“Where do we want to go?” The question is a tough one. There are so many factors to consider. What section of town? How much are we looking to spend? Are we concerned with great cocktails or a big beer selection? What subset of food are we trying to nosh on? For such a dense question, it sure seems to just hang in the air. “How about Mama J’s?” one of the ladies offers. Just like that, with one text message, the question has been wrestled into submission. Reservations were made and anticipation built until finally we are all standing outside the doors of our delicious smelling destination.
Located on 1st St. in Jackson Ward, this green building is tucked neatly into its block. It’s not a big place, so it amazes me that you aren’t packed in like a sardine once inside. The restaurant perfectly balances maximum seating with maximum comfort. That being said I have one word for you: RESERVATIONS. If you think you are just going to walk in and get yourself a table on a typical night, good luck to you. We had reservations and still waited about 20 minutes. Once we were called, we were lucky enough to have a table right by the big front windows. I like to watch the world pass by while I eat.
A few minutes after we were seated our server came by to take our drink orders. He was a jovial fellow with a sturdy knowledge of the restaurant’s offerings. As always, I went with a beer but the ladies went with cocktails. Our server was able to make great recommendations, like the Papa’s Punch (a combo of rums and juices) and the Uncle Rowland’s Spiked Limeade (spiked with whiskey). Both were served in mason jars, which I appreciate as that is a big sturdy vessel. Each was flavorful with the Punch being sweet and the Limeade tart. You knew there was alcohol in them but it didn’t steamroll the drink. So, the cocktails were on point. Good start.
The menu is a simple one page affair, which is amazing. You are here for Southern comfort food and that is what is offered. We got a double order of the catfish nuggets while we made our main course choices. I’m almost at a loss on how to describe them. Golden brown is accurate, yet it feels hollow. It’s almost as if this fish was painted with the rays of an early morning sun, the color was so deep and rich. Whomever was working the fryer was a master. They cooked these nuggets perfectly. The tasty, light breading was able to obtain a satisfying crunch while the fish on the inside was juicy and firm. The tartar sauce served on the side was sown with the flavors of something mixed fresh each day in the kitchen. Its zesty creaminess was spiked with pleasant little pops of crunch from the relish folded into it. When you dipped the fish into the sauce, your bite took itself to a different level. Get your mitts on some as soon as possible.
Usually, when it comes to our main courses, we all like to get a different dish. This allows for much tasting and trying of each other’s plates. Yet, after careful consideration of the menu, we all pretty much settled on the same thing. Two of us got fried chicken and two of us baked chicken. It was with our sides that we brought a sense of variety. I went with the fried chicken with seafood salad, collard greens and a corn muffin. I love fried chicken, which is something that can be said for a lot of people. This chicken did nothing but reinforce my feelings. The breading was well seasoned, the flecks of black pepper visibly trapped in its flaky goodness. It was a crispy thin covering allowing each bite to be a symphony of crunches. The meat trapped under this protective covering was juicy and savory. The seafood salad was rich and creamy. It was laced with choice chunks of shrimp in what amounted to the perfect noodle to seafood ratio. The dill lent its refreshing herby flavor to the creamy sauce. The collard greens were a vinegar flavor bomb. They were cooked with obvious care. They weren’t some mushy green blah. Instead, they were bright and zesty with good body. The corn muffin was warm, moist and corny — It was what you want out of corn bread. When you sliced it in half, it almost sang to you about how great it would be with butter soaked into its crevices. Each part of this dish was perfectly complimented by its companions. One missing, to me, would have made this meal feel incomplete. When I had finally polished everything off, my stomach had a feeling of zen-like contentment.
Mama J’s fully deserves the reputation it has as a mecca for Southern comfort food. Each dish we had was artfully crafted and exquisite. The place itself has such a giant feel for a place that is so small. It somehow blends the qualities of a grandma’s kitchen with a sophisticated big city restaurant. I feel lucky knowing a place like this exists in Richmond. If you are looking to soothe your soul with some great food, I suggest a reservation here. Until next time, faithful readers, may your limeade be spiked and your nuggets catfished.