I’m pretty sure that for each Yelp page of southern restaurants in the Bay there’s at least five reviews that start with, “I’m from [enter somewhere in the south] and I know my [enter southern dish] and this place is [enter shitty or approving review here but both probably with some offensive comment about the neighborhood if east of Lake Merritt]…”
I am not from the South. I don’t know my southern food very well. Much of the time, I don’t know what authenticity means when it comes to something as ever-evolving and personal as food (although I will admit that chicken fried tofu makes me want to punch something). But I do know when food tastes good. I know when it’s cooked and served with love. I know enough to know that when there’s a line out the door in a strip mall in Fruitvale with all kinds of people in it that I should stand behind them.
Lena’s Soul Food Cafe is inside a shopping complex on High Street, just above International Blvd. I must have passed it a thousand times going to Mi Pueblo, grabbing my regular plate of beans, rice and some kind of meat in between buying ingredients for a pozoleada. Silly me, not knowing a change-up of fried chicken, greens, and mac and cheese was just next door.
Lena Mae Peters moved from Texas to Sacramento when she was 16. As my friend Rick reminded me, a lot of the Bay Area’s Africa-American communities have roots from southwestern states like Texas (kinda explaining why we love a Juneteenth celebration here). Back to Lena. She had five kids and taught them all to cook, this is their restaurant built in her honor.
I didn’t get to talk much with the staff because, well, there was a line even as we were leaving. But one of the cooks did come by as I took photos of the food and start clapping, which is probably the nicest reception I will ever receive for doing that.
The cafe is a take-out cafeteria-style joint with options for a regular plate ($11-$15 with two sides) or a large plate ($14-$18 and three sides). The regular plate would take me three days to eat, so god help you and your large plate. Sides include yams, collard greens, mac and cheese, and green beans. Two cornbread muffins come steaming wrapped in tin foil. Mains include fried fish and chicken, smothered pork chops, prawns and a special for each day. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a 99 cent menu, but I’m thinking Lena’s is way above the rest: it’ll get you a tub of red beans and rice, black eyes peas, a mix of okra, corn, and tomatoes, or a piece of chicken or fish.
As we circled around the velvet red rope and stanchions, the line behind us never got shorter. People— from an African-American couple who cleverly moved from chair to chair while they waited in line, to a curly-haired white guy trying to keep his elementary school aged daughter entertained— just kept coming in, even as the food started running out.
Standing in line is half the fun. It’s loud from everyone ordering, the AC going, the TV blaring in the corner, and the kitchen with about five staff calling back orders and asking for more trays. Twice I watched them get replenished, the greens came shiny and leafy as they tumbled against the pork bones falling into the new tray.
Because I believe in a daily special, I had the Wednesday neck bone. It was near closing time and there wasn’t much meat left, so the gentleman with nice arms and tattoos working the line insisted on subbing with a few pieces of BBQ chicken. The pork fell off the bone, speckled with stewed tomatoes.
The rest of the food is exactly what you would hope: the mac and cheese creamy and rich, the cornbread fluffy, the yams bright and mapley. The fried chicken was a little dry, but I would be back for the dark meat. It might be the banana pudding that represents the food here best: a tangy chilled custard layered with Nilla wafers, unglamorously pressed into a plastic container. It’s a guilty pleasure, good, affordable and comforting.
Lena’s Soul Food Cafe
6403 Foothill Blvd
11-9 pm (but try and make it before 7 pm)