Not long after I dug into a plate of J'Way Café's heartfelt soul food, I felt guilty for grumping the night before, when I showed up for dinner according to posted hours, but found them closed. I couldn't hold a grudge; this is the kind of food that makes a person feel loved.
J'Way Café runs out of a corner in the basement of Jamaicaway Books. It's operated by the store's owner, Rosalyn Elder, who cooks the food while also serving tables and ringing up the bill — not to mention running the bookstore upstairs — so service here can take a little while.
Either of the two superb sandwiches will delight you: Tennessee Pulled Pork or Jamaican Jerk Chicken ($6.50). It's hard to imagine what I did to deserve such thoughtful pulled pork, especially at this price point. J'Way spends three days preparing the intensely flavorful meat, laced with melted fat. The jerk chicken splits a plump breast into juicy morsels, formidably fiery, parried by a pile of crunchy, creamy slaw on top. Both are available plated ($7.95, choice of wonderful gooey cheese grits or beans and rice, plus another side; more on those later). Memphis Oven-Crisp Chicken ($7.95) is soothing family fare, such tender meat in crackling curried skin.
The makeshift kitchen requires some innovation. There is a good deal of reheating, which results in some items overdone. For example, baked macaroni and cheese noodles are beyond al dente, but the dish is creamy and comforting, flecked with minced vegetables, black pepper, and buttery crumbs. All sides are vegetarian ($1.50 to $4.50); most vegan. I'm not a vegetarian, so I missed the salty smoke of pork in the mixed greens or beans and rice, but their absence will be appreciated by others. A plate of four is $7.95, including yam and black-eyed-pea hash accented with red peppers, or sweet potatoes, lopped into sticks and baked with a touch of cayenne. Baked goods are finished fresh, some emerging from the oven while we waited; cornbread muffins (included as a side), crammed with fresh kernels, boasted the rich internal moisture of a homemade popover. Sweet-potato pie is a golden slab of custard atop flaky crust ($2.95). In a field with so much manufactured nostalgia, this food is made with sincerity. At its worst, I thought, "I could probably make this." But at its best, I am vaulted straight into someone's idyllic home.
Pretty soon, unfortunately, Elder's home might be the only place you can taste her cooking. Last week, as this went to print, she announced that Jamaicaway Books — and J'Way Café — will be closing in the coming months.
"We have decided to close our doors in order to spend more time with our family," she wrote on the store's Web site.
So get that sweet-potato pie while you can.
J'Way Café, located at 676 Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, is open Saturday from 11 am to 9 pm, and Sunday from noon to 6 pm. Call 617.983.3204 or visit jamaicawaybooks.com/jway-cafe.