Trying to publish a review of JJ's Soulful Dining has been an exercise in futility. Two visits to grab some grub were made, but it was one hit-and-miss attempt after another when it came time to photograph the goods.
One photographer was told the restaurant would not make food just for a photo. A second photographer was denied entrance to the building when the landlord said he was shutting the restaurant down due to late rent (see picture). After we called again and double-checked the restaurant's openness, a third photographer went — and the doors were locked, again, in the middle of a Saturday.
Another phone call was made, and apparently the place on Jet Wing Drive is open but, at this point, all I can say is: Prove it.
So we can neither confirm nor deny that JJ's Soulful Dining is open, serving food and willing to accommodate customers. But here's what we can say:
Though it's a certainty that screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein hadn't experienced lunch at JJ's Soulful Dining when he said, "My soul is dark with stormy riot, directly traceable to diet," it'd be more understandable if he had.
Take the location: Judith John's soul food spot lives in a dumpy South Academy Boulevard strip mall, situated between a smoke shop and a Cricket Wireless. Dark shades line the windows, while handwritten signs warn that shirtless, shoeless, check-writing patrons are SOL.
The dining room seems meticulously modeled after an unfinished basement. Exposed drywall divides the kitchen from the main room, which sports a shiny black floor, red-accented chairs, and faux red roses topping black, hand-numbered tables. Drab, grey walls are barely enlivened by a perplexing mix of small, framed mirrors and framed Asian characters. A blank TV and home stereo — aggressively pumping out early ’90s R&B (think Toni Braxton and Boyz II Men) — completes the décor.
Sitting in this most awkward of dining spaces, never more emphatically have I thought, "The food had better be good."
Lunch started with an order of six hot wings ($3.99), a literal description. Superheated by a microwave, the mushy meat and overly-vinagery sauce proved upsetting, if not an actual temperature health hazard. This would prove a trend.
After bringing our forgotten silverware and napkins, our server/hostess/cook (i.e., the only person in the restaurant, besides us) returned, in stages, with our entrées.
The catfish sandwich ($5.50) was great. Crunchy and lightly seasoned on the outside, tender and flaky on the inside, and topped with lettuce and tomato, the dish proved a rare hit. Though it would have benefitted from some kind of rémoulade to combat dryness, the requested tartar sauce worked fine. A side of macaroni and cheese proved generically tasty, if a bit soft.
Next came an abysmal pork chop sandwich ($5.50). Two re-heated medallions, apparently fried longer than an August day, sat on a dry bun with lettuce and tomato. Even a side of tangy-sweet homemade barbecue sauce could do little for the flavor. A cheeseburger ($4.79) with lettuce, tomato, pickles and anemic bacon ($1 extra, trying its best to pretend it hadn't sat in a refrigerator overnight and then been microwaved past mush) also failed miserably.
The ribs ($8.99) were tender enough and benefitted from the included sides of salty collard greens with pork, and nicely smothered (basically creamed) corn, but fork-proof cornbread soured the deal.
Interestingly, on a return trip for dinner, Johns, working the kitchen herself, found the missing soul of her food.
Again the only people in the dining room, we were treated to small fried chicken drummettes ($8.99) that crunched and oozed fresh grease in all the right places. The pork chops ($8.99) were hot and tender, while the included sides of crunchy, sweet and perfect potato salad and incredible, sugary baked beans with ground beef outshone all the rest.
Homemade sweets chocolate cake, lemon cake and sweet potato pie (all $2.50) all rated satisfactory and generous for the price with two large scoops of vanilla ice cream on the side.
So JJ's presents a quandary: Will you get microwaved leftovers, or a bit of kitchen magic? Figuring out which shifts Johns works might be the key, but that's a weakness no restaurant should allow.
JJ's Soulful Dining
3037 Jet Wing Drive, 392-2774
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. (breakfast), 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (lunch and dinner); Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.