Reverend Jeffrey smiled and waved when we walked in the front door of Just Like Moma's, his new soul food restaurant just east of Highway 59, where Quitman turns into Liberty Road. My dining companions were shocked that the restaurant's owner seemed to know me, since I usually give them such grief about helping me stay anonymous.
The restaurant is located in a less-than-inviting section of the Fifth Ward. When you walk in the front door, the clean, well-lit interior is a pleasant surprise. The floor tiles are mismatched; the red-plastic, one-piece booths look like they came from a fast-food franchise; and the signage is mostly handwritten, but the overall impression is welcoming and comfortable. And the gracious service provided by Reverend Jeffrey, who preaches at a nearby Baptist church, is utterly disarming. My friends and I were the rowdy element in the joint. In fact, they had to remind me to abide by the signs posted on the walls prohibiting cursing.
We walked up to the front and stood looking at the buffet. It was a quarter to one in the afternoon, and the selections in the stainless steel compartments of the steam table were pretty limited. There were a couple of smothered pork chops, some fried pork chops and a few servings of baked chicken left -- that was it for the entres. The peach cobbler was already sold out.
I went for the smothered pork chops, which were lightly floured and cooked until very soft. For my two sides, I got rice, since I needed somewhere to put the gravy, and some of the meat-studded greens. "I cooked the greens with turkey today, is that okay?" Reverend Jeffrey had asked me before he spooned them out. I'd never had turkey in my greens before. The combination tasted pretty good.
The baked chicken that one lunchmate got was tasty, but kind of dry. The sweet potatoes he got on the side were seasoned with lots of pumpkin pie spices. I liked my other tablemate's fried pork chop even better than my smothered one. It had some rippled batter on top, which made it look chicken-fried. I think the chicken-fried pork chop with some of the gravy would have really rocked.
The greens cooked with meat and the creamy black-eyed peas were the best of the sides. The cabbage was too soft; the corn and green beans were too plain; the rice tasted like the parboiled kind. The seasoned red beans, served over rice, were passable. The sweet potato pie had too much ground cloves in it for my taste. And the peach cobbler was excellent, for a cobbler made with canned peaches.
On my first visit, I had an unbeatable lunch at Just Like Moma's. During their grand opening special in December, the restaurant put out a flyer with some $1.99 lunch specials. Wednesday's was fried chicken, and it was some of the best I've had in a while. The white meat in the center of the breast was a tad dry, but the thighs and wings were heavenly. For $1.99, it was probably the best lunch deal in the city, while it lasted. Just Like Moma's still serves fried chicken on Wednesdays, but the price has doubled to a whopping $3.99. It's still one of the best lunch deals around.
They also serve fried chicken -- until they run out of chicken -- for supper on Wednesdays, which only lasts until 6 p.m. Oxtails and smothered steak are two items on the evening menu that you don't get at lunchtime.
On my first visit, I noticed the restaurant was taking orders for fried turkeys for Christmas dinner, so I posted a photo of Reverend Jeffrey posing with a plate of food on the Robblog section of HouStoned with information about how to order a turkey ("Yule Love This Food," December 21, 2006).
The Reverend was smiling at me when I walked in the door on my second visit because he had sold some turkeys to HouStoned readers. He knew it had something to do with the photo I had taken of him, although he wasn't clear on the details.
"Some people came in and bought turkeys because they saw something in the Houston Press," he said. "But it wasn't in the paper, it was somewhere else."
"On the Internet?" one of my dining companions helpfully offered. The Reverend evidently didn't do blogs.
"What's your name, do you have a card or something?" he asked me when I got to the register to pay. I declined to identify myself. He tried to give us all free slices of sweet potato pie, too, but I insisted that he charge me for them.
When we sat down, my tablemates and I talked about the ethics of the situation. The restaurant owner didn't know who I was exactly, but he knew something was up.
"Well, he knows you're somebody connected to the Houston Press, even if he doesn't know your name," my more skeptical friend pointed out. In his opinion, I was busted.
"Of course, he couldn't really cook you anything special because it all comes out of the same steam table," said the other guy.
"He did brew us fresh iced tea," said the skeptic.
"But that's because he ran out," said my other friend.
"He tried to buy a good review with free pie, but we didn't take it," I joked. But then I wondered aloud whether, in the interest of avoiding any hint of ethical compromise, I should drop my plans to review Just Like Moma's soul food restaurant.
"Wait a minute, that wouldn't be fair to him," the skeptic said. We all agreed that the Houston Press had a duty to inform readers about a $3.99 lunch special that featured fried chicken on Wednesdays.
But let me make it clear that while I was researching this review, the management busted me. And I got special treatment. You shouldn't expect smiles and waves, fresh iced tea or offers of free sweet potato pie when you visit Just Like Moma's.
But you should expect one hell of a plate of soul food for a ridiculously cheap price and the best damn fried chicken in the Fifth Ward, if it happens to be Wednesday -- and if they haven't sold out already. (Sorry about the cursing, Reverend.)
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