Location: 730 Penn Ave., Wilkinsburg. 412-242-4084
Hours: Tue.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun. 2-7 p.m. (buffet)
Prices: Lunch $4.50-8; dinner $8-11
Fare: Southern and comfort foods
Atmosphere: Dinner and TV
What a difference a couple blocks can make. For eight years, Ms. Jean Gould ran her soul-food restaurant on Wood Street in Wilkinsburg. Wood Street has its share of successful storefronts, and Jean's was one of them. But being off the main drag, Wood doesn't invite passers-by the way heavily traveled Penn Avenue does. Jason even went looking for Jean's one day based on a dining listing, but found himself on the wrong Wood Street -- the one Downtown.
Now Jean has raised her profile. First, she took over a large, 1960s-era bank on Penn Avenue. Then she added a bright yellow sign on the overhang, and giant salt and pepper shakers on the floor-to-ceiling storefront windows. On a street where restaurants tend to be tiny holes-in-the-wall, Jean has created a big presence.
The dining room is big, too, with a deep-green paint job and a wide-screen TV that fills in for any other pictures on the wall. It's filled with tables, booths and the big steam table that serves the popular Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet. (Jean told us that if we come right at opening, she can promise a seat.) The menu isn't big, but it's straightforward: catfish, ribs and fried chicken -- Southern-style food at its best.
And it is at its best here. We chose three different fried meats -- chicken, pork chops and catfish -- and each was well seasoned, extra-crispy on the outside and extra-moist within. Instead of a one-batter-fits-all approach, Jean's kitchen gave each its own character.
The catfish was flaky and fork-tender inside its substantial, crackly crust, untainted by the unwelcome sheen of pan grease. The pork chops were medium-thick, which let them cook through without darkening their crust. Plenty of black pepper in the batter lent a fullness of flavor. The chicken, available as either four wings or a wing and a breast, had a similar crust, but with less pepper, so as not to overwhelm the chicken's milder flavor. Most impressive was the juiciness of the big white-meat breast. It's quite a challenge to cook such a generously sized breast through while keeping the crust golden brown and the meat moist to the bone.
With each entrée, we were able to choose two sides. Macaroni and cheese and potato salad were both above average: two satisfying mixes of creamy and chunky textures that give dimension to the mild flavors of the ingredients. The mashed potatoes with gravy were superb, whipped to a texture as light and smooth as meringue with a savory gravy that was neither too salty nor too thick. For Angelique, they evoked memories of the iconic mashed potatoes and gravy of her childhood, obtained on every family trip to the Picadilly Cafeteria in Hunstville, Ala. -- high praise indeed. Alas, we unable to sample the red beans and rice, having learned from our server that they were popular enough to have sold out.
The vegetables were thoroughly cooked in the classic Southern style, with mixed results. The green beans showed flecks of red that suggested home-seasoning, but tasted pretty much like canned green beans usually do. The collard greens boasted a little more body, and Jason liked them well enough, but Angelique wanted more flavor, maybe a little smoked meat in them. The cabbage, prepared in a way we haven't seen before, was the best of the veggies on offer, with broad strips cooked until tender but retaining a little crunch at the veins. Flecks of red pepper delivered just enough kick to keep each bite interesting, and the cooking liquid balanced sharp vinegar and mellow pot liquor.
For fans of soul food, Jean's may not be a revelation, but if she didn't invent breaded meat, fish and chicken, she sure knows how to do it right. This explains how she built up a loyal following when she was off the beaten path ... and suggests that even greater success should follow her to a Wilkinsburg's busiest street.