Aromas from the Big Easy flowed through the air on Monday afternoon as Kim Soto snipped the ribbon at the Elm City’s newest eatery.
Queen Zuri, a New Orleans-style restaurant at 230 College St., served gumbo, jambalaya and banana pudding cake — among other bayou delicacies — during its grand opening. Soto, the owner, has been operating Queen Zuri locations in Shelton and Milford the past three years. After a Shops at Yale representative ate at Queen Zuri in Milford this March, the representative asked Soto to bring operations to one of Yale’s locations.
“I’ve never been able to go down south, so it’s nice that they can bring a piece of it here,” Jennifer Sun GRD ’19 said. “I’d definitely come back here,” she added after tasting her first-ever bite of alligator meat.
Besides chain restaurants like Popeyes, Queen Zuri is the only New Haven southern-culture restaurant she is aware of, Sun said. It serves traditional New Orleans food plates, as well as a variety of sweets such as cakes, puddings and pies.
After finding success in the Milford location, which boasts a 4.4 rating out of 5.0 on Yelp from 26 reviewers, Soto accepted the Shops at Yale offer and began renovations this summer in the complex that previously housed Samurai Japanese Restaurant.
A New Orleans native, Soto has worked as a Connecticut social worker for decades, and still works full time while running her business.
Her love of food runs in the family.
Soto’s brother, Mark Johnson, runs the kitchens at both the Milford and New Haven locations, and their grandmother was the personal chef to the Heinz family, known for their creation of Heinz ketchup, said Lauren Zucker, associate vice president for New Haven affairs at Yale and director of Yale University Properties. And even the restaurant’s name comes from within the family: Soto’s 17-year-old daughter is named Zuri.
“I was built to provide great food, great atmosphere,” Soto said.
Most New Orleans food contains “the holy trinity”— bell peppers, celery and onions, Soto said. As a result, she is more concerned with flavor than the appearance of the food — which did not go unnoticed. Sun noted that alligator meat was “well-seasoned.”
But for Soto, the restaurant is more than just the food. Faith, she said, is the foundation of her business. For example, the restaurant’s entire staff prays in a group every morning and Soto donates 10 percent of earnings to her church, she said. In similar spirits, Soto tries to create job opportunities for people with disabilities and other disadvantages, she said.
The New Haven restaurant currently employs 16 workers.