There's a gradual, almost imperceptible shift that occurs when you work from home: You go a little crazy. Daily living gets skewed. Keeping up appearances becomes less of a priority. Sometimes it's necessary to remind myself to shower before 4:00 p.m., put pants on, talk to other people, and sit at a desk (as opposed to pulling my laptop into bed with me). More difficult than all this, though, is the profound feeling that I've somehow lost touch with the comforts of my own home. At the end of a long work day, I don't get to decompress with a coworker over impromptu drinks, walk up the hill, collapse on my couch, then do nothing besides enjoy being home. Instead, I shut down my computer and look around the room I've been sitting in all day. I'm less inclined to have friends over, something I've always loved doing, because I'm sick of being in my house, yet it's harder to motivate myself to go out since, well, I'm already home.
I tell you all this so that when I say eating at JoAnna's Soul Cafe is like having dinner with a good friend in my living room, you understand that it's one of the more meaningful compliments I can think to give a restaurant. JoAnna's serves scrumptious food, but just as appealing is the palpable ease and comfort of JoAnna's hospitality—personified on our visit by manager, host, and server Damyn, and summarized in his own words: "It's called loving what you do."
While any restaurant that greets me at the door with Usher on the stereo and a host who apologizes for moving slowly because of a back injury while still strutting can do little wrong as far as I'm concerned, JoAnna's delivers an intangible sort of comfort. I certainly think fondly of the complex gumbo; silky, spicy grits; and sweetly familiar corn muffins ("Tastes a little Jiffy to me—not that that's a bad thing," observed my newfound dining companion, brilliantly), but what I really remember is how three hours at JoAnna's felt less like "dining out" and more like time well spent.
We wanted to start with fried green tomatoes, but they're currently out of season ("Even if I had 'em, you wouldn't want 'em," said Damyn), so we opted instead for the signature appetizer, Soul Rolls ($5.95). I was a bit dubious (fusion distresses me), but the combination of creamy black-eyed peas, smoky collard greens, and rice encased in a perfectly deep-fried shell was fantastic. JoAnna's menu is vast—I arrived craving fried catfish, but was overwhelmed by the myriad mouthwatering entrée options, like blackened catfish stuffed with crab and shrimp, pork chops, jambalaya, chicken with waffles, and oxtails. (Entrées are served with a choice of two sides, and extra sides are available for $3.95 each.)
Unsure, I took Damyn's advice and ordered the obscenely generous serving of gumbo ($18.95), which was stellar, chock-full of chicken, sausage, shrimp, crab legs (all the meat was moist, hallelujah), and plenty of spicy depth. The side of mac 'n' cheese was tasty—thick, creamy, crunchy all at once—and the grits were heavenly (thank you, butter). I enjoyed watching my eating partner work his way through the flavorful honey-dipped fried chicken ($14.95), which, despite its alarmingly thin-seeming breading, was both crispy and astoundingly moist. The trick, he informed me, was to bathe the chicken in the honey and then dunk it in hot sauce. His side of collard greens (with chunks of smoked turkey) was vinegary and spot-on, and I assume his black-eyed peas were up to snuff, as he inhaled them before I was able to sample them. (Or maybe I was just distracted, building perfect bites of gumbo, adding hot sauce to each miraculous spoonful.) Sweet-potato pie ($6.95)—all sweetness, soft custardy texture, hints of nutmeg and caramelized brown sugar, with a graham-cracker crust—is a perfect example of why dessert exists at all.
After dinner, Damyn lured us into JoAnna's cozy bar with a drink called the "Heated Beautiful" (a warm, intoxicating mix of Courvoisier and Grand Marnier). I drank two while watching the last half of a basketball game, chatting, and singing along to "Reunited" by Peaches & Herb—it was, oddly, as comfortable as I've been in a long time. I was reluctant to leave JoAnna's (though I'll be back for the oxtails and fried green tomatoes), but after the long walk back up the hill, warm and fortified, it felt good to be home.