Fifteen bucks got me the fish dinner, four big fresh fillets, steaming and flaky beneath a cornmeal dredge that crackled with each bite. The sides were ample and savory, greens stewed with turkey neck and studded with its meat, and red beans and rice, partitioned tidily, but not sparingly, in a styrofoam clamshell.
On that sunny March afternoon in Braddock, I was hung over and desperate for caffeine. While I waited for my fish to fry, Shayla Wolford, who was alone behind the counter as she cooked and tended the register, the phone, and the sink of dishes all at once, took time out of her many tasks, all while General Hospital played on a flat-screen TV, to brew a fresh pot at no charge.
That’s how it is at Aunt Cheryl’s: the service is slow but attentive, with a level of straightforward kindness and flexibility expected from all parties. Some listed menu items aren’t always available, either until somebody can get to the store for groceries or because the dish is so fresh, it’s still cooking. Either way, the result is absolutely worth the wait.
On my most recent trip to the brightly lit basement cafe, I spent the 25 minutes Wolford needed to finish cooking a batch of red beans and rice (New Orleans-style, with rounds of sausage adorned in the char of a hot pan), making friends with Braddock locals, all of whom came prepared for the wait I was learning to expect.
As we talked, Wolford watched the sidewalk through the block glass windows, narrating as people approached and sharing what she knew about them. One smartly dressed older man chatted about the weather as we waited for our orders in the cafe’s leatherette chairs, inquiring earnestly about my day. After he left, Wolford turned and says, “He runs the funeral home. So you know everybody knows him.”
Wolford appears to know everybody, too. She’s been cooking at Cheryl’s since 2018, grew up down the street, and says the job came to her fortuitously. Before working at Cheryl’s, Wolford had been tending bar around the corner on Braddock Avenue at Lucky Frank’s Irish Pub (just Frank’s, to locals), when a man she didn’t know stopped in looking for something to eat. Wolford gave him a helping of what she’d cooked up for the staff — fried chicken with cabbage and rice — and, as Wolford tells it, the man, who turned out to be “Aunt” Cheryl Johnson’s partner, said to her, “My woman’s got to try this.”
At the time, Wolford had never even heard of Aunt Cheryl’s Cafe. “I’d been ordering food from Swissvale,” Wolford says, “when this was just down the street!”
Wolford credits Johnson’s partner with changing her life that day. “Miss Cheryl taught me so much,” she says. “In this job, I learned what freedom feels like.” She says working at the restaurant also taught her how to cater, gave her the confidence to cook for 200 people at a time, enabled her to afford a new car when hers was in an accident, and to take a real vacation — to Las Vegas — for the first time in her life.
Four years after starting, Wolford now runs the day-to-day operations of the restaurant solo, having learned all of Johnson’s recipes. But when first asked to speak about the restaurant, she said, “You know I’m not Aunt Cheryl, right?”
While I was eating my lunch, she asks whether I’d tried any of the desserts, then offers a slice of almond cake with white icing, made by a woman with whom she and Johnson go to church. It’s light and sweet, perfect for a picnic in the summer, and I finish off the thick slice quickly.
“Could I try the famous sweet potato pie, too?” I ask. Unfortunately, it’s so popular that it was already sold out. “It’s better than my grandma’s,” she says. “But I’d never tell her.”