Bonnie Jean's Soul Food Café 1964 54th St.Oak Park619-262-8854
If Bonnie Jean's Café is the church of soul food, then for heaven's sake, sign me up for regular weekly services. My brand of devout worship, the food kind, is practiced here in large, heartfelt portions. It's where I chose to spend Easter Sunday and where I may sit for many Sundays forth, happy as all get-out, since it seems to be easier to get a table at Bonnie Jean's when all the real church-going folks are still in the pews.
One of the wonderful upshots from this life in food is that it has made me bolder—game to try anything, talk to anyone or go anywhere. So although from the outside the restaurant looks like just another set of barred windows in a slightly foreboding strip of storefronts, I've eaten around enough to know that memorable, praise-worthy food is often found within unlikely places. Inside, the café is a blend of gift shop and a Grandma's living room, filled with mismatched furniture, family photos and some religious artwork and knickknacks for sale. The atmosphere isn't off-putting for those of us who aren't really believers—the place feels more funky and cozy than strange.
Chessboards and a stack of other games add to the relaxed vibe and help pass the time as you wait for your meal. The folks in Bonnie Jean's kitchen are in no hurry and their soul food is the best I've had in town.
We started with a basket piled high with chicken gizzards, fried in a light batter. I loved these chewy and crunchy bites, especially when drawn through a puddle of tangy hot sauce. Bonnie Jean's sweet tea is authentic, so sugary I can feel it in my teeth. A friend ordered Kool-Aid for the nostalgia factor—cherry flavor, a timeless classic.
I considered the fried fish, either whiting, red snapper or catfish, but I was sold once I spied the fried chicken and waffles—I've been dreaming of this dish since a friend and I drove out to La Mesa on a quest that turned up waffle-less, although we did find Abita beer, which I wish were sold here.
My friend opted for the fried catfish and offered to share; another pal ordered the fried oysters, meaning all my fried-food groups were covered. Every meal comes with two side dishes—except mine, so instead of leaving well enough alone, I had to order the side-dish sampler with three options. And even though plenty of regular, cake-like cornbread was coming, we got a few extra of the special hot water cornbread, a fried cornbread patty. Of all the cornmeal breads, I preferred the lighter, tastier hush puppies that, yes, we also ordered.
When all the food eventually arrived, we ate like we'd been fasting for Lent, though, really, none of us would ever purposefully miss a meal. The fried chicken was awesome, the meat seasoned and fried perfectly and so delicious with forkfuls of syrup- and butter-drenched waffle. Though the origin of this dish is unclear, there's no questioning the genius of whoever invented it. I wish the waffle were a bit crispier, but the outer coating on the chicken has good crunch.
I gave my drumstick to a friend and got a nice piece of catfish in return. Someone else cut me a piece of his smothered chicken and waffles, the chicken soft and savory in onion gravy, and we passed around the side dishes so everyone got a taste. High marks were given to all, particularly the collard greens with shreds of ham hock, the fried okra and the spicy-sweet yams. Only the mac-and-cheese was a little disappointing.
We were stuffed at the end of our meal, but our sweetheart of a server told us that she bakes the desserts, so we asked her to pack up a piece each of homemade red velvet cake, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. I can only vouch for the moist tastiness of the red velvet, but I was told that the other “sweet thangs” were very good.