During the course of a late Friday-night run to JD's food cart - located between Gorham and State on Broom - my companion and I were offered mystery foil-wrapped packages (alleged to be cheesecake) by a guy on the street, lightly panhandled and mooned. If this is not your preferred gauntlet to run for a burger or a fish sandwich, then the new JD's Soul Food storefront operation on the ground floor of the Aberdeen apartments might offer a little less student-body (ahem) wackiness.
The JD's food cart has nearly a decade of history in Madison, with a mix of fame and infamy powering its reputation. Its new storefront on Bassett Street, open since January of this year, has been home to both the Copper Gable Cafe and Limon; neither lasted longer than a fraction of the length of JD's tenure in the campus area.
I hope that JD's will be a stabilizing presence on that corner, a name that students recognize and that will draw in foot traffic, in spite of the odd location. I also hope that the kitchen pulls in the reins a bit, stops offering every piece of junky fast food under the sun, and really puts the soul into its soul food. The best stuff here takes time to cook, so why aim for fast anyway?
Pizza puffs don't sing to me; chicken fries shouldn't even exist. If I'm going to a place billing itself as a soul food joint, I'm going to order something with chicken in a form that is more or less recognizable as chicken. Or some fried fish. The fish sandwich at JD's is just what I'm talking about.
Bursting out from the insufficient confines of a small hamburger bun, three cornmeal-battered pieces of fried catfish are doused with hot sauce and mayo. A handful of lettuce is tossed in for good measure, and the whole thing is wrapped in aluminum foil because it's just too precarious to wrap in anything less sturdy.
It's an exercise in eating either quickly or carefully, as pretty much all food at JD's is messy. The fish, though, is hot and flaky. The crunch of the batter, so necessary. And the whole thing hums with hot sauce, until your very face buzzes from the heat. This experience can be yours for a mere five dollars. A chicken version is good at the restaurant, but looked much more appealing at the cart.
You could add an order of french fries for another $2, but I don't recommend it. Both unadorned and as a side order covered with cheez sauce, the fries were inexcusably pale, limp and bland. A trip under the broiler at home saved them somewhat, but this is not a step diners should have to take.
New menu additions at JD's include a corned beef sandwich that is simply a cold cut sandwich on white bread. How this sad sack costs $2 more than that tremendous fish sandwich is beyond me.
On a Tuesday, I ordered another new offering: a smothered pork chop with two sides. The chop was served bone-in - which could have been nice, except errant bone fragments hiding under a blanket of gravy are not good eats. And when I tried to order fried chicken off the same "soul food meats" menu the next day, I was told that menu was offered on weekends only. (Knives don't appear to be regularly available, either.)
So perhaps things are still in flux at JD's. The mashed potatoes beg for gravy, and the mac and cheese is, yes, a combination of springy macaroni and melted cheese, but disappointingly unintegrated.
Still, there are the famed steak burgers. Interestingly, they are cooked frozen, in the same manner that culinary wizard Nathan Myrhvold (author of the exquisite and critically lauded Modernist Cuisine) recommends all steaks be cooked. The technique works. The burger is deliciously browned outside, and the interior is tender and juicy. Each component of the steak burger (wax paper, white bread, mayo, American cheese, pre-pattied burger) is humble, but together they exalt the essence of burger.
The nice thing about JD's, now that it's a real restaurant, is that eaters with normal dining patterns are accommodated, in addition to those shuffling about during the drunk-blunting hours of 10 p.m.-4 a.m. It's still more or less worth it to hit the cart when it's running, just because everything seems to be hotter, bigger and more carnally satisfying. But for a lunch stop midweek, JD's will run circles around any drive-through sandwich.
And with no public nudity.