Welcome Home to Mama J’s

It’s family dinner every day at this Richmond favorite.

Clockwise: Chicken and waffles, collard greens, pineapple-coconut cake, crabcake sandwich, catfish, macaroni and cheese, and candied yams.

Photography by Fred + Elliott

When Mama J opened her restaurant in 2009, she had 10 employees. Mama J’s now employs more than 60 between the restaurant and catering business. As Mama herself, Velma Johnson, says, “I didn’t think we’d get so big.”

But big is what Mama J’s has become. The restaurant was named a semifinalist for the James Beard Outstanding Service award in 2019, and its small Jackson Ward dining room stays consistently busy with regulars and visiting celebrities alike. No celebrity, however, gets treated any differently, and that policy includes waiting in line with every other customer. “Even Kevin Hart waits, and he’s okay with it,” Mama J’s son Lester Johnson adds. 

Lester and Velma Johnson.

The food is well worth the wait, too. Above the bar is a sign proclaiming, “Welcome To Our Home,” which became the restaurant’s mantra as a nod to Lester’s memories of dinners at his grandmother’s house. With the exception of fresh-baked bread, the menu is built around what was served at those Sunday dinners where up to 40 family members would gather. When asked to explain the connection, Mama J brightens up quickly and says, “It’s Grandma’s dinner. It’s my mom, and it was my grandma, because she lived with us. Counting the preacher who’d show up on Sundays, we’d have at least 17, 18 people, and there was a spread. How my mother got up at four o’clock in the morning to put up the bread to rise and then to rise again and bake it, I don’t know. It didn’t matter, though, because there was always enough food for everybody. When it comes to the restaurant, it’s the same. We’ll never run out of macaroni and cheese, for example.”

The macaroni and cheese is a classic, but so is the fried chicken—Lester’s favorite thing on the menu. Mama won’t, of course, divulge what makes it so good, but the breading is spicy and crisp without being overwhelming or heavy. Inside, the meat is perfectly cooked and moist. The collard greens are particularly good. Slow-cooked for hours in chicken stock and without any pork, they have just enough of a nice, savory bite to satisfy. Along with a biscuit, it is an ideal meal for any day that calls for comfort food.

Crab cakes and catfish are two items on the menu that weren’t regular parts of Grandma’s dinners. Mama J explains, “The only time we had catfish was when Daddy went fishing. It’s a certain way you cook catfish. You had to skin it and filet it, and that’s where we came in as kids. We skinned the catfish. It was a process, you know?” The time spent cleaning the catfish and learning how to prepare it was well spent, though, because the restaurant’s catfish has become one of its signature items. The crust is light, with a nice peppery bite, and the fish inside flakes apart delicately. Coupled with their house-made tartar sauce, the catfish bites alone are worth a trip.

Preparing pieces of cake to go.

The restaurant’s cakes are also a carryover from the catering days, particularly the rum cake. She explains, “My sister and brother used to bake the cakes, until she moved on to other things and he passed away. They were our mother’s recipes, except for the rum cake. That was my brother’s recipe. When we started, we were making 64 cakes, but it was too much, so we do about eight now.” Standouts include a pineapple-coconut that will take care of any sweet cravings, a double-chocolate, and a butter cream. My personal favorite, however, is the lemon pound cake—Lester admits that it is his favorite, too—which has all the deliciousness of a pound cake with a refreshing acidity in the lemon icing. Like a lot of the food, it isn’t fancy or ground-breaking, just delicious and satisfying.

Sit with Mama J for a spell and you begin to get a sense of why the restaurant has become so much bigger than its four walls. With such a calm presence and caring eyes, it is almost hard to believe that she was a deputy sheriff before turning her attention to food. That history, and her expansive sense of caring for others, comes, however, when she talks about hiring former prisoners and others who need a second (or third or fourth, she adds) chance at life. When asked, two in particular stand out, “One spent 30-some years in prison. He’s been with us since the beginning, and he’s great,” she says. “We’ve got another guy who just couldn’t get a job because he was a convicted felon, and he’s been one of our best, too.” 

Through the course of our conversation, the restaurant has been gearing up for lunch service. Knowing that she needs to get back to work, I ask once more how it feels to have hit their tenth anniversary. She pauses for a moment and then says, “For the first couple years, I went home scratching my head and saying, ‘What have we done?’ It’s been good, though. We’re like a family here.” MamaJsKitchen.com

This article originally appeared in our February 2020 issue.

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