Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reclaiming the 99-Cent Menu at Lena’s Soul Food Cafe

by Luke Tsai
Tue, May 14, 2013 at 11:00 AM

In this post-Fast Food Nation, post-Super Size Me world, the very idea of the Dollar Menu is anathema in certain circles. Good food takes time and costs money, the thinking goes, and it seems criminal for corporate bigwigs to fatten their pocketbooks by selling highly processed, sugar-laden junk to the young and the poor.

But what if the dollar menu — or 99-cent menu, in this case — featured food that was actually homemade, served at a small, family-owned business?

The total bill was $3.23.
On a recent Friday, I headed over to Lena’s Soul Food Cafe (1462 High St.) — a cafeteria-style soul food spot located on the outskirts of Oakland’s Fruitvale district — to check out what I’d heard was a bargain of a 99-cent menu. I ordered a fried chicken drumstick, a hot link, and a tub of rice smothered with pork gravy — a filling lunch, by any standard. Everything tasted good: While the chicken could have been a touch juicier, the hot link was nicely charred and glazed with a sticky-sweet barbecue sauce, and the rice and gravy was as rich and comforting a dish as you could hope to buy for a buck.

The total bill, after tax and before tip: $3.23. You would be hard-pressed to find a better deal.

As it turns out, there’s also a nice story behind Lena’s — one centered on family tradition and a small business’s ability to adapt. Co-owner Lamont Andrews explained that he and his uncle Calvin Andrews opened a wing joint called Wing Town Cafe at the same High Street location in 2010. But, despite a bevy of favorable Yelp reviews and a positive mention by Express critic Jesse Hirsch, business foundered. Last December they closed Wing Town and thought, “Why don’t we do something that we know how to do a little better?”

Who they were thinking about was the Andrews family matriarch, Lena Mae Andrews — Calvin’s mother — who passed away in 2004. A Texas native, she had taught all five of her children to cook from an early age, and they, in turn, had passed her traditional southern soul food recipes on to Lamont’s generation. So in February, when Lamont and Calvin decided to transform their wing joint into a soul food restaurant — but didn’t have the funds to hire a new staff — it made sense to call on family to help out.

“For the first few weeks that’s what we did; all of my uncles and aunts and family members just came and volunteered their time,” said Lamont, who is 28. And although the restaurant has since taken on additional staff, it remains a family operation through and through — there’s usually at least one member of the Andrews clan in the kitchen.

At Wing Town, customers couldn’t order a full meal for less than $10. Lamont and his uncle decided that was too expensive for a lower-income area — especially when their main competitors were Church’s, Burger King, and taco trucks. They realized that, even cooked from scratch, dishes like red beans and rice were inexpensive enough that they could still make a small profit selling them for 99 cents. More importantly, they’d get customers in the door — customers who might be tempted by offerings on the regular menu: the collard greens or the smothered pork chops or the mac ’n’ cheese. I, for one, couldn’t pass up on getting a to-go order of braised short ribs (available on Fridays and Saturdays only), which had been slow-cooked until they were irresistibly tender. (At $12 for a big portion, rice to soak up all the meaty juices, and two additional sides, this too was a deal.)

As for the cafeteria-style service, Lamont said he visited a few successful soul food restaurants in the Los Angeles area that had a similar setup. The main thing, he said, is that they can serve customers a lot more quickly than other soul food joints — which, on the whole, aren’t known for speedy service — while still keeping the food fresh, since the kitchen staff makes small batches of each dish throughout the day.

Look: No one is going to confuse Lena’s with a health food restaurant. As Lamont put it, “If your goal is to eat healthy, we’re probably not the best place to come to regularly.” And it isn’t the type of place where you’re going to find pasture-raised chicken or Rancho Gordo beans. Still, each dish is homemade, and there are comparatively healthy options (like baked fish or baked chicken) available. What’s more, the prices are low enough that even homeless folks can scrounge up enough loose change to buy a couple of home-cooked dishes once in a while.

All of which makes this 99-cent menu one that’s worth celebrating.

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