Is there such a thing as a queer restaurant? In my three decades of writing about food, that question has been endlessly debated. I used to think it was a dumb idea. Now, after studying too much queer theory, I’m not so sure. Consider the new JenChan’s in Cabbagetown. It’s owned by a lesbian couple, Jen and Emily Chan, young veterans of the restaurant industry who have branded their cuisine as “mostly Southern, mainly Asian comfort food.” That’s not unconventional on the surface but is consistent with our long acknowledged habit of queering norms for everyone, not just ourselves.
Thus, for example, you can snack on my favorite, eggrolls stuffed with creamy pimento cheese, or crispy wings marinated in Chinese spices while you listen to classic soul music. These plates, like the corn fritters served with sriracha mayo, are meant for sharing. A more explicit queering of comfort food is headlined “The JenChan,” which is a take on the meat-and-three classic that Southern diners have long served to fill the belly for a relatively low cost. JenChan’s gives you a choice of chicken, pork tenderloin, flank steak, or salmon. I inevitably chose the braised, then fried chicken. It was so delicious I resented that it was only a thigh and a skinny leg. One of the “three” sides is always rice, but you get a choice of two others. I picked the stir-fried green beans and mushrooms in a kung pao sauce and the house-made potato chips flavored with ginger and garlic. We also ordered intensely flavorful Georgia shrimp in a basket of fried noodles. We finished the meal with a deconstructed ice-cream sandwich made with two almond cookies, dark-chocolate mousse, and ice cream. The kitchen strives to cook everything with local, sometimes organic ingredients.
The verdict? I liked most of the slightly spicy food, but I do have complaints. JenChan’s has a sweet tooth that seems to expand to everything, while soy sauce is more abundant than I like. (My tablemate disagreed.) There’s also lots of ginger, which I love. The effect of all the soy and sweetness is sometimes the loss of distinction among the dishes’ flavors. So, choose wisely with the clear intention of variance, especially if you’re sharing. The restaurant is open for dinner, lunch, and weekend brunch with varying menus. The Chans also operate a meal delivery service whose prepared, frozen dishes are also for sale in the restaurant.
JenChan’s’ décor is down-home, diner-style, with red pops of color, a long bar and plenty of tables beneath paper lanterns. Expect classic soul music. There are campy notes that you might not immediately recognize in the restaurant. The fortune cookies’ notes are from “The Desiderata,” Brian Andreas’ classic guide to happiness. I asked Emily Chan where in the world she found such fortune cookies. She laughed and said her mother had long shared her love of the prose poem with her, so she custom-ordered the notes. On the back of the toilet, there is a lovably illustrated page with a text that Google told me was also from an Andreas’ work: “They came to sit & dangle their feet off the edge of the world & after awhile they forgot everything but the good & true things they would do someday.” That is the happily queerest thing I’ve ever read.
186 Carroll St.