Though chef André Perkins hails from Los Angeles, the roots of his cooking are deeply set in Mississippi, homeland of his mother and grandmother. That means you'll never enter his diner, just north of downtown, when there isn't a big pot of collard greens simmering with a smoky ham hock on the kitchen stove.
It was the smell of that pot of greens that alerted me to a change in management at J's one frigid morning in March. The place has long been a neighborhood landmark -- when I first moved to town, my family camped out at the adjoining motel for two weeks while we searched for a house. But over the past few years, the restaurant seemed to have gathered a growing layer of grease, and the smell of cigarette smoke embedded in the leatherette booths made breakfast there less than appealing. On the recent March morning when I rediscovered J's, however, the counter was cheerily decorated with the owner's model car collection, the walls festooned with African art, the floors and windows sparkling, the air fragrant with the scent of fresh-baked pies and damp with the steam of that pot of greens.
I tested the new owner's claim of being a southern cook by requesting grits in place of the hash browns on my breakfast plate. The shy waitress said she'd ask Andr who gladly complied. My first clue that I was about to find a new comfort food haven soon appeared at the table -- a big bowl of steaming grits with a pat of melted margarine floating in the middle came with two perfectly fried over-medium eggs and the best thick bacon I've had in years.
Return visits to J's confirmed my high hopes. Five hungry teenage boys and I sampled practically the entire dinner menu one night, and we were satisfied by ample servings, reasonable prices and cooking that tasted as good, if not better, than my own attempts at replicating the cooking of my Southern ancestors. Dinner plates run $7-$8, and include a meat entre and your choice of two side dishes. The barbecue spare ribs were wet, sweet and meaty; the fried chicken golden-crusted outside and juicy hot inside. The catfish filets were breaded in cornmeal and briefly pan fried in oil hot enough to form a crust on the outside without allowing grease to penetrate the fleshy part of the fish -- no small trick. Ditto the thick, boneless, butterflied pork chop -- peppery and crisp outside but not cooked overlong and toughened. The light pink flesh was tender, moist and lean, and perfectly accompanied by a mound of fresh mashed potatoes and brown, homestyle gravy.
Our favorite entre was the chicken-fried steak, a dish that is frequently served in monstrous proportions the size of a plate, slathered with gravy the consistency of glue and composed of an unidentifiable, frozen breaded meat patty. J's chicken-fried steak was made with actual cube steak -- a pounded and tenderized cut of round steak sometimes referred to as "minute steak" in the South -- hand-breaded and cooked to crispy fried perfection. The all-purpose brown gravy was clearly made by hand and redolent with pan drippings.
The side dishes were consistently good -- well-seasoned green beans, corn enhanced with bits of red bell pepper, standard coleslaw, yams dripping in fragrant caramelized brown sugar, and creamy mashed potatoes minus lumps or peelings. But the collard greens deserve special recognition -- in fact, a meal could easily be made of them. Rich and hearty, the meat broth they cooked in was neither too salty nor too bland, and the greens were cooked in long strips, not chopped and rendered into green slop as they often are by cooks who do not know how to prepare them properly.
Our shy waitress, who seemed reluctant to even take our order initially but warmed up as the meal progressed, forgot to bring us bread but made up for the oversight by offering us dessert. The peach cobbler was perfection -- a mix of the crisp, baked dough strips on top and the soft dough beneath the sweet fruit mingled in a small cup that emitted a gentle aroma of nutmeg. My sons hurt my feelings by declaring the sweet potato pie better than ours at Thanksgiving, owing its success to the cook's fine way with seasonings. Two other boys quickly inhaled cherry pie and apple pie, declaring both to be delicious but refusing to share even a small bite.
Lunch at J's is either a sandwich, a burger or chef Andr's special of the day. I lucked upon liver and onions in gravy one day and found it tender and delicious. Call ahead to find out about the special, if you're planning on lunch. Sunday is a good day to try a sampling of Andr's specialties in one big meal that lasts all day "until the food is gone," he told me. All the above-mentioned dishes, plus banana pudding, cornbread and rolls were served on the Sunday I tried it, and the appreciative crowd reminded me that there are plenty of us Southern cooking exiles here in Colorado Springs, overjoyed to find a new place with a perpetually bubbling pot of collard greens, simmering on the kitchen stove.