Taste trustees of Black History Month save souls with southern dishes
By Dan O'Heron 02/23/2012
Until Bonnie B’s Smokin’ BBQ Heaven came to my rescue, the month of February had been fraught with a conflict of interests that required a choice between equally undesirable alternatives.
Every Fat Tuesday, before Twin Palms restaurant was boarded up, I attended its masquerade ball. Dressed in a red devil’s outfit with a wire tail — dinner fork in hand — I’d skulk around the room and grin like Groucho Marx over some pending evil mischief. After hours, the revelry went on. Dressed like that these days, they wouldn’t let me into a bank in the morning.
And how after Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent sets in, could I, a restaurant writer, dutifully observe Black History Month? It wouldn’t be right to give up the delicious dishes of its heritage. This is a time when gluttony should be a cardinal virtue and not a deadly sin.
Not to agonize, now I can go from the devil to the divine at Bonnie Henderson’s place (1280 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, 626/794-0132). Without fat dripping, or swamps of honey, she cooks up food that is good for my soul. I can’t think of a better tasting meal than slowly smoked spare ribs sided with potato salad, made the way potato salad is meant to be, and baked beans that are lusciously sweet without being cloying.
Caution: Don’t load up on side orders. Carefully prepared dishes like candied yams, mac & cheese and okra and tomato are so good tasting that one’s appetite might get side-swiped before the main entree. I wouldn’t want to miss the bite marks of soul from spill-off-the-bone racks of spareribs, whole chicken, Louisiana hot links and Oklahoma beef brisket. These come with Bonnie-made barbecue sauces so aromatic and tasty, I’m tempted to smell my fingers before licking them.
Portions of everything are generous but not so big as to put my soul in pawn to Jenny Craig or require a recounting to my priest.
“My mission,” said Henderson, “is to be a blessing to the communities I serve. More than anything else in my life, I try to prepare the highest quality of delicious health-conscious soul food. I love to cook faithfully and I hope it shows.”
Like others on Lake Avenue who wave at the restaurant owner through the window, I’m grateful that in these times, when tastes change faster than Jiffy Lube, there’s still some old time religion on the table and a chef like Henderson with a halo.
Not far away, the leading light among dinner houses is Big Mama’s-Rib Shack (1453 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, 626/797-1792). Here, classic Deep Southern dishes — and some innovations — are stirred together by Dargin McWhorter, son of late founder Emma Sue “Big Mama” Miller McWhorter, his wife, Anita, and family.
Back in the day, getting a whiff of Emma Sue’s cookery, I can imagine that wealthy patrons on a Mississippi river boat — at the drop of a snail fork — would love to jump ship to get to her kitchen for fried chicken and barbecued ribs, candied yams and corn bread.
Many recreations of these dishes live up to the name of Big Mama at the restaurant today. (My favorite is smothered chicken and rice. Slathered in a smooth gravy, the combo prickles like a kitten’s tongue, and the meat trembles in easy surrender off the fork.)
These days, said Dargin, they never use the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ingredients in gravies and sauces, once a staple in Deep South dishes. "There’s no fatback in our pinto beans,” said Dargin, “and no meat in our veggies, except in dirty rice.” He indicated you can’t give rice that “dirty look without ground giblets, but you can see that our chitterlings are as clean as a whistle.”
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, live music goes with ham hocks and butter beans. Alternately, there’s blues, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz. Some night after a singer cries out like Billie Holiday — “Gimme a pig’s foot and a bottle of beer” — a waiter will run up with a pig’s foot on a plate and two sides for $8.95 and bottle of Dixie Lager for $4.50.
When the song ends, the melody of a fine aftertaste in dining and entertainment lingers on at Big Mama’s.
Bonnie B’s Smokin BBQ
11280 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena,, (626) 794-0132
Big Mama's Rib Shack
1453 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 797-1792