Ordering from a menu is an exercise in semiotics. You decipher what a restaurant serves by wading through a system of often meaningless symbols like "fresh" and "farm-raised." And then there are the foreign languages. On a menu, there is a world of difference between velouté and gravy. And yet, in reality, they are exactly the same thing.
But when you stand in front of a soul food steam table with a cafeteria tray and a hearty appetite, there's no such abstraction. The food talks to you directly. And you respond in a primal, Pavlovian way that short-circuits intellectualization.
Well, that's my excuse, anyway. I came to J.J.'s Cafe because somebody told me to try the hamburgers. But after getting a look at the steam table, here I am eating a big fork- tender smothered pork chop with gravy, spooned over a pile of rice, with collard greens doused in pepper sauce with a square of moist corn bread on the side. A lunch so awesome it makes me forget what I'm doing.
1004 San Jacinto, 713-222-2345; Hours: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.
Lunch special: $5.95
Catfish sandwich: $4.95
Peach cobbler: $2
On a subsequent visit, I sample the sublime chicken and dumplings, which come with fluffy noodlelike little dumplings and lots of chicken. That dish is marred only by the small bones that occasionally turn up in your mouth. I also try the smothered turkey leg over mashed potatoes with cabbage, my least favorite so far -- the turkey meat is too dry. But the mashed potatoes and gravy are absolutely addictive, and I manage to enliven the plain boiled cabbage with some juice from the jalapeño bowl and a jolt of pepper sauce.
J.J.'s Cafe is a squeaky-clean nine-table restaurant at the far north end of San Jacinto, not far from I-10. It's appointed in nondescript, industrial lunchroom style, with linoleum floors, fluorescent lights and Formica tables decorated with plastic flowers. The lunch special, an entrée with two sides and corn bread, runs $5.95. The burger is the same price. Signs on the sidewalk advertise a new breakfast menu that includes catfish and eggs. I would have loved to sample some, but as of this writing, J.J.'s still hasn't gotten the breakfast thing off the ground.
On my second visit, I screw up my courage and stand a good five feet back from the steam table. When I get the server's attention, I ask for a hamburger basket. To stand in front of a display of ready-to-eat soul food and ask for a short-order hamburger is a difficult thing for me to do.
On their birthdays and special events, I used to let my kids pick where we would go out to dinner. My older daughter, Katie, usually opted for a pizza parlor or a cool hamburger joint. To my chagrin, my younger daughter Julia's choice was always Luby's. At first I suspected that she was really interested in the cubed Jell-O. Then I speculated that maybe she just liked her meals bland. When she grew old enough to explain, she told me that what she liked about cafeterias was seeing all the food. "You never get the wrong thing," she said.
The hamburger meat is thick, though it looks like a frozen, preformed patty. It isn't cooked to death -- in fact, it's still a little pink in the middle. The meat comes with a Kraft single on top, a big bun, lettuce, tomato, dill pickle slices, raw onion, yellow mustard and mayonnaise. The big french fries are piping hot and crispy. It's a very good burger, not an exceptional burger. It was the wrong thing to order. I wish I had gotten a smothered steak or the Creole meat loaf instead.
While I eat my burger, a strange-looking bus with mesh over the windows and "Harris County Sheriff" on the side drives by. I always thought of this area, which is home to Houston Studios and located across the highway from DiverseWorks and Vine Street Studios, as an arts district. But I soon learn how diverse it really is.
J.J.'s is fairly crowded. A dozen people are eating together in half of the restaurant while two law enforcement officers hover around. When they stand to leave, they all get up together. One officer hands over some official-looking forms to the guy at the cash register, who signs them all.
"What was that all about?" I ask when they're gone.
"That was a jury," the cashier says. "They weren't allowed to talk to anybody. That's why they sat by themselves over there."
The cashier admits he is also the proprietor. When I ask for his name, he demurs. "I'm one of the Js in J.J.'s" is all he will say.
"Do you get a lot of jury members in here?" I ask.
He looks at me like I'm thick. "Yeah, we get lots of juries -- and lawyers and judges. There are 56 courts within a few blocks of here. And then there's the sheriff's department, and all the jails."
"Don't tell me the prisoners stop in for lunch," I joke.
"No prisoners, but an awful lot of guards," he says.
As I walk out the front door of J.J.'s, I take another look around at the "arts district." And I realize for the first time that it's also the criminal justice district. I had passed the Las Vegas bail bond office on the way from my parking spot. On the way back, I stop in for a minute and chat with general manager Jay Lindsey.
"There are 38 federal, state, county and city criminal courts within a few blocks of here," Lindsey tells me after looking them up on a list he has at his desk. "And that's not counting all the civil courts." My first thought is how odd it is that I've been in the area several times and never noticed that I was hanging out in one of the largest criminal justice outposts in the country. Then I start wondering if I have any unpaid parking tickets.
Lindsey says he eats at J.J.'s at least once a week. But he needs a nap after eating the smothered pork chops, so he's switched over to vegetables -- usually the beans and rice. The bail bondsman thinks J.J.'s is pretty good, but, he says, the soul food restaurant that used to occupy the space was even better.
"What was the name of it?" I want to know.
"Adrian's," he says.
"Adrian's?" I puzzle. "Was it run by Adrian Cooper, the guy who runs Adrian's Burger Bar over in the Fifth Ward now?"
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"I don't know," he says. "He made really huge hamburgers."
"Yeah, that's Adrian," I say with a nod.
Val Cooper, Adrian's mom, answers the phone when I call Adrian's Burger Bar. "We had that restaurant for around three years," she says. The location, she explains, has a long and colorful history. "The building belongs to the Demeris family," says Cooper. "It was the original location of Demeris Barbecue" -- now at 2911 South Shepherd Drive -- "back when the mom and dad started the business."
I still haven't gotten around to trying the meat loaf, the smothered steak or the baked chicken, but I'm sure I will someday. Their succulent, steaming images are engraved in my brain. That's the dangerous side of the soul food steam table: You want to eat the whole thing. J.J.'s Cafe is a sparkling-clean soul food haven that the downtown lunch crowd and the neighborhood art gang will appreciate. And, of course, it could really come in handy if you ever get summoned for jury duty.