An Oak Park legacy
A family run restaurant in Oak Park, Flowers Fish Market, serves red snapper burgers, cornmeal-battered whiting specials and is one of the neighborhood’s oldest businesses
“Fresh call, brother? Bean pie, sister?” asked two brothers in perfectly fitted suits and crisp black bow ties, standing on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Broadway as my cousin and I walked toward a little building tucked in an alcove.
We entered Flowers Fish Market and approached the counter, the open kitchen directly behind. The cook was oblivious to us and continued to sing to the floating fillets of fish in the deep fryer. We put in our orders for two fried whiting sandwiches.
We took our bounty and sat under a shady tree on Bigler Way to wait for the American Legion High School crowd to pour out. We tore into those containers as the assemblage started. A mountain of thin fillets cut into pieces with curled edges, white flesh on one side and a charcoal stripe on the other side beneath light cornmeal dredge. A slather of tartar sauce, a sprinkling of tart and vinegary Crystal hot sauce, crunchy from the cornmeal batter and years of fried fish education sandwiched between two pieces of white bread. A sip of Tahitian Treat. We were mighty pleased with these sandwiches.
“Flowers is definitely a legacy business,” says local author and historian William Burg when I inquire about the possibility of an older restaurant existing in Oak Park. There are a few Oak Park restaurants I remember from my childhood such as The Hamburger House, that had amazing peach cobbler. I remember a few from folklore such as Dunlap’s Dining Room near 43rd Street and 4th Avenue. I remember a Primo’s Swiss Club that was not “dilapidated and abandoned,” as it’s now described on Arthur Henry’s Supper Club & Ruby Room’s website. Rather, it was full of electric energy. I remember an Oak Park that had both Harlem Renaissance swag and 1990s Hollywood inner-city movie violence.
Yvette Henderson, owner of Flowers, was born in Berkeley. She’s a restaurant veteran. Henderson says that her family “built a restaurant from the ground up in Vallejo” in the 1980s. They decided that their future wasn’t going to be economically successful if they stayed in Vallejo. So in 1993, Henderson and her family, along with her father Rudy Henderson, moved to Sacramento and took over Flowers from Mr. Flowers, who opened Flowers Fish Market and Restaurant in 1985. At one point, it even had a fish market.
The current building is the original building, but it has served different lifestyles.
“It used to be a juke joint and a wash house at one point,” Henderson says. As I stand at the front counter, a series of working men come in and out, picking up their phone orders. There are lunch specials on the menu: five-piece whiting and fries ($7) and a red snapper burger and fries ($5.50). I always order the two-way combo of fried whiting and chicken wings ($16.85) with a side of french fries.
While I normally prefer my french fries crispy, I have a special place in my heart for soft french fries if they’re homemade and hand cut. And they are at Flowers. What appears before you is a heaping pile of crispy fish and chicken pieces, some blossomed like flowers in the deep fryer.
Be patient. Everything is cooked to order, so it arrives at the temperature of the sun. First: a slather of tartar sauce and a sprinkling of Crystal hot sauce just as I’m about to gnaw at the little pieces of chicken like a wild animal. Suddenly, another aroma wafts from the kitchen. A warming scent. I walk back to the counter to find Henderson removing a slew of sweet potato pies straight from the oven.
I’m not normally a fan of sweet potato pie. I often find it to be cloyingly sweet, sometimes gritty, or just downright bland. It was impossible to pass up an opportunity to purchase a fresh pie that had only been out of its incubator of love seconds ago.
The sweet potato pie ($14) is Henderson’s mother’s recipe. The filling is smooth and rich. It has nutmeg, cinnamon and other warming spices. Henderson makes her pies weekly, along with peach cobbler and bean pies. She learned how to make bean pies from her father, Rudy. And Rudy learned how to make bean pies from rapper Mozzy’s grandfather, John Usher.
“He was really good at baking,” Henderson says. Bean pies were a regular sight in the ’90s in Oak Park, sold on street corners by black Muslims. Today, there are only two places that I know of where you can purchase them. Flowers is one of them.
Flowers might not be everyone’s favorite. But, I’d peg it as a strong contender for being the oldest restaurant in Oak Park continually operated by the same family. A mainstay foundation in the face of gentrification.
It’s still a family business, so you might catch Henderson, or her brother J.R., or her son Denzel on any given day. It’s welcoming to those who have a history with the neighborhood. The food is like the restaurant and its owners: It doesn’t need your approval. It’s unapologetic, it’s comforting, it’s loving and it is genuine. It’s the Oak Park of my childhood.