1964 54th Street, Oak Park
Skull Creek: I’m bouncing past in a 955 when I spot it. Want to yell “Stop the bus!”
Instead I just pull the cord and wait while we cruise another country mile up this long hill on the border of Oak Park and Chollas (“Skulls”) Creek. We finally stop where Pirotte Drive crosses 54th. “Radar trap ahead!” says a helpful local’s hand-written warning on a piece of cardboard, “35 mph.”
It takes me ten minutes to walk back down to the sun-bleached sign that caught my eye. It sits on top of a low row of shops, near an incense store called “Garden of Fragrance.”
“Bonnie Jean’s Soul Food Café.”
I mean, this is morning. Eleven. I haven’t even had breakfast. But somehow the thought of ribs and cornbread doesn’t sound weird at all.
And what an inside! Photos, trinkets, paintings line the maroon and creamy walls. And black history: posters of “The Negro Leagues, established 1920.” There’s even an old-looking neon sign reading “Negro League Dugout.” A photo from Montgomery, Alabama, dated 14 July 1931 shows a double drinking fountain. One arrow points left to “White,” another points right to “Colored.”
Huh. It all feels like a cross between a community gathering spot and a museum.
“Is this place open?” I ask a man and a woman, Claude and Nailah. They’re sitting at a table, but no food in front of them.
“Oh, yes,” says the woman. “Just check at the kitchen door.”
This is when a young guy comes bouncing out through the kitchen door. He has me sit down at a blue Formica table facing a large chess set and the Negro League memorabilia. He hands me a single-page plastic menu.
“Have a look, and I’ll come back and explain anything,” he says. Name’s Kenny.
The menu has a lot of fish, like a three-piece fish basket costs $9.99. That’s with catfish, red snapper, or tilapia, and comes with fries or cole slaw. A full fish dinner, with four pieces of fish, is $15.99. Shrimp basket is $9.99, shrimp dinner with fish is a cent off $19.
But they have cheaper stuff. Like, you can get a chicken leg for $2.25, a two-piece chicken basket for $6.95. Or six wings for $5.24. Or southern things like fried mac and cheese balls ($6.99) or, hey, spicy gizzards. Gizzards are the little in-stomach food grinders you get in chickens, as well as in the gut of crocs, dinosaurs, and, uh, earthworms. Kenny says they’re maxo-delicious ($5.99).
About the cheapest complete item is a spaghetti special for $3.99. Then there is a hot link sandwich for $5.95 with fries or cole slaw, or $9.95 with two links and corn bread. Or you can get a single pork chop for $5.95 or the smothered pork chop dinner for $12.99.
But what I’m looking for is, well, the BBQ pork ribs. Not on the menu. “Oh, no problem,” Kenny says. “You get four pork ribs, cornbread, plus two sides of your choice for $15.99.”
Not cheap. Kenny also points to the daily $5.99 special. “Today, Tuesday, it’s chicken and waffle. Wednesday is BBQ chicken, hot links, baked beans, and cole slaw. Thursday the fish and cheese grits, and Friday, baked chicken.”
Of course, I end up getting both the ribs and the chicken and waffle. Twenty-two bucks’ worth. My thinking: Chicken and waffle tonight, with Carla. Rest of the ribs and sides tomorrow. Three meals. You only live thrice.
And when the ribs arrive, they are everything I expected. Thick, fat, easy off the bone, juicy, and with such a sweet sauce. It works. Specially when you combine it with the yams I ordered as one of the two sides. That combo of the two sweet tastes is totally made in heaven. A nice honeyish chunk of fried cornbread adds to what you might call the sweetness profile.
And the other side dish I get is the fried okra balls. Okra? Gumbo, a mallow plant, right? The marshmallow’s first cousin. I splot some of Trappey’s Louisiana Hot Sauce all over them. Result: cuts right through all the sweetness.
“These were positively the best collard greens I have ever had,” says this gal Nailah, on her way out. “They start off tart and savory, but then you get a sweetness coming through. Beautiful.”
Turns out Nailah is a senior pastor at Logan A.M.E. church, one of the crusading churches of the civil rights movement. She is fresh down from northern California. Spent the last month trying to deal with her congregation’s fears and anger after Charleston.
Bonnie Jean herself appears from the kitchen. She’s Kenny’s great aunt. It was her sister Stephanie Luckett who started this place up with absolutely no experience back in 1996. “She died January 18 this year. Heart attack,” says Bonnie Jean. “She was 47. We’ve had a lot to deal with.”
But also good things. Bonnie Jean just heard they’ve been named to a list of the Top Sixty Soul Food restaurants. In the nation. “We were at #9,” she says proudly.
“Wow. Really?” says this much-tattooed customer, Ali. “We’ve got to get a photo.”
Ali and her boyfriend Chris are down from Santa Barbara. They’ve just had the chicken and waffle. She hands me her iPhone so I can get her and Chris with Bonnie Jean between them. “This will definitely give us bragging rights.”
“Yeah, but what Top Sixty?” says Carla as we have our midnight feast of the chicken and waffle dish I brought home. So I google it. And there it is, on the online outfit called Tea&Breakfast.com who have done this nationwide survey.
Who knew? A nationally recognized restaurant east of 805, south of the 8. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer family.
The Place: Bonnie Jean’s Soul Food & Catering, 1964 54th Street, Oak Park, 619-262-8854
Prices: Spaghetti, $3.99; hot link sandwich, $5.95 ($9.95 with two links, corn bread); pork chop, $5.95; smothered pork chop dinner, $12.99; chicken leg, $2.25; 2-piece basket chicken, $6.95; 6 wings, $5.24; fried mac and cheese balls, $6.99; regular or spicy gizzards, $5.99; 3-piece fish basket (catfish, red snapper or tilapia), $9.99; shrimp basket, $9.99; shrimp dinner with fish, $19; BBQ pork ribs, two sides, cornbread, $15.99
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday–Saturday; closed Sunday, Monday
Nearest bus stop: 54th Street and Westover Place