Madison has seen quite a few cherished soul-food storefronts disappear, including Kipp's Down Home Cookin', A Place for Friends and the east-side location of Madtowne Fried Chicken. Jada's Soul Food was another, but there was one thing going for Jada's that the other restaurants didn't have: Larry Jackson, now the owner of JA's Soul Food.
Jackson owns the building at 1616 Beld St., just off South Park Street, that once housed Mr. P's and Jada's and is now JA's. He took ownership when Eugene Parks' sister put the building up for sale after Parks' death in 2005. Since then, Jackson has provided financial backing to Jada's and to the short-lived south-side branch of David's Jamaican. Now retired from his career as a chaplain, Jackson is taking a hands-on approach to the new restaurant.
Little has changed inside JA's with this current arrangement. It's still designed as more of a gathering space than a restaurant; there are nine tables, two of which are of the pool variety. There's a new service counter area near the front door, and a busy, sometimes handwritten menu board announces comfort-food standards.
The reputations of soul-food restaurants often hinge on fried chicken, but I like to look at how a place does catfish. By this measure, JA's succeeds. The catfish is arguably better here than at any other soul-food joint in town. An ample portion gets the usual cornmeal treatment, but here the crust manages to walk that fine line between too thick and too thin. Protected under two slices of white bread in the takeout box, JA's catfish is worth every cent.
I can't say the same for the fried-chicken dinner, composed of wings and thighs. The meat has a good flavor, and the wings are more substantial than one might expect. But the crust is thin and greasy, with little crunch - fine if you like it that way, but part of the magic of fried chicken is the contrast in textures. JA's has a way to go here to catch up to the local competitors, particularly Madtowne and Doug's Soul Food.
Side dishes are integral to the soul-food experience. JA's offers the usual suspects - cabbage, mac and cheese, black-eyed peas, spaghetti, fries. The collard greens needed a little more cooking down and a lot more fat; the beef that shared space in the pot offered little flavor. The mac and cheese lacked that typical velvety creaminess. I found the peas to be good, garlicky and salty, when ordered early in the day. When ordered in the evening, they'd cooked down to an off-tasting mush. My french fries looked suspiciously Ore-Ida and tasted about the same. A side order of the addictive fried okra would be a better idea.
JA's aims to be fast soul food, too, with burgers, brats and steak sandwiches on the menu. It feels almost wrong ordering these when you can get home-cooked dishes like the barbecue ribs or a plateful of Jackson's own boiled chitterlings. The ribs, with great meat and acceptable sauce, are satisfying in an unwholesome, chicharrones kind of way, but only just.
Jada's excelled with its dessert menu; JA's shows some promise. A chocolate Bundt cake was dry and overly spiced but might be good if served fresher and warmer. The sweet potato pie needed a better crust, though the filling was both sugary and moist.
Jackson hopes to maintain JA's as a community center as well as a restaurant, noting that the David's Jamaican concept just didn't fit with the neighborhood. He wants to offer an inviting atmosphere and good food. I can vouch for the atmosphere; Jackson and his goddaughter, Brittney, are jovial and warm.
The food has some room for improvement, but there are inexpensive, quick and satisfying meals to be had. A catfish lunch special includes two sides and a drink for about $7. JA's might fall short of Jada's menu, though in terms of soul, it has more than enough.