If you all approach Nellie's menu with order and discipline, a table of four people can try every side on the menu. Each person gets three per entrée. "Rice and gravy, corn, and pinto beans," announced one of my tablemates, the advocate of the systematic approach, as he read the first items off a list of twelve and expected us to follow suit. But the choice was between logic and greens, and the greens kept winning out.
Greens, black-eyed peas, and green beans, I just had to order. Greens, fries, and yams, added one friend. Greens, corn, and yams, requested another. As our server left the table, the logician gave us all a baleful look. "You can have some of mine," I offered weakly.
Don't shirk Nellie's greens, which are silky and pine-colored, with big chunks of beef bacon sticking out from them. They're bitter, but just enough to tickle the back of your palate, and as succulent as an eight-ounce steak. Soul food is often known for being dominated by heart-stopping meats, but it's really the vegetables that I crave. That's assuming, as my friend Joseph used to claim in his vegetarian days, that fried chicken also counts as a vegetable.
The heart of Nellie's is Nellie Ozen, who runs the West Oakland bar and restaurant with her daughter, Quinette. Miss Nellie, as the folks around her call her, learned to cook on the farm in Texas when she was nine, and has been working in restaurants since she was eighteen. She is now 73, and still runs the kitchen six days a week. The Ozens earned a faithful following during the decade they cooked at Dorsey's Locker in North Oakland, but a year ago, they decided to strike out on their own. "We wanted to have our own space, and we wanted to do something greater for the community," Quinette says. "And God opened the doors."
They found the former Clam Bucket on Third and Adeline streets, ten blocks west of Jack London Square in an area where warehouses and elevated highways cast long shadows over the street. The Clam Bucket used to attract a lot of truckers from the port, but Nellie's now draws families and groups of friends. It's a sit-down soul-food restaurant in a neighborhood that has long needed one.
Located in the ground floor of an office building -- during the day, suits on cigarette breaks loiter in the parking lot -- Nellie's announces itself with plastic banners hanging above a nondescript entrance that gives no hint of the football-field-size restaurant inside. The office-park decor doesn't disappear at the door: The insides are paved with industrial gray carpeting, with wide swaths of pumpkin and pale blue on the walls and tables wrapped in red and white plastic. White lace curtains and colorful lithographs soften the room, and the music pouring from the jukebox -- everything from gospel to crunk -- fills it up. Takeout orders sit on a row of chairs along the back wall, looking like single girls at a junior high dance. There's a bar in a side room, but it doesn't appear to have caught on yet. Most people are there to eat, and eat well.
Nellie's menu is designed to last from lunch to dinner, with entrées, dinner salads, and sides in the center and sandwiches on the back. Every day the Ozens offer three or four specials: oxtail on Wednesday, chitterlings on Friday, turkey and stuffing on Sunday. Unfortunately, most sell out early, and I was able to try only the meatloaf, moist and not quite rewarmed all the way through, and the most soulful smothered chicken I've ever tasted: chicken braised so long that it could barely hold its shape in gravy made the old-fashioned way, with pan drippings and love. That's a Wednesday dish, mind you.
Nellie's regular menu items are all Southern classics: pork chops, ribs, steak, and of course fried chicken. The fried chicken seems to have the hearts of contributors to the foodie Web site Chowhound.com aflutter. After tasting it three times -- thoroughness counts, doesn't it? -- I can say that I remain a fan of Southern Cafe's forty-year-wait chicken, and Joseph hasn't been swayed from his passionate devotion to way-in-the-burbs Southern Oven. But we both agreed Miss Nellie's chicken was good, darn good -- the skin scrunched and flaky, the insides well salted and glistening. The crust tastes more like meat than batter, suggesting that the chicken is cooked in frying pans instead of a deep fryer so that all the meat juices leach back into the oil, flavoring the meat from the outside in.
The deep fryer didn't guarantee the same success. Pork chops were dredged in milk and flour and fried, forming the same nobbly crust as the chicken, but by the time the batter crisped up, the other white meat had dried out. We had one or two pieces of overcooked snapper, catfish, and shrimp, but most often, when we broke open the thick cornmeal-flour batter that covered the fried seafood, a cloud of steam erupted, with moist flesh to follow. Nellie's gives diners a choice between fried and grilled fish. The healthier of the two options is rubbed in salt, garlic, and herbs and "grilled" on an oil-slathered griddle, where the flesh browns into a crispy crust. I couldn't decide which I liked better.
But, as I said, for me the main draw was the sides, whether they're the yams, sweet enough to spread like jam on the cornbread muffins, or the crisp-but-not-too-crisp french fries. Portions are so generous that I brought a box home one night and got stuffed the next day on yams, corn, pintos, and greens that tasted as good as they had the night before. The Ozens cook their beans until they begin to break down, yielding pintos that tasted much like refried beans and softening the raw-earth aftertaste of black-eyed peas. Their potato salad is the mashed-up kind, tinted lemon yellow with French's mustard and sweet-tart in its creamy-crunchiness. Actually, the side dish that wowed me the most was the green beans, mixed with onions and potatoes, which tasted as rich as chicken stock, with none of that overcooked-vegetable fustiness. Miss Nellie said that for the past twenty years she has cooked all the side dishes with beef bacon or smoked turkey instead of pork lard and fatback, in response to customers' health and religious needs.
One of my acquaintances called me specifically to warn me of a rude server who has turned her off Nellie's for good, but in three visits none of my friends and I encountered her. Just the opposite, actually: How can you not love a restaurant where your server calls you, collectively, "babies"? "Here you go, babies," our raspy-voiced server would say, bringing the food. Or she'd brush by with a quick, "You all right, babies?" The answer was always yes.
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