While Madison has been able to support some Creole and barbecue spots over the years, the eateries more focused on soul food have tended to come and go quickly. But now Harold's Chicken Shack, JD's and hometown favorite Melly Mel's are joined by JB's Eat-A-Bite BBQ on South Park Street.
Housed in a building that also sells gas out front, just off the Beltline, JB's is in the right spot to serve up fried catfish and barbecue to both the neighborhood and commuters. The business is mostly carryout, but there are a couple of tables in the uber-clean and cheerful space.
"You tried okra before?" a woman behind the counter asks me on a recent night while I'm waiting for my order. She looks at me like I'm skinny and not being fed correctly, which I appreciate.
Yes I have, but not this okra. She hands me a small paper cup filled with the pan-fried vegetable that is not slimy, greasy or breaded. It's heavenly. The pieces are still a bit crunchy and have a spicy, earthy, green bean flavor. Later, a friend who is something of an aficionado confirms the verdict: "This is probably the best okra I have ever had."
The JB's menu offers a number of sandwiches, fried catfish, barbecued ribs, rib tips and chicken quarters.
Dinners, which include fries, coleslaw and a muffin, range from $7 to $12.50. Barbecue family packs to serve 4, 8 or 12 that will feed the hordes are priced $31-$86.
Cajun catfish can be ordered as either fillets or steaks (cut crosswise). Some think the bones in the steaks impart flavor, but the large, well-fried fillets are easier to eat. These are crispy with a light breading and will satisfy any cravings for the ever-so-slightly muddy flavor good catfish can provide.
Ribs are tasty, if a sometimes a bit dry, but the rib tips are sensational. A medium order looks like a large, with tips piled high, filling containers to the brim.
Rib tips are a scrap cut popularized in Chicago. Tips come off the end of the spare rib on the side of the animal, and are typically less expensive than baby backs because of the amount of bone and cartilage. They're messy eating.
Each tip is a triangular bit of meat surrounding a white bud of cartilage, which must be gnawed free. It sounds gruesome, but there is more actual meat than on a typical clean rib cut - and always more flavor.
Barbecue is a teeth-on-bone affair anyway, and if you try the succulent tips you may never go back. Sauce here is straightforward, just a touch spicy with a little sweetness.
The beef brisket is tender and cut up into easily edible strips. The pork shoulder is a flat piece of pork, and while fine, the sauce on it seems more like an afterthought. Wings are maximally crispy and perfectly fried, if nothing out of the ordinary.
A few more adventurous items are also available. Frog legs for $7 are lightly battered and fried, but dry. If you order these, dine in so they do not overcook in the to-go packaging. Alligator bites for $9 were similarly dry, although the thick crunchy batter is so toothy and the alligator so flavorful that you'll want to order them anyway. They would be incredible in a po' boy sandwich.
Among the sides available, the candied yams are large, sticky pieces that offer compelling sweetness and moisture. The mustard and turnip greens are classic hot greens with a bit of smoked meat thrown in for flavor. The coleslaw is fresh and well balanced between sweet and sour. Unfortunately, the macaroni and cheese has too much processed cheese, and the ubiquitous cornbread muffins are far too dry.
The Creole jambalaya, however, is another star. It is rich gravy-like rice with sausage chunks and shrimp with a hot pepper kick. It's a meal by itself, and a deal at $8.
Likewise, sandwiches can be stellar. The Maxwell Street Polish sausage is a lengthy sausage grilled, cut in half, and loaded with onions on a hot dog bun for $4. The Italian beef is classic Chicago, a healthy amount of shaved beef on a bun, soaked through with the vinegary goodness of accompanying giardiniera and sport peppers. At $5, it alone is worth the stop, although don't tackle it in your car, and have napkins at the ready.
The JB in the name stands for James Brown, proprietor and chef, who hails from Louisiana. He says he moved to Chicago after a friend of the family was lynched in their yard in Louisiana, and when the family tried to report it to authorities, they were forced out of town. In the otherwise stark restaurant space, there is a sense of this history in the pictures Brown has up on the walls.
There is also a sign encouraging respect for others. It is a neighborly message, and JB's Eat-A-Bite exudes a neighborly charm with a solid menu to back it up. Meaty rib tips, well-executed sandwiches and great Southern sides will all be draws. And r-e-s-p-e-c-t to whoever makes the okra.
[Editor's note: This story was corrected to clarify the details of why the family of chef James Brown moved to Chicago.]