Miss Barbara Jean’s Soul Food Kitchen in Norwalk tasty versions of Southern classics
Updated 12:00 am, Wednesday, September 27, 2017
I am sitting at my dining table at home unboxing the take-out order I picked up at Miss Barbara Jean’s Soul Food Kitchen in Norwalk.
The food all looks great, but something about it makes me want to laugh. I realize it is the fried pork chops. Each pork chop is about 7 inches wide and there are two of them. How can this be? What sort of giant mega-pig are they from?
Suspecting a colossal mutant hog-like creature, I take a taste and my skeptical nature vanishes. The chops are totally delicious; they taste sweet and savory and moist. This is 100 percent real pork perfectly cooked and a dish I will return to happily.
Miss Barbara Jean’s is one of a small string of storefronts on Route 7 South off the Merritt Parkway. There are dozens of choices to choose from on this strand: Brazilian, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, American, health food and many more, but Miss Barbara Jean’s is the only soul food kitchen I have seen. It is a very bare-bones operation, all takeout or delivery; there are no tables for dining. The interior’s décor is pretty much nonexistent. It is just a clean, functional space to walk in and place your order.
Above the order counter are the menu items. My foodie radar began to buzz as I noticed the selection was somewhat limited. I mean this as a high compliment. So often restaurants get in trouble trying to serve some of everything. If you have ever watched chef Gordon Ramsey deconstruct a failing restaurant and try and get it on the right path, the first thing he does is pare down the menu. Less (done well) is more.
Another optimistic thing about Miss Barbara Jean’s is there are no culinary flights of fancy, no creative riffs on the classics. This is good news because the tried-and-true way of doing things (unless you are a brilliant and inspired chef) is usually smartest. I don’t want a cloud of coffee foam on my barbecue, and I don’t want a craft cocktail with a dozen bizarre ingredients, which, when combined by the over-hyped mixologist, I can’t taste anyway.
One wonderful aspect of soul-food dining when it is done well (as it is here) is the side dishes are as exciting as the meats. For me the two shining entrées are fried chicken and fried pork chops. I also loved the “smothered” versions of both. Smothered entails the same fried chicken and pork, but under a gentle onion-spiced sauce. The portions are huge, such a good bargain that I had to divide my take-out meals into lunch and dinner. It is a real bang for the buck.
You can choose two side dishes with your meat. The candied yams are bright with flavor, just sugared enough to claim their candy title. Mac and cheese is fine, soft and cheesy, soul-food style. I advise you to try the black-eyed peas over rice. I have never liked black-eyed peas; the ones here changed my mind.
Miss Barbara Jean’s
Soul Food Kitchen
115 Main St., Norwalk, 203-939-9599
Not to seem like too much of a crank (although I am), it is the rare piece of corn bread outside my own oven or the Hominy Grill in Charleston, S.C., that I find tasty. Commercial corn bread is usually a throwaway item, at least as served at a few big-name, fast-food places. At this tiny eatery it is redolent of love and tradition. It tastes like I made it. It is closer than South Carolina.
In a refrigerated case are desserts — two soul-food icons, banana pudding and sweet potato pie. The banana pudding was palatable, but the sweet potato pie was exceptional. The minute I saw it, I knew it was handmade. No commercially crimped crust, irregularly cut slices. It is made each day from a well-guarded recipe. The small staff takes turns making the pie. It comes out slightly different depending on the baker, but the recipe is good enough for slight variations. Again it tastes like home, and that is what soul food is all about.
It is hard for a tiny restaurant like this to stay in business and compete with the franchises and high-profile places nearby. It would be all too easy to drive by Miss Barbara Jean’s Soul Food Kitchen and not notice it. It is just one modest storefront among many.
Beside the food being freshly made and truly delicious, I must say that as I waited for my order I talked with the owner and one of his helpmates. They are so proud of what they serve and they work incredibly hard to stay in business. If you like soul food or just good food, please try this place out. The Davids of the food world find it hard to compete with the Goliaths.
Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, coauthored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern. Join her each week as she travels Fairfield County finding a great meal in unexpected places for $20 or less.