Munch goes to Jean's Southern Cuisine

Laissez les bon temps roulez!

That's French for "Let's get drunk by 11 a.m. and eat a Muffuletta sandwich." On the weekend before Fat Tuesday, Munch had hoped to do precisely that, except that Taste of New Orleans, Pittsburgh's resident expert on jambalaya and dirty rice, was closed for Mardi Gras. Pittsburgh restaurants have an adorably infuriating way of being closed on the exact day you'd hoped to eat there.

So your Gadabout Gourmand settled for Jean's Southern Cuisine in Wilkinsburg, which had been given the N'awlins seal of approval by many of the Katrina evacuees who made the trip here in summer 2005. Back then, Jean Gould's soul food restaurant was on Wood Street in Wilkinsburg. Today, it's on Penn Avenue, relocated into an old bank building, dressed in green and gold. A streak of purple here and there, and this place would be ready for Mardi Gras 365 days a year, whether or not it serves New Orleans food.

As a byproduct of its corner bank location, the dining room is big -- perhaps too big for weekday lunchtime dining, as Jean's was nearly empty when Munch and friends arrived during the midday. But they need every bit of that space on Sundays, when they have a breakfast buffet in the morning and a dinner buffet in the afternoon.

Tuesday through Saturday, though, the minimalist menu is a la carte. Jean's specializes in Southern goodies: catfish sandwiches, pork chops, chicken, ribs and -- in a rich bit of culinary incongruity -- salads. Does anyone actually come in here and order a salad?

Certainly Munch did not. As Fats Domino once said, "Salads are for sissies." (And he meant it. Dude was like 300 pounds.) "Now fetch me some fried chicken, a side of red beans and rice, a side of cabbage, a slice of cornbread, and a Diet Coke."

What's that? You're out of red beans and rice? Munch ordered green beans instead. Munch got collard greens in return. Munch, given a choice of cornbread or dinner roll, asked for cornbread -- and received neither. You might forgive these oversights when a place is jumping, but we were the only people there. Several other sides we'd hoped to try -- mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas -- simply weren't on the menu that day. Neither was Diet Coke.

Munch substituted the Coke with a sweet tea, and in retrospect, when you're having chicken and greens, sweet tea is a no-brainer. The chicken here is crispy and light, juicy without the oily patina. Like the rest of the dinner platters, this one was under $10 and came with two sides; sandwich portions are a few dollars cheaper and come with a single side dish.

Foodie Friend of Munch (FFOM) craved the catfish sandwich, and it came exactly as advertised -- fried catfish and bread, without a single shred of lettuce or a squeeze of tartar sauce. That presentation may come as a surprise to those of us fondly accustomed to Lenten-season fish sandwiches smothered in cheese and mayonnaise and pickle slices, but the naked sandwich allows the crunchy, seasoned fish to take center stage. "One of the best fried fishes I've had," says FFOM, high praise from the foodie.

The pork chops, selected by Groupie of Munch (GOM), seemed to have a heavy batter, and in Munch's eyes were the least impressive of the lunch items. GOM said she thought the chops were over-salted, but be aware that she grew up on the Left Coast, where grease, salt and whole milk are regarded as sinful. Likewise over-salted were the greens, but they were cooked to that lovely middle ground between crunchy and wilted, and spiced just enough to get the Old Schnozzola of Munch running ever so slightly. Better still were the other sides -- the baked mac and cheese was fluffy yet dense enough to cut into slices, the cabbage was sweet and vinegary, and the cinnamon-candied yams might as well have been a dessert.

As is the custom in the Deep South, service was, shall we say, relaxed, and Munch had to send out a search party to find the guy with the bill. But you're not coming for white linens, are you? You're coming for heaps of food, rich and hot. You'll find that here, even if it isn't always the food you've asked for.

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