Classic southern soul food being dished out in Downey

DOWNEY - Originally, this began as a quest for the quintessential American breakfast. The idea was to compare and contrast non-chain, sit-down restaurants in the city of Downey and find the one that offered the best, most delicious bacon and eggs, home fries, and good, strong coffee- all the tasty things one craves on a Sunday morning.The problem was that many of the city's mainstays offered lackluster food. Breakfast was either over seasoned or under seasoned, the coffee was stale, the biscuits doughy and undercooked, the hollandaise and gravy were pre-packaged mixes, and the hashbrowns came frozen out of a bag. Things were looking dismal until I stumbled upon the city's hidden gem, a place where food gets the respect and love it deserves. I thought I'd discovered a new restaurant right there on Rosecrans Avenue, but I was about 20 years too late because R&J Southern Homecooking has been dishing out classic southern fare since 1992. How does a soul food restaurant with some of the best grub in the city go unnoticed for nearly two decades? Location, location, location. Eclipsed by a Wal-Mart and a car wash, R&J's is easy to miss. When owner Julie Peterson's mother told her of the restaurant listing, Peterson and her sister Rita, the "R" in R&J, knew the location wasn't ideal, but the price was right and they decided to buy. Ever since, Peterson has spent each and every day inside her restaurant's kitchen making fried catfish, grits, banana pudding, and all of the other southern dishes her grandmother, Big Mama, taught her how to make. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Peterson was an army brat with a Korean/Mongolian mother who worked as a waitress and an African American father with roots in Arkansas and Louisiana. From her father's side, Peterson learned all of the soul food classics from Big Mama and from her mother's side, she developed a love of curry and a knack for making sauces and seasoning blends. "My mom made amazing Korean food, but I can still remember her coming home from work and bringing me a slice of chocolate mousse pie. My biggest food influence had to be my grandmother. There were no idol hands in Big Mama's kitchen," Peterson said. "If you were in her house, you were put to work stripping greens or peeling sweet potatoes. Her house always smelled like something was cooking or had just been cooked." Peterson's family eventually settled in California and when she and her sister decided to open a restaurant in Downey, they had all the passion in the world, but they found themselves ill-prepared for the business side of it all. The two made it work, owing much of their fearless attitude to their parents. Growing up, before there were online courses that could be taken, Peterson remembers her father hunkering down with massive books each evening. Unfamiliar with the paralegal profession, Peterson's father taught himself everything he needed to know and it was this same stubborn approach that the sisters took when faced with the unfamiliar. "When we opened the restaurant we really had no idea what we were doing," Peterson said. "All we knew was how to cook, but our parents taught us that when you want something badly enough, you go after it no matter what. People are under the impression that you need a lot of money to start a business, but we had very humble means. The first few years were a lot of trial and error, but I had faith and I loved to cook- so it had to work and if it didn't, I was going to make it." R&J Southern Homecooking is very much a family business- and not just in the way that it's owned by two sisters, though Rita Peterson has since bowed out of the restaurant and moved to New Jersey. Peterson treats everyone like family, from her cooks and waitresses, to every person who walks in the door. There's something charming and familiar about the restaurant's appearance, too. Though Peterson says there are a million renovations she'd like to make, the interior is perfect. It's like stepping back in time to an old southern diner, complete with big, comfy booths and glass cake stands filled with sweet little things. Peterson knows all of her customer's names and everyone seems to love her big, bubbly personality. Plus, it doesn't hurt that she caters to everyone. If you have dietary restrictions, she'll bake your fish instead of frying it. If you want jambalaya, she'll make you some, even though it's not on the menu. If you want blackberry pie, she'll whip one up if you let her know in advance. She's made gumbo for 4,000 and she makes a small plate of fried chicken livers for a truck driver from Stockton, just because he comes by every time he's in town and prefers them to the chicken gizzards listed on the menu. Much like her grandmother's house, the restaurant smells like something heavenly is being cooked or has just been served. When I visited, the whole place smelled of brown sugar and peaches and during my talk with Peterson, a customer came in who drove all the way from Downtown Los Angeles for a small styrofoam container of Peterson's peach cobbler, three hours in the making and still bubbling hot from the oven. Everything that Peterson makes is homemade and made to order and those familiar with her food know better than to whine after sitting in their booth for 30 minutes waiting on their oyster po' boy, dressing and gravy, boudain, or smothered pork chops. "People have gotten very used to going to a restaurant, ordering, and having their food served within 10 or 15 minutes- and that's a problem," Peterson said. "If your food comes that quickly, that means it was frozen or made in advance; it wasn't homemade. We do everything from scratch here and though it takes a little longer, you can taste the difference. Nothing is more southern- or tastes better- that fish breaded in cornmeal, but that kind of cooking takes time." While waiting, customers can sip on R&J's signature drink, Muddy Water: half sweet tea and half homemade lemonade, while perusing R&J's extensive menu. The dinner options are southern classics, with everything from hush puppies, red beans and rice, and collard greens, to yams, black eyed peas, and ox tails. Peterson is humble when it comes to her breakfast menu because the restaurant doesn't open until 10 a.m., but R&J offers the best breakfast in town for late risers who want a stick-to-your-ribs first meal. During a recent visit I had the Wings & Waffles, Peterson's take on chicken and waffles. The wings were perfect- super crispy on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside. It was truly some of the best friend chicken I've ever had, easily giving Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles a run for its money. It sounds like an odd combination, but there's nothing better than perfectly fried chicken doused in Louisiana Hot Sauce and pillowy waffles smothered in butter and syrup. For the perfect bite, take a bit of each and swoon as savory and sweet, crunchy and soft come together on your tongue. Other R&J standouts include Peterson's take on biscuits and gravy. Most have become accustomed to milk-based sausage gravy, but R&J's fluffy homemade biscuits are slathered in a super savory, peppery brown gravy served with a side of creole seasoned potatoes and scrambled eggs. For seven bucks, the Big Southern Breakfast is also a steal. Eggs, creamy, buttery grits, toast, and your choice of two meats (I recommend the hot links and bacon) easily makes it one of the most filling and affordable breakfasts in town. Despite serving stellar food and hanging on for almost 20 years, Peterson felt the downturn in the economy coming as fewer and fewer city employees lined her lunch counter each day in their bright orange shirts. Though she has a loyal customer base, a majority are from neighboring cities and it's left Peterson wondering why the city she chose to serve her food to has failed to make its presence known in her small southern restaurant. "I've wondered if it's considered 'slumming it' for Downey residents to drive beyond Stewart & Gray Road. It seems like everyone's more interested in checking out the new chain restaurants opening near Downtown Downey," Peterson said. "I try my best to bring them in, but all I can do is keep cooking my food. I may be across town and our food might take a little longer, but I won't treat you like a number and everything we serve you will be made with love- as cheesy as that sounds. Each person who works here is like family and each person who touches your food truly loves cooking. Where else are you going to find that?" Downey residents can find Peterson and her peach cobbler and gumbo at the Taste of Downey on Friday, September 30.

********** Published: September 15, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 22