Soul patrol: 5 takes from Madison's first Black Restaurant Week

Highlights from Madison's first annual celebration of black-owned restaurants.

Fries and ribs from Papa's BBQ. Photo by Michael Penn II.

Fries and ribs from Papa's BBQ. Photo by Michael Penn II.

Madison’s first Black Restaurant Week, which ran August 14 through 21, had me blown: It would happen as I’m getting ready to exit the city. I was already a regular patron of more than half of the participating restaurants, but it did give me another excuse to parlay and spread the sweet gospel back to campus. I used to clutch my spots to the chest, having to initiate my friends by taking them there myself (in someone else’s car) rather than rattling addresses off at random. Call it the unnecessary blipster in me, but I’ve shed that long ago, because a dollar in a Black business is a call for all to celebrate. I ran through the six to tell y’all about five of my findings to spread this awareness, to let folks know where Blackness is sacred and free and on the bus line. Pray for the kid’s digestive tract.

McGee’s Chicken, 1920 S. Park St.

I’ve seen the rave reviews from Madison’s mainstream publications, and I’m proud of the squad on South Park Street for earning that acclaim. It’s well deserved; before the summer, McGee's Chicken maneuvered through word-of-mouth, serving out of a gas station on East Washington with one counter and no more than two or three people working at a time. It quickly became my hiding place: In my year-plus as a customer, the storefront’s been occupied with over 80% Black bodies at any given time they’re open.

The woman tending the register gives the vibe of my grandmother, like she could be anybody’s. On a recent trip, I asked a stupid question about how many pieces come in a half-chicken and she gently scolded me, making me walk through the answer like a simple homework question I was too lazy to do on my own. Then she smiled and rang me up.

McGee's had a pick-three sampler going for $6 this week. I went with the rib tips, catfish nuggets, and chicken nuggets. The rib tips were smothered in mild, the catfish nuggets were perfectly seasoned, and the chicken nuggets gave off a surprisingly light crunch without being soaked in grease—more of a popcorn chicken, really. Fries tend to be hit or miss depending on the day, but throw the mild or the lemon pepper on it and you’ll be aight.

Gourmet soul food is a cool expansion, but this is optimal soul food: low-budget, high-quality, with love. McGee’s is your getaway when you’re on your last five and when your check just came in. And they make the truest Chicago mild sauce I’ve had across state lines. Their new sign says: “Come Hungry, Leave Happy.” Believe the hype, and slide for some wings. Maybe cop you a pair of socks while you’re at it.

Sweet Tea, 122 State St.

This is the new spot by Ms. Candy Flowers, of Atlanta. Last I checked, their new sign was up: a subtle outline of a Georgia peach on a glass window. Outside of the JD’s cart, this is the only soul food spot you’ll find on State. I bought a plate at an Intellectual Ratchet preview event the day before Sweet Tea opened: pulled pork, collard greens, corn on the cob ($10). I now believe God answers the calls of disciples and gentrifiers alike. Wait ‘til the students get back, it’ll be lit.

The menu is available in $10 plates (entree, two sides) and a la carte; options range daily, with two or three entrees and a few sides to match. There’s always one vegetarian option; Candy is cautious about using pork and fish in her dishes, but always ask. Don’t sleep on the pulled pork, as Sweet Tea tends to be generous with the meat. I can vouch for the pineapple upside-down cake and the greens so far. I’m not a fan of tea in almost any form, but the Southerners I know all stand by the sweet tea from here as tasting almost like the A.

I’ve been here three times since it opened and now Candy knows me by face; let it be known that you’ve shown love by spreading the word and you might get the hookup. It’s not uncommon to find her slipping a piece of chicken on your plate if it’s not going on the floor; she told us she couldn’t help it since she’s from the South, where keeping people fed is damn near genetic. Don’t forget that it’s right by The Fountain. Sweet Tea's digital presence doesn’t exist just yet.

The Wing King, 707 S. Gammon Rd.

As we proceed, dig this major key: In majority-white areas, don’t trust Google+ and Yelp for soul spots. I’m all for customer service and calling restaurants on their bullshit—especially when you see four or five posts about something coming back raw or underseasoned to know not to waste gas money—but don’t call the place “dingy” + “janky” + “sketchy” or “ghetto” when you only go to the hood to eat food from darker people you otherwise ignore or make no effort to understand. The bootleg man is trying to help you get 20 movies on one disc for $5, but you can politely say no. Sometimes the person behind the counter (or glass) takes too damn long and you gotta check. And no, it isn’t strange to cop incense or oils in the same place they fry your catfish. You gotta know the ledge with this.

All that said, his was one of the only things on my list that brought me pause: on top of a lot of average reviews about poor service and soggy food, I raised every red flag once the homie Devon pulled up to the spot and I realized it’s located right by Woodman’s. Remember the Harold’s Chicken location over here, that went almost universally shunned by the Chicago homies? Granted, I’m in no position to talk since I’ve never had a Harold’s past Wabash, but if I know the code like that, I know damn sure not to trust a Harold’s outside Chicago proper. (If you don’t know the code, you better ask somebody.)

Did these men own this spot and rebrand it? Either way, I’m not asking that, that’s an easy way to get pressed out over nothing. The store itself has a strip-mall feel with red benches and a long counter; one TV had an NFL preseason game on, the other had a rerun of The Players’ Club on BET. We chose the BET side since neither of us ever finished that movie (my mom had the DVD, but I never had the gall to pull it from the tray since, you know, skrippas). We heard Marvin Gaye blasting in the kitchen, the fryers dropping, and the cook singing like he could be either of our fathers. Devon sang along, we snapped our fingers and spoke of when we’d be that old doing the same to Anderson .Paak and Lil Yachty (if you’re me).

The 6-wing dinner with mild sauce is the perfect Chicago-style price: $8.90 with a drink and a bonus sauce. Devon doesn’t rock with mild and I’ll never forgive him, but this mild is a bit tangier than McGee’s with a more barbecue-sauce consistency. The fries weren’t the most seasoned, but they weren’t soggy, which always run the risk when they’re tucked between the bread and the meat. The meat didn’t blow me away or refill the Ventra I keep on deck for my Chicago trips, but the lemon pepper definitely helped elevate it to fire territory. I’ll remember to keep this on deck if I’m ever on this side of town again, especially since they let us stay when the shop closed. That’s precious territory in my arteries.

That BBQ Joint, 901 Williamson St.

I’ve been here a handful of times in my Madison tenure, but had no idea this was Black-owned the entire time. I tend to tuck my wallet on Willy Street because I know Willy Street prices don’t vibe too well with me, but I know That BBQ Joint is worth the sacrifice sometimes. During BRW, the place was filled to the brim around dinnertime with plenty of Black faces, and even a dirty soccer team fresh from a game in the side room. There was almost no room since the line was out the door, so Devon and I pulled up as close as we could to eat in the frenzy.

The shop gave the employee discount away as a promotion, causing me to go extra out of my way on the A-La-Carte, with four rib bones and three wings running around $12. This is the leanest rib meat I’ve ever tasted, to my pleasure and dismay. I don’t know where they source the meat, but they smoke it daily and it’s fucking delicious. There’s virtually no fat to be found, forcing me to savor the spent cents I tasted in every delicate morsel. Upon adding the regular barbecue sauce (I’m not with the shits on the heat scale), the gentle crisp of the chicken wings went from fire to Fireman-era Lil Wayne. I’d get them more often if I had the Willy Street income on me. Even their fries were seasoned perfectly, which I never expect from joints with flame barbecue.

For all those who don’t scrape a living from Google Docs, you need to call it in for dinner before what you want evaporates before your very stomach. You’ll be full, but not full to the point of collapsing and cancelling your Sunday plans. If you’re on the student budget, squad up and match the homies to get a bigger order once the refund check slides through, because you deserve it and you’re worth it.

Papa’s BBQ, 1220 E. Broadway

After a studio session with Chris LaBella, we spent several days hunting down barbecue trucks for dinner to support BRW. Both of us were deprived of the fire; we spent an afternoon missing two different trucks that sold out long before we gathered the energy to pull up. Determined not to hold this L again, we pulled up to a blank-white trailer and a black smoker by a Shell station in Monona to go half on a full-slab of pork ribs and fries ($21). Papa himself was pleased we returned like we said we would; he apologized for the day prior, inviting us to call in and come back to take care of us.

20 minutes ticked slow. A lady old enough to be my Grandma got out the car ready to receive hers, as a Black woman (that could be my mom) brought us rib tips as teasers before the orders arrived. She was waiting for me to chew the gristle by how much I enjoyed it. I tell you, the King Size Hershey’s didn’t drown any appetite in me, I was ready for the Arkansas-inspired pork to stick to my jawline. Upon receiving our slab, a man inside advised Chris and me against killing each other over the ribs; from the aroma and the sauce spilling into the bag, it was an insurmountable difficulty to not throw blows on the drive back.

We’re both alive, but these ribs deserve the trigger warning… they’re that damn good. Still warm from the drive, we split the bones and dogged them out on sight. The fries were dry, but salt saved that. These bones kept the fat intact, with the meat at the right point between tender enough to rip through, but tough enough to get a decent chew out of. The sauce was slathered throughout in a darker, savory taste to not miss a single centimeter. It may be a reach to call this the best since there’s plenty I’ve yet to try (Ribmasters, I’m pullin’ up) but if you can get to Monona, drop the bread on a slab and treat yourself like you’re in the backyard at home. These ribs are not a game, they’re what you’ve been missing. Not to mention, Papa’s has the most affordable Friday fish fry I’ve seen to date: four pieces with sides for $10. This is the definition of “South in ya mouth” that’s filled many a gut, and filled my paper towel in public when I tore through my leftovers.