A soulful taste of the South in York
York’s newest soul food restaurant has a Cajun accent. And on a warm Sunday in late September, G’s Jook Joint was hoppin’ as owners April Collier, Octavia Nichols-McIvor and Harold Hudson were in the kitchen sauteing shrimp, deep-frying chicken and dishing out thick, rich macaroni and cheese.
In just a few minutes, the crowd doubled – then doubled again. A group of fine-looking ladies came into G’s in their Sunday best, wearing stylish outfits, seemingly having stepped right out of church. The crowd kept growing, as Nichols-McIvor took orders for succulent sauteed shrimp with creamy grits; veggie omelets with spinach, tomatoes, onions and cheese; smothered chicken with sauteed onions and fried plantains; bright green collard greens; curried baby back ribs; and eggs with hash browns and bacon.
Still more people came in, and a line began to grow. Nichols-McIvor patiently took orders with a big warm smile and a sparkle in her eyes. Just a few minutes after opening at noon, G’s Jook Joint was nearly full, with some men in shirts and ties and others in shorts and T-shirts, and young women in summery sundresses and tank tops.
“This is my first experience working in a restaurant,” says Nichols-McIvor, who came to York from Philly. “And today isn’t even as busy as it has been since we opened. It can get crazy.”
G’s Jook Joint opened in early September at the spot known as Royal Square, where Queen, King and Princess streets converge. There’s kind of a neighborhood feel – or maybe a neighborhood that has seen better times and is busy making a comeback.
That’s the goal of Collier, who named G’s Jook Joint after her grandfather, James “Groundhog” Grey. “Groundhog” got his nickname because he hated cold weather and came out dressed to impress in the spring, often with a light linen suit and a neatly folded handkerchief in his jacket pocket.
Back in his day, he was also known as one of the best cooks in the neighborhood. He started his own version of a jook joint back in the 1960s and called it Groundhog’s. As Collier explains, a jook joint is also known as a juke joint – as in juke box. A jook joint was a gathering place that was known for music, dancing, gambling and drinking. In the Southeast, they were mainly African-American establishments that operated during the Jim Crow era.
When Collier’s grandfather owned and operated Groundhog’s, it was York’s answer to the jook joints of the South. Even though York wasn’t in the South, there were times when it seemed to be. Racial tensions were high in the ‘60s, and the struggles of the South were right on the doorstep of York.
Collier heard stories about the fights that broke out, the buildings that were set on fire and times when police barricaded entire black neighborhoods. Groundhog’s was a place to escape the oppression of the race riots and socialize while eating, drinking and dancing.
“We’re doing G proud and carrying on his tradition of good food, good fun and a sense of family and community,” says Collier. “This one’s for G.”
When the three friends got the idea to open a jook joint together, Collier and Hudson had the culinary expertise. Nichols-McIvor’s strong suit is her friendliness, customer service and organization. She takes the orders and helps out with serving and getting carryout orders ready. In a business that’s less than a month old, they are still working out the kinks. Customers have been patient, says Nichols-McIvor. She asks them to continue with that, until they get their system running smoothly.
The main influence at G’s comes from New Orleans, with Cajun dishes like shrimp and grits, smothered chicken, jambalaya and po’ boys. So how did these flavors happen in York?
You might thank the U.S. Navy. Collier is a Navy veteran, and she was stationed in New Orleans as an aircraft mechanic when Hurricane Katrina flooded her adopted city. She returned to NOLA months later to help in the clean-up efforts, working in the famous Landry’s Seafood Kitchen for free.
Even Katrina couldn’t destroy the food heritage of New Orleans. Anyone who has been there knows the city’s food is unmatched anywhere in the country. From Creole shrimp etouffee to spicy Cajun gumbo, the French, Spanish, Italian, Native American and African American influences are in abundance. So Collier decided to bring some of that Cajun cooking back to York with her.
“York has a lot of food, but there’s no Southern food,” Collier says. Certainly no food from New Orleans.
For anyone who needs a crash course on New Orleans food, grits is a creamy ground corn meal dish that goes well with the sautéed shrimp or crispy fried fish. A po’ boy is a sandwich – kind of like a sub or hoagie – filled with shrimp, chicken or oysters, then topped with lettuce, tomato and onions. The story in New Orleans was that the poor boys took these sandwiches to work with them. Then there is jambalaya – a dish that can be made a hundred different ways, but most often with a mix of chicken, sausage and shrimp with rice, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables.
Cajun hot sauce is a must, but surprisingly New Orleans food isn’t super-hot. It’s more flavorful, with what they call the Holy Trinity of onions, celery and bell peppers that give food its rich character. French influences are seen in Creole dishes like salmon hash with its more subtle seasonings.
Collier’s New Orleans experiences are only part of the story. Hudson’s background is in Jamaica and the West Indies, and he brings his recipes from the Caribbean – including curried baby back ribs and curried shrimp. Nichols-McIvor contributed her family recipe for gooey, cheesy mac and cheese.
The three-story building that houses G’s Jook Joint has a second-story lounge with a DJ booth, where the owners hope to host karaoke, open mic nights and other events. They have a real community mission to turn what was once a bad neighborhood into a place that builds on community. A portion of the restaurant’s profits go to Stick N Move Boxing, a tutoring, mentoring, fitness and education program.
Meanwhile, back at G’s, the Sunday customers keep lining up and the orders keep coming – for everything from french toast and eggs to chicken and things ladled with something called “Who Dat” gravy (a rich brown gravy that goes on just about everything).
The crowd’s not going to die down, it seems. At G’s, they serve breakfast all day.
And who doesn’t like breakfast all day?
• 111 East Princess Street, York; 846-5665
• Tuesday-Saturday, 6 a.m.- 9 p.m. and Sunday, 12-9 p.m.