I grew up in a smallish town. Most of the year it bustled with college students and parents, creating the effect that it was larger than it actually was. During the summer, when all the students went home, it became Mayberry. Restaurants weren't filled with students waiting tables and cooking, they were staffed by people who knew you — the people you saw in the grocery store, at church, or out for a run; a town family of sorts.
This is how Mama J's in Jackson Ward feels during your first visit or your 10th. I've been several times and have yet to open the door for myself. Smoothly, I'm always seated whilst discussing the day's weather or the beautiful night or, deftly, the night's desserts. I'm told the special and brought up to speed on the happenings of the area. Once I was introduced to the minister behind me, as he's a regular, and told that if I had any questions about the menu, he could certainly help me.
One recent night, it might as well be a close friend serving our table. She genially describes how the gravy on the pork chops is made, discusses the heavy use of oregano in the delicious seafood salad ($3) and prepares the kitchen for our request of extra tartar sauce for our lightly fried catfish nuggets ($6). When the barely-there-breaded and fried pork chops ($9) are served, she suggests waiting a bit because of the temperature of the meat and the safety of my mouth. Extra napkins are brought twice during the massacre happening at our table when we begin the spare rib entree ($10). Covered, as in no meat in sight, with a spicy barbecue sauce, the ribs are tender enough to slice with a butter knife.
Sides are a la carte ($2) and can add up. The cabbage and mashed potatoes are both rich with butter and salt. Other offerings include macaroni and cheese (the only side I find a little lacking, because I like a little crunch on the edges), rice and toothsome collard greens.
Budget eaters should try the dinner special. Again, go early or call to reserve before it sells out. A previous special is turkey or beef meatloaf with a drink and side for $8. The minister tells me it was just as good as his mother's.
During lunch one day, I'm gently scolded for not eating both of the disk-sized crab cakes ($9). My companion is given accolades for cleaning a plate full of catfish ($6 and $9), breaded, on the spicier side and fried. A wink is thrown in my direction while dessert is described, and a to-go container handed over.
As for dessert ... this is where my heart stops. Literally, it may stop. My most recent visit makes me a fan of the double chocolate cake ($3). It's too much chocolate and then just the right amount of chocolate in a decadent, overwhelming package. One slice is enough for two people. Two slices of cake cause a coma.
Leaving Mama J's, I'm happily loaded with containers neatly packed with extra everything. I almost expect someone to ask me to call when I get home safely. It is that type of place. S
415 N. First St.
Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday Noon-7 p.m.