I love authentic soul food. When I first moved here from Atlanta more than 10 years ago, I had a pretty rigid idea of how soul food should taste. I still do, but I'd speculate that for most San Diegans, the closest they've ever gotten to soul food is fried chicken or macaroni and cheese at some trendy "comfort food" establishment. That's not soul food. Everyone loves mac 'n' cheese. But does everyone love chitlins? Oxtails? Frog legs?
For those brave enough to try the real deal, you have a few options. Bonnie Jean's Soul Food Café is located in a shabby strip mall in Oak Park (1964 54th St.). It isn't much to look at from the outside, but once you're inside, you might never want to leave. The walls have been covered in Christian iconography since the place opened in 1995, and gospel music plays loudly throughout.
I've been going there for years, and, yes, you can't beat the fried chicken smothered in slightly spicy gravy with peppers and onions. But why not try the oxtails (yes, it's a tail, and, no, it's actually from a cow). I had them on my last visit, and I'd compare it to a short rib but with a brisket-style texture to the meat. All entrées come with cornbread and two sides, and I admit the mac 'n' cheese is delicious, but you can't have soul food without fried okra and collard greens, both of which are delectable here.
Not all that far away from Bonnie's is Red Rooster Catfish. I'd heard from several people that the place was not only authentic, but also downright addictive. Finding it is a chore, but once you do, it's surprising to learn that Red Rooster is not a restaurant at all; rather, it's a quaint space at the Jacobs Event Center (404 Euclid Ave. in Lincoln Park), where you order from a window to take home or to eat at one of two small outside tables.
When I was there, a congenial man named Joris introduced himself as the "head catfish in charge." I was tempted to order fried frog legs, but I went with a two-piece fried-catfish dinner with a side of hush puppies, while my girlfriend opted for fried tiger shrimp with sweet-potato puffs. Both were served with the tangy house "Mmmm!" sauce, and I could taste the love Joris puts into his food. The catfish was breaded perfectly and cooked just long enough so that the fish was still flakey and moist. The shrimp were spicy enough to provide a little heat, but balanced out by the sauce.
The winner: Both are fantastic. If you're looking for a place that won't overwhelm your palate but still serves as a suitable introduction to soul food, then check out Red Rooster. However, we're talking about authenticity here and that extends to the experience. Red Rooster's seafood mains are better, but Bonnie Jean's offers food that's just as authentically delicious in a setting that adds to the flavor. Bonnie better watch out if Joris ever decides to move into a proper restaurant space, but for now, Bonnie Jean's has a bit more soul.