Food for the Soul
Oak Park restaurant brings comfort when it’s needed
By Greg Sabin
As I write this, Sacramento County has just reordered all indoor dining to shutter. The brief window of opportunity to visit a restaurant has closed after restaurant owners were put in a literally impossible situation of making diners feel safe, and still have their restaurants be the convivial gathering places they were pre-COVID. Too many of us expected bar and restaurant owners to enforce rules they were just coming to terms with and fully understanding.
But, thankfully, for those of us who cannot cook water without burning it, or those of us who cook competently but enjoy a restaurant meal now and again, or even those that cherish the opportunity to cook for our loved ones and yet equally admire the skill and talent that go into a truly professionally prepared dinner, we still have takeout.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to grab takeout from Fixins Soul Kitchen, Oak Park’s excellent new soul food spot. The restaurant, which opened last year, is the product of an ownership group, including former Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Johnson is not without his detractors. If you wish to read about his work as mayor, or issues with charter schools, or claims against him of sexual misconduct, you can find the material. I, however, make the choice to focus on the food at Fixins, for no matter who is involved up front, the folks in the kitchen deserve accolades for putting out some of the finest food I’ve had this year.
First, a quick primer. There’s often a conflation of soul food and Southern food. And while the two definitely overlap, there’s certain boundaries to be drawn.
Author Vanessa Hayford puts it this way: “Soul food takes its origins mostly from Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, a collection of states commonly referred to as the Deep South. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, enslaved African people were given meager food rations that were low in quality and nutritional value…This food genre, now associated with comfort and decadence, was born out of struggle and survival.”
The soul food staples we’ve come to know—hush puppies, greens, oxtails, turkey wings, gravy and the rest—came with the Black American cooks who migrated north and west from the south throughout the U.S. over the last 150 years. And, as Hayford puts it, this food once born out of struggle, now signifies comfort. In fact, it more than signifies. It truly is comfort food.
The fried chicken is terrific, the mac and cheese spot on, the candied yams indulgent and the gumbo on point. There is, however, one standout dish that deserves its own writeup. Heck, it deserves its own restaurant: the fried catfish.
I know, I know, there are some of you (Mom) who say you don’t like catfish. Well, you haven’t had this catfish. A single order comes with a sizable filet, bigger than the plate it’s served on (or, during the pandemic, the box it comes in). The crust, oh lord the crust, is a shatteringly crispy cornmeal concoction that sticks to the fish in the most pleasant manner. We’ve all had fried food where the majority of the crust winds up falling off, haven’t we? This ain’t that.
Seasoned with a bit of heat and a good dose of spice blend, the crust tenderly envelops that ugly, bottom-dwelling fish like a mother cradling a newborn. The unbelievably moist and flaky flesh of that monstrous mudsucker could not be more delicate, more beautiful, more expertly handled than if it had been raised by hand in a Michelin star restaurant by a young apprentice, fresh faced from the French countryside.
All hyperbole aside, it is, without question, the best fried catfish I’ve ever had. It comes close to being the best fried fish of any type I’ve ever had. It’s truly spectacular. It stands up to a hefty dash of Crystal hot sauce and equally stands on its own. It’s large enough to share and delicious enough to covet. It’s a special dish made by a special kitchen.
In these days where comfort, more than ever, is sought, where we do not know what the future holds from day to day, and where we must focus on coming together as a people, there’s no substitute for soul food. And, if you haven’t seen your neighbors at Fixins yet for a taste, you might just owe yourself a trip.
Fixins Soul Kitchen is at 3428 3rd Ave., Oak Park; (916) 999-7685; fixinssoulkitchen.com.
Greg Sabin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.