This week, Monica and I visited Ms. K’s Soul food & Jamaican Cuisine Express at 1207 Dodds Ave.
Adjacent to the Barking Legs Theater, Ms. K’s is in the former location of Freddrick’s, which I visited in 2014 with local Jimmy Catlett. The exterior is a convenience store/eatery and before Freddrick’s it was the Souf Market. When I volunteered at the Barking Legs back in the mid-2000’s, I would visit the Souf Market for a quick bite or drink before a show. And although it still maintains a bit of that convenience store feel (they sell Monica’s favorite detergent), the focus of Ms. K’s is now all about the food.
Keisha Barnes, Ms. K as she’s known, opened the restaurant 11-months ago and she’s been serving familiar soul food and occasional “tastes of Jamaica” during special dinners and events since. A native Jamaican, Barnes moved to the U.S. when she was nine and has been cooking for as long as she can remember. She believes cooking is her calling and that love can be tasted in every bite. It is a pure joy to watch her in the kitchen.
I’ve heard about K’s for weeks, but a message from our Chattanooga Workspace neighbor Kevin Bate last week reminded me to go sooner than later. He’s a big fan of her cooking and I can see why. It’s just stomach-warming, hearty, deep-fried, joyful food that elicits a smile and requires several antacids. I can’t wait for you to experience it. I mean … take a look at that pork chop plate.
Blink and you’ll miss it. The signage on the exterior looks a bit busy so just look for the yellow and red building with the big “Hot Fish” and “Hot Wings” signs. The bars on the window hide the comfortable atmosphere inside. I remember Freddrick’s being almost intentionally grimy. K’s is cluttered, sure, but it’s also squeaky clean — especially the food prep area. Monica and I walked in and K shouted “come on back” from the kitchen. There were a few other people hanging out. We met the cutest toddler twins, each with “genius” on their onesie. Another kid played “toss the bouncy ball off the cooler” and we learned his favorite basketball player is Steph Curry. I asked him if he liked LeBron James and he said “no.”
The menu is written on a piece of paper and tacked to a pole in the middle of the room. K’s famous Jamaican cooking is only available during certain special dinners, mainly on Sundays. During the week, the restaurant offers fried wings, pork chops, catfish, bologna sandwiches, hot dogs, chicken livers/gizzards, burgers and a host of soul food sides like greens, okra, plantains and macaroni ‘n’ cheese every day. You won’t go hungry, in other words. You can read the whole menu here.
The special Jamaican fare is offered at special events, such as this Sunday’s “A Taste of Jamaica” sample party from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. You’ll get to try a bunch of wonderful Jamaican dishes and help secure some back-to-school items for Ridgedale and Highland Park kids. More information is here.
Keisha was such a pleasure to talk with during our visit. Her stories and passion for feeding people shine through. From the moment we walked in to the moment we left she was kind and willing to chat about anything. Her one hope is that people will take a chance on her food and visit the restaurant. Her success hinges on having people to serve, which she’s admittedly struggled with since opening. She needs to foster repeat customers and find more catering opportunities. “It’s always a struggle,” she told us, but she believes doors have been opened for her and she’s trying to make ends meet.
There were 7 to-go orders ahead of us, so we put in our choices and waited in the seating area. Keisha eventually wants to get rid of the shelves full of household goods and add some tables for proper restaurant seating. Only two booths and about six seats at the bar are available for seating currently. She said most of her orders are to-go, but Monica and I both decided we’d like to hang out some more and eat there. Keisha started cooking and we grabbed a few beers from the cooler to enjoy while we waited. I had a Tecaté (two, if I’m honest) and Monica had a couple of baby Coronas. Ms. K’s has almost all the beverages you could imagine that might come out of a bottle or can.
I didn’t see a printed version of this menu in the restaurant, so we kind of just felt our way through the ordering process. I knew both the wings and catfish were heralded, but I didn’t see catfish listed on the pole. I ordered 12 wings — 6 lemon pepper and 6 garlic Parmesan (with a mild hot sauce base) — with fries and ranch dipping sauce. Monica ordered her first deep-fried pork chop plate with fried okra and macaroni ‘n’ cheese. We didn’t really know what we were getting into.
About 20-minutes later—and after hearing a few Stacy Lattisaw tracks from her 1982 “Sneakin’ Out” album—our plates came to the table. Lord, what a pile of food! Monica’s plate came with two full pork chops, a mound of mac n’ cheese and at least two servings of okra. As if that weren’t enough, Ms. K also includes a dinner roll with each plate. My grandmother used to fry pork chops in a pan, but I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of eating a deep-fried chop in my adulthood. The mac ‘n cheese was perfect as were the okra bites. If you’re going to eat deep-fried food, you might as well eat good deep-fried food.
Listen to Lattisaw’s “Attack of the Name Game” below. You might recognize the sample from Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker.”
My lemon pepper wings were overseasoned a bit, but I didn’t mind once I dipped them in blue cheese. The real surprise was the Parmesan garlic. Instead of just slapping the flavors onto the wings, Ms. K used a mild/hot base before adding the Parmesan garlic. What you get is a slightly spicy flavor with a sharp saltiness of the Parmesan. These are expert wings and I told her she should enter the local wing contests because she might win.
I didn’t mean to eat all of my food — because it was enough for three people — but I couldn’t stop dipping fries and wings in sauce and putting them in my mouth. Monica took a pork chop and a half home. I can’t wait to come back and try some Jamaican food on a Sunday. If she does soul food this well, I can’t imagine how good her authentic Jamaican cuisine will be. Our whole meal was just $30.
Would we go back?
I’m pulling for Keisha and her restaurant. She admittedly has little experience as a business owner, but she knows her cooking is worth multiple visits from customers. She won us over with her passion for feeding people and her inclusivity. At the end of our meal, she told us that “everybody was welcome” and that whatever was going on outside Ms. K’s was going to be a place of “one love” where everyone can have a good meal. I’m heading back soon for the catfish and the Jamaican cuisine. I hope you give her place shot.
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