It had been a while since I’d eaten a good blackened catfish, most likely not since my days of reviewing restaurants in New Orleans. Up North, where the fish isn’t as popular, my catfish encounters have been less than optimal.
But the platter in front of me at Booker’s had my full attention. Its spice-bronzed crust tickled my nose with cumin and cayenne, and its moist white flesh, amped by a stripe of Sriracha-honey aioli, delivered a savory zing that set my fork into perpetual motion. A fluffy scoop of buttery mashed sweet potatoes. The light crunch of tenderly-cooked collards infused with a rustic whiff of smoked turkey.
With a saxophonist framed by red curtains jamming along with a jazz trio in the bar across the room, I felt a genuine tug of NOLA nostalgia.
But this wasn’t Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. It was in the West Philly neighborhood of Cedar Park. So why, I wondered, had I taken so long to get to Booker’s?
As often happens in this constantly expanding dining scene, Booker’s and its owner, Saba Tedla, have had to fight for attention amid the constant waves of new restaurants. It piqued my interest when it opened three years ago as a handsome new arrival for a fast-evolving stretch of Baltimore Avenue. But a relatively quick turnover in the opening kitchen staff pressed the pause button. When it participated in last year’s national Black Restaurant Week series, I was reminded to give Booker’s a look.
I’m glad I did, for the chicken-and-waffles brunch, sure, but also for reasons I now more clearly understand. Booker’s makes a compelling case for the importance of supporting black-owned restaurants, for the benefits diverse entrepreneurship brings to the city as a whole, but especially in their role as anchors for African American communities facing change.
Cedar Park, which sits just west of University City, is one of many neighborhoods that have been grappling with gentrification. And the angst was particularly palpable at a recent community meeting over a plan to beautify 52nd Street, where residents voiced concerns that proposed street improvements are a prelude to replacing this long-standing black community with wealthier, whiter newcomers. Against that landscape, Booker’s growing success can be regarded as a beacon of inspiration.
Booker’s is a rare restaurant that’s managed to maintain reasonable consistency throughout various kitchen transitions, all the while establishing itself as a thriving community hub whose value goes beyond food.
The carousel of cooks has not stopped turning here. In fact, Tedla is in the process of her sixth chef change in three years as I write.
But with its colorful dining rooms, blooming fresh flowers, old-school R&B soundtrack and striking art — the wall-sized reproduction of John W. Mosely’s 1940 photo of the Afro Market lends a historic Philly aura — the 80-seat space strikes a mellow tone of versatile appeal. It’s dressed-up enough for celebrations and date nights, but casual enough to be a happy hour haunt (with a fried pickle bonus to its $7 Citywide), with sidewalk seating for 50, and a neighboring wine garden that are rare draws west of 50th Street.
The Eritrean-born Tedla, 42, has helped lead the resurgence of black-owned restaurants in Cedar Park since 2010 when she opened Aksum as an answer to her own quest for international breakfast favorites like shakshuka and huevos rancheros: “I wanted brunch, and my neighborhood was underserved.”
Tedla sold Aksum in 2018 after her landlord refused to offer a long-term lease. But she’d already opened Booker’s four blocks west in two storefronts that she’d bought and rehabbed. True to her business experience in software corporate finance, she used market research, surveying (and test-feeding) neighbors to craft a concept the community would support: a stylish sit-down destination for all occasions, a friendly bar for a postcollege crowd, and a menu of Southern comforts to complement the international options already bountiful along Baltimore Avenue.
That Booker’s menu makes convincing overtures to both vegans (hello, black-eyed pea hummus) and aficionados of seafood mac and cheese indulgence (the cheddar-creamed cavatappi here comes bubbling in a cast-iron pan with Old Bay-dusted shrimp, lobster, and crab) only strengthens its gravitational pull to the broadest audience possible.
Tedla views Booker’s as a bridge between multiple communities and was determined to foster a tone of deliberate diversity by hiring a diverse staff: “We’re not marketing toward one group, so an atmosphere of diverse employment and food projects an image of the culture we want to represent.”
Judging by the dining room on my three visits, Booker’s consistently succeeds in drawing a mixed clientele with an ease that’s all too rare in Center City restaurants. It’s an inclusive model I wish more restaurants would prioritize. It also makes good business sense.
For return visitors like my dinner companion, my wife’s friend Leslie Marant, the fact that Booker’s is black-owned is a major draw. Marant, a civil rights attorney who is chief counsel for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, says intentionally supporting black-owned businesses is crucial to their viability: “Dollars don’t turn over within the black community as much as they do in the dominant cultures."
But for her, it also taps a deeper need for restaurant comfort that is elusive in a way many white diners may not relate to.
“We walk around in this country with so many shields of protection,” says Marant, referring to a lifetime of stares and being offered tables near the kitchen. “When I go to black-owned restaurants, I can shed all that and completely relax ... because if the service is bad, it’s not just because I’m black. It’s just bad service. And I don’t give black-owned businesses a pass. But I might give them a second chance.”
To be sure, Booker’s is not perfect. The pacing of the meals is intentionally brisk, but sometimes too speedy, with second courses occasionally arriving before the first is finished. Some of the cocktails could use more finesse. The desserts, which aside from the bread pudding are mostly brought in, could use some extra love.
And there were moments when Booker’s kitchen clearly could have benefited from consistent chef oversight to lock down errant details: like the undercooked eggplant that came stuffed with quinoa salad; a tasty duck breast special should have been more thoroughly rendered; or the thoroughly overcooked hanger steak, unfortunate for the most expensive item ($25) on an otherwise affordable menu.
Despite those flaws, Booker’s, whose kitchen has been ably overseen by manager Jeremy Page, turned out more than a few memorable dishes. The fried Buffalo cauliflower nailed the perfect contrast of crispy crust and toothsome center. The salmon sliders made from fresh poached fish were creamy inside with lemon-dill aioli.
I loved the grilled savor of the blackened chicken rice soup special, and the earthy touch of potato-leek soup enriched with mushrooms. Booker’s fried chicken also showed noticeable improvements over my visits, making the best of its boneless chicken mandate by shifting last month from dry white meat to forgiving thighs, whose marinated dark meat clung more convincingly to the zesty buttermilk crust.
A few easy improvements remain for dishes I already enjoyed. I’d love the salmon encrusted with mashed sweet potatoes more if it didn’t come over mashed white potatoes, which was heavy and redundant. A more vibrant salsa (and greener guac) would lift the huevos rancheros. And I’d revere the etouffée-sauced shrimp and grits even more if the crustaceans had been as large as the big guys atop the mac-'n-cheese.
One dish that needs no modification, though, is Booker’s jerk oxtails, an homage to the neighborhood’s Caribbean community that brings a festive plate of purple cabbage and saffron rice piled high with butter beans, tails and gravy. All hands are required to savor the intricate star-shaped bones, whose deep contours are laced with tender meat. But when my teeth tugged at the soft ribbons of flesh and the flavors of Jamaican allspice unfurled from the meaty darkness of slow-stewed drippings, I was fixated until those bones were stripped clean.
Could it use a flicker of more Scotch bonnet heat? Perhaps. Nearby 52nd Street has more than a few take-out kitchens delivering bolder island spice. But Booker’s, in its role as an inviting bridge to linger between so many of Philly’s communities, is serving its oxtails just right.