood’s story to another nearby pocket of the city. Brown was a teenager when her family left Kansas City for Renton, and her dad took to exploring Seattle’s Asian markets. As an adult, she continued that tradition as she worked catering jobs and raised Bomar and his sisters. Back then, they lived near 20th and Main, an area that offered direct access to the flavors and ingredients in nearby Chinatown–International District. Brown liked finding commonalities within her family’s soul food and the flavors of her life in Seattle, be they greens from a Little Saigon market or a bowl of Northwest shellfish. In building Communion’s menu, she says, “I want to have a conversation about the neighborhoods that I’ve lived in.”

Brown terms her particular union of flavors “Seattle soul.” When Communion opened in early December 2020, she pointed to a dish she dubbed “ode to pho” as the creation most emblematic of her long-awaited restaurant. It’s a big bowl of broth that tastes of anise and long-simmered bones. The meat

Brown's son and business partner Damon Bomar heads the bar program.

Image: Amber Fouts

and greens within reflect both neighborhoods’ traditions; on any given day it could contain rib tips or brisket, okra or Chinese broccoli. I have yet to experience an iteration that doesn’t warm you to the core. Rare indeed is the soul food menu that contains sushi—in Communion’s case, a maki of fried catfish that sports both remoulade and wasabi.

Other Communion favorites present a more classic vein of soul, like flavorful greens topped with smoked turkey, or the shrimp and grits, the majestic pork chop. Or with flourishes gleaned from a life in kitchens, like a fetchingly crispy fried catfish that arrives on a bed of parmesan polenta grits. Brown’s signature black-eyed pea hummus comes regular and way spicy, to spread on hoe cakes.

After seven months of takeout, or dining on the handful of sidewalk tables, Communion brought service inside. Dinner is a merry clatter, with servers who feel like effective ambassadors of Brown’s warmth. It’s hard to tell what portion of the crowds can claim Central District roots, versus folks who showed up after Communion earned serious national acclaim this year. But both cohorts tend to have corn bread and mac and cheese on their tables.

Neighborhood denizens like to stop Brown or Bomar and share their own stories of life on this corner. Early on, the two decided they wanted a restaurant where “the millionaire and the homie” could sit side by side. Communion’s booths keep that proximity from feeling invasive. Bomar runs a great cocktail program out of the handsome vintage wooden bar in the back and razzes his mom about putting the popular ode to pho back on the menu, even though she’d rather push herself to come up with something new. That creativity writes another page of a long story of Black cooks and chefs adapting their traditions to the ingredients around them. Or, as Bomar puts it, “When it comes to soul food, there is no static cuisine.”

To him, Communion’s neck bone stew pushes culinary boundaries as much as any dish with Asian ingredients: “It’s not something you see in a restaurant.” But here it is, on a table next to a creole kale caesar, a plate of sushi, a cocktail. And sucking the bone isn’t a quirk associated with humble origins, but a chef-endorsed path to maximal enjoyment.

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