Proprietor B.J. Chester-Tamayo, who named this restaurant for her mother and granddaughter and opened it as therapy to get over the untimely death of her son, is known to Memphians not only for her homey soul food but for her soulful hugs. Everyone who eats here gets a squeeze from this good-natured woman, either on the way in or out, or both. “I feel so guilty if I haven’t hugged you, I’ll chase you down the street when you leave,” she laughs.
We discovered her restaurant on a mission to sample Memphis’s best southern-style vegetables. Among the city’s very best are B.J.’s cabbage, which we assumed on sight to contain collards or turnip greens. But she explained that the darker leaves among the white were the cabbage’s outer leaves. “The best part!” she exclaims. “Most people throw them away because they are tough. They need an hour extra steaming; that makes them soft and brown.” Flavored with a hail of spice that includes jerk chicken seasoning and lots of pepper, this is cabbage with tongue-searing punch. On the side comes a basket of hot water corn bread: cushiony-moist, griddle-cooked cakes that are the perfect foil for ecstatically seasoned vegetables.
We loved the lunch special of a fried pork chop, crisp-crusted and dripping with juice, as well as the gorgeous fried chicken. And dessert? It was hard choosing among egg custard pie, buttermilk pie, and bread pudding … so we had some of each, and each was superb.
Contributor Jess Dawson recently visited Alcenia’s for brunch, which starts with the trademark hug and a forehead kiss from B.J. At just $13.45, brunch is a steal—but this is still slow, soulful food, so don’t be in a hurry. Choose a meat, bread, two sides, and rice or grits. The famous salmon croquettes are meaty and salty, the fried chicken light and tender, and the waffles a bready, cinnamon-y wonder. Make one of your sides the perfect fried green tomatoes, which have the most delicious crispy crust and tart center. And don’t forget the hashbrowns, which are actually soft, slow-cooked potatoes served in a tiny plastic cup and drenched in their own drippings.
Alcenia’s is a modest lunch room decorated in an eclectic mix of 1960s psychedelic beaded curtains, primitive folk art, odes to African-American culture, and white wedding-veil lace strung up across the ceiling.