In the South, you are unlikely to get a pork chop that's pink in the center unless you're paying $35 for it at a "New Southern Cuisine" temple of gastronomy. Magnolias' "Southern-Style Pork Chops" are overcooked to my tastes, but they're flavorful, with outer rings of fat to moisten the meat and a deep-down-delicious spice rub. The chops are swathed in an oniony gravy and accompanied by cornbread dressing with assertive herbal seasoning and the homogenous texture of soft polenta -- this bears no resemblance to that gritty November offering from Mrs. Cubbitson. Mrs. Johnson is a magician with cornmeal. For the included side dish (from the "lagniappe" menu) we chose candied yams, as sweet and sexy as a Middle Eastern dessert, with cinnamon to sharpen the flavor. We added another side of macaroni and cheese, made with four different cheeses, including cheddar. The flavor was interesting, but reheating had congealed the texture.
One menu section of entrées is titled "Magnolias' Favorites," and along with the ideal jambalaya, it includes my least favorite entrée, a Louisiana/California/Mex mutant called "Crawfish Enchiladas." The cheddar overwhelms the crawfish, and the flour tortillas (instead of cornmeal) are soggy, unfit for enchiladas. The side dishes are plain-and-pleasant meatless red beans and "dirty rice," done here as herbed rice with lean ground beef. (This dish more typically includes ground chicken gizzards and hearts; if they were present, I couldn't tell.)
An oyster po' boy was also disappointing. The garnishes of shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, and "Cajun mayo" dressing were zesty and authentic, but the fried oysters seemed scant given the bread's thickness, and the bivalves tasted of iodine (which can be a function of their age, type, local water conditions, etc.). Fortunately, there are six other choices of fillings for the sandwich, including grilled Portobello mushroom for a veggie version.
All desserts are house-made. My boyfriend fell hard for the fruit cobbler, a giant portion made with canned peaches and shards of pie-crust dough. The wedge of sweet-potato pie was so sweet and rich, it took two of us three days to finish it, in bits and nibbles and satisfied sighs. The bread pudding is warm and fluffy, anointed with rum-butter sauce. I don't think I'll try to avoid those Home Depot schleps anymore, knowing that at the end of each trek there'll be -- not a rainbow, but a gumbo.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I came here from De Quincy, Louisiana, about 35 years ago," says Bessie Johnson. "It's just outside of Lake Charles. My sisters had already moved here. We were young and just wanted to leave Louisiana. But I started cooking much earlier than that, when I was ten years old. My mother was in an automobile accident when I was really young, and being the oldest girl at home, I started cooking for the family. Then my mother had a little café in Starks, Louisiana, a sort of family café. We had that the whole time I was growing up, and I helped her out when I wasn't in school.
"When we came out to California, my husband Charles had gotten a job out here as a medical researcher. We didn't go right into the restaurant business. I was a stay-at-home mom for quite a while, and when I decided I wanted to work, I worked for Pacific Bell for 10, 12 years. Then I decided to come back home and stay with my son, who was a teenager and needed my attention. As he grew older, I wanted to work again, but not for somebody else. I couldn't think of anything I knew how to do other than cook.
"I had no intention at the time of opening a big restaurant. My thought was to have a little takeout place. But I don't really like takeout, myself. I like going in and having a place to sit down. So that's what we did. My first restaurant, Bessie's Garret in Encanto, had 150 seats. I was kind of naïve -- but it worked out fine. I learned a lot. After we stayed there four or five years, we closed that one and opened up again in La Jolla. We stayed there a couple of years, and then I went out to do catering only. La Jolla turns out to be very seasonal. It's busy from March to September, but after Labor Day, business really quiets down."
While the Johnsons were enjoying semi-retirement, the Market Creek Square shopping center started construction. It was designed as a focus for the community, a source of pride for its up-and-coming multi-ethnic neighborhood. In an area overdosed with burger, taco, and fried-fish stands, the developers planned for a stand-alone, sit-down restaurant, serving top-quality African-American cuisine. "People started asking for me -- that's what the landlord here told me," says Mrs. Johnson. "They had these community organizations, and the landlord was asking them what kind of restaurant they should have here, and who, and my name kept coming up. So they started calling me and asking me if I would do a restaurant here. When we decided to do this, we had to put a lot of thought into it, because -- it's a little scary. But we live near here, and we thought, 'Why not have a nice restaurant in the area?' And after much prayer and consideration, we thought, 'Okay, we'll give it a try.' "
To create Magnolias, Charles Johnson worked closely with the contractors and builders, and together they came up with the present concept. From initial idea to plan to reality took three years. "I couldn't do this without my husband," says Mrs. Johnson. "He retired from UCSD, and he does the running around, he does the books and the PR work. It's always been a family-run restaurant. My son used to work with me, and now he's away at school, and my daughter Tracy works here as the manager. Hopefully, we're passing something down to our three grandchildren. Some of them already enjoy coming in and helping me work -- so we hope this restaurant will have some longevity."