Mama Joan’s Soul Food is an authentic L.A. strip mall gem
By Richard Foss
I think there is some kind of magic emanating from a two-mile stretch of Centinela Avenue in Westchester, and it involves chickens. Fried chickens, to be exact.
I have written before about the joy of fried chicken at Pann’s and the entirely decent birds served just down the road at Dinah’s, but until today I never knew that almost precisely between the two was another contender. And now that I have been there, I dare say that the chicken at Mama Joan’s Soul Food is not merely the equal of those, but better.
If you are asking yourself where this place is and how you could have missed it, don’t feel bad. It’s not a high-profile location and is set back from the street next to a convenience store. The red sign helps after dark, but by day the tinted windows make Mama Joan’s look closed even when it’s open.
Once you go inside, though, the place is bright and stylishly but oddly decorated; the lacquer wall ornaments look more appropriate for a Chinese restaurant. It’s a clean, modern look that is slightly anonymous; from a picture of the place you’d have no idea what is served there.
The staff gave us a friendly welcome despite the fact that we strolled in on a busy Sunday evening. Our server welcomed us with a smile and apologized that she was busy but would get water and menus out as fast as she could. They arrived shortly and we perused the selection of soul food favorites to figure out what we would get besides the chicken. (It was a foregone conclusion that we would share that.)
After dithering for a while I got it down to the meatloaf or the short ribs, and when we asked her to be the tiebreaker she called it for the ribs. Each plate came with three sides, so we selected collard greens, cornbread dressing, steamed cabbage, mac-and-cheese, yams and black-eyed peas.
The person who had recommended that I try Mama Joan’s also warned me of one problem with dining there: the kitchen is often backed up and a long wait is common. A regular who was sitting at the next table observed that when the dining area was expanded, the kitchen apparently wasn’t. The people in his party accepted that there would be a wait and entertained themselves with conversation, and so did we.
It took 45 minutes from the time we ordered until the food hit the table, and when it did there was a remarkable amount. We gave up all hope of finishing our meals and decided to sample a little of everything and take the rest home.
The chicken was fresh from the fryer and too hot to touch, so we started with the sides. At many restaurants these are kept on a low heat for a long time and are overcooked unless you show up early. This is particularly noticeable in the leafy greens, but here both the cabbage and collards still had flavor and texture instead of being a soppy mess. (The cabbage also had some bacon in there, so if you’re a vegetarian ask before you order.) The black-eyed peas were in a flavorful chicken stock, the mac-and-cheese cooked so the noodle had baked a bit, which is just how I like it.
The star of the sides was the cornbread dressing. I could easily eat a bowl of this moist, savory variant on stuffing all by itself, as it had plenty of flavors and a little peppery spice to add interest. There are regional variations of stuffing with textures ranging from breadlike to soupy, but this one found a nice space right in the middle. If you have never tried cornbread dressing before, put this on your must-do list. Their actual cornbread is included with every meal and is darn good, so you can try that for comparison.
The only item I didn’t care for was the yams, whose sauce I found too sweet, although my companion was happy to have them all. I often have this reaction to Southern-style yams, so it just means that at Mama Joan’s they make them a traditional way that I don’t happen to like.
By the time we had sampled our way through the side items the main courses were cool enough to eat, and we dived in with a will. The chicken had a crunchy, spicy breading, and the meat inside was juicy and full of flavor. We had asked for dark meat and got two large drumsticks and a thigh, and that was plenty.
Enough, in fact, that I only demolished about half of the short ribs despite the fact that they were delicious. Short ribs are best slow-cooked so that the fat and collagen melts out, but some places overdo it and reduce them to mush. The meat here was fork-tender and still had some texture, while the collagen had melted to gelatin and added richness. This is offered with either barbecue sauce or gravy, and I got the gravy on the side. I suggest you do too, because as good as that gravy is you may want to appreciate the natural meat juices.
Dessert was offered, but since we were taking about a third of our dinners home we didn’t seriously consider it. I’m not sure there’s any way you could follow that meal, anyway. I will definitely be back for more, and I won’t have to save up long to do so: Dinner for two ran only $35, an astonishing deal.
Mama Joan’s Soul Food, 5496 Centinela Ave., Westchester (310) 670-5900