It is hard to miss Deborah's Kitchen on the faded 2600 block of Girard Avenue, its awning aglow like a lantern in the dark, the door wide open, a clutch of men hanging by the counter waiting for their fried chicken and turkey chops, for chopped collard greens and Sunday picnic potato salad, and - with a quiet, easy patience born of waiting for cooked-to-order soul food - for the bread pudding, pink-stained strawberry cake, or tub of banana pudding to finish things off.
Had you dropped by Deborah Harrison-Muhammad's home nearby not too many years ago and peered into the kitchen, the scene - and some of the faces - might have looked very much the same.
She lived (and lives) just west of the stone walls of Girard College's campus, and to hear her tell it, she not only cooked for her own three sons when they were younger, but also for a swarm of nephews, all coming and going, eating like locusts: "My house," she says, "was like the Kool-Aid house."
One of those nephews was Marvin Harrison, who would grow up to become the star wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts (which explains the Colts pennant hanging behind the storefront's counter). And it was Marvin, after one of Deborah's sons was killed, who helped procure this storefront at 2608 W. Girard, and who nudged her to go into business as a way to keep herself occupied and deal with her loss.
The space here is as spare as it gets - two plastic tables to wait at for take-out, a television squawking in a ceiling corner, a case of fresh-baked cake slices and various puddings.
Most of the room, actually, is given over to the from-scratch kitchen. This is where the potatoes are peeled and the greens are washed (a case every day) and the gravy is made with a roux, sweet onion, green bell pepper, and a dash of Gravy Master, the browning sauce.
It is a woman's world when it's going full tilt. Almost. Deborah's son Amir has taken on some baking duties, turning out a fine, airy strawberry cake, cheesecakes, and a banana pudding as straightforwardly home-style as it gets - vanilla custard, sliced bananas and Nilla wafers.
Her brother Charlie also pulls a shift.
But the rest of the crew involves Deborah's sister Linda, who is Marvin's mother; an unofficial "sister" from the neighborhood at the edge of Brewerytown; a sister-in-law; and several others.
On a given night, you might see Deborah, perched on a stool in back, seasoning the chicken for the next day. Or stirring up a batch of "Girlie's" bread pudding. ("Girlie" is the nickname that she has had since she was a child and that was bequeathed upon the baked-goods part of the operation.)
Three days a week, Deborah's mother Lueanna Harrison, a retired school-cafeteria cook, joins the crew, making the potato salad the way her family made it, going back to Columbia, S.C.
So the soul food coming out of this kitchen is as close to authentically home-cooked and determinedly down-home as you are likely to encounter in these North Philadelphia precincts: "It's nothing fancy," says Deborah, who relies on Lowry's Seasoned Salt to give dishes their home-cooked cred.
What hooked me in was the moist, steaky turkey chop (said to be one of Marvin's favorites when he drops in on occasion) - a slab of turkey breast cut across the grain, then lightly crusted and fried. I found out later you can also get it grilled or baked, options I plan to exercise in the future.
Next to the chop was a heap of just-right collard greens, not over-salted, not overcooked, seasoned with pepper, vinegar, and smoked turkey wing. (No pork passes through the doors here. You want tender pork ribs? Check out Butters Soul Food, 2821 W. Girard.)
Along with the chop and greens came a big, creamy scoop of what I think of as Sunday picnic potato salad, a specialty I became quite finicky about on my tours of North Carolina barbecue joints and firehouse feeds.
It is Lueanna's specialty - the most classic of country preparations: boiled potatoes and hard-cooked eggs, mayo, fine-diced celery, sweet pickle relish with a little pickle juice.
But too often those proportions get out of whack. Or the potatoes are too al dente. Or stuff is too loose. Not here: This is as good as good can be, plainspoken, pitch-perfect potato salad.
All of this is take-out food, best ordered by phone ahead, especially on Friday night - payday for a good number of regulars, tired and with a few extra dollars in their pockets.
By 7 or 8 o'clock they start pouring in, hauling out Styrofoam platters of thin-cut short ribs smothered in gravy; twisted curls of fried whiting; the fried chicken; and comforting, cafeteria-style turkey loaf. These are served with collards or stewy cabbage, over-sweet candied yams, basic mac and cheese, and that sweet-relish potato salad.
Sometimes the old gang descends on the shop, various brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters, eager for the food they had back in the day at 24th and Thompson - Deborah's original kitchen.
She still fixes their platters for take-out. But they don't have to take them far: She has a picnic table set in the yard behind her shop, just out the back door.