Southern bliss

The Plantation Bar & Grill

1454 Del Paso Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95815

(916) 921-6168

Sometimes, it’s questionable whether soul food and Southern cooking have ever made it out to California. Between Italianate and French traditions, followed by Asian and Latino influences (not to mention the perennial penchant for health-faddery), where has there been room for soul?

Soul food and Southern food—both are implicated in the comfort craze that has us downing gobs of mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and awful amounts of gravy. But soul food is more than just food that makes us want to lie on the couch with no pants on, covered by our most trusty blanket, watching AMC or Bravo. Soul food is about deep flavors and deep traditions that signify the triumph of ingenuity over adversity. Before the Civil War, plantation cooks were given the most undesirable parts of an animal. Plantation slaves grew only the heartiest of plants in unwelcoming soil. Out of these unlikely ingredients, hearty, flavorful dishes that sustained both the body and the soul were born.

Not enough restaurants venture out into soul-food territory. But Drake Jones is fixing that, at least in Sacramento. A youth minister from Oakland, Jones opened The Plantation (tagline: “The Place Where Soul Food Originated”) earlier this summer. Since then, Jones and his main cook, Etienne Bonton, have been serving dishes designed to satisfy the soul. (To give credit where it’s due, a reader tipped us off to the eatery’s whereabouts on Del Paso Boulevard.)

The Plantation has all the charm of a small diner; it’s cozy but has enough space between booths and tables for privacy. The walls double as an African-American hall of fame. They’re covered with photographs of civil-rights activists, thinkers, writers, musicians and sports heroes. With your menu comes a sheet identifying the legends on the wall.

The hours are extensive, but the menu is simple. Open until midnight Sunday through Thursday and until 3 a.m. on the weekends, The Plantation is a true find for anyone who likes the substantial kind of late-night dining. You can order three types of entrees—beef-, poultry- or seafood-based—and plenty of sides. Chicken comes fried or smothered (translation: with gravy), as do the pork chops. Options include country-fried steak, turkey leg, meatloaf, chitterlings and gumbo, in addition to catfish and red snapper. Oxtails, fried ribs and garlic crab are also available.

Sides are faithful to the soul-food tradition: black-eyed peas, collard greens, yams, green beans, garlic mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice, and more. The service was friendly, courteous and attentive, which made up for the fact that The Plantation serves no alcohol—for now. That, it turned out, was a good thing, for there’s no need to fill up on anything other than the meal.

Not long after we ordered, an oversized plate with two generous chops materialized with a large helping of garlic mashed potatoes, along with collard greens. Another plate followed, weighed down by generous portions of crunchy cornmeal-coated catfish, stewed green beans, and macaroni and cheese. Both dinners came with a serving of sweet yellow cornbread.

The sides, as it turned out, were more assertive than the main entrees. The collard greens had been stewed for what tasted like ages with ham or salt pork to produce an earthy, pungent, salty rendition of the dish. The flavor of the greens seemed even more distilled as a result. Likewise, the stewed green beans had an apparent long-term relationship with a salty pork product or two. [The restaurant’s owner later informed SN&R that smoked turkey is used rather than pork products to flavor the dishes.] But a barely detectable, almost gingery flavor kept dancing in and out with each bite. We ate the darn thing before we could figure it out.

The garlic mashed potatoes were appropriately garlicky but otherwise light—a nice complement to the smothered pork chops, which came prepared almost like chicken-fried steak, pan-fried with the thinnest coating of breading. A modest drizzling of brown gravy provided some wetness to the lean chops. Both the chops and the crunchy delicate catfish delivered plainer notes that offset the intense flavors of the sides.

The one disappointment was the macaroni and cheese, which never really can be bad—after all, most of us like the kind that comes from a box, made with cheese powder. This mac and cheese, however, lacked synergy between the two elements; globules of cheddar surrounded the macaroni instead of coating them. Predictably, we ate it all anyway.

Dessert proved to be impossible after the meal, so we left with thoughts of a late-night dining escapade not too far in the future. After all, The Plantation is an unassuming place to dine almost any time of day or night. It’s well worth the trip down Del Paso.