To chase away their troubles, some people take Xanax. Others try Valium, Kentucky bourbon, or something more mellow but less legal. Not one to run afoul of the law, however — and with a near-phobia about doctors — I tend to find joy on a plate: While that doesn’t do a damn thing for my waistline, it sure does taste good going down.
For some time now, one of my favorite repositories of happiness has been Kitchen Express, the venerable soul food joint on Asher Avenue. Opened in August 1985, Kitchen Express has spent the last 20 years dishing up a remarkably simple and mostly unchanging menu — an assortment of vegetables, fried catfish, chicken, barbecue ribs, candied yams, pork chops, cobbler, banana pudding, cornbread muffins, and yeast rolls as soft and sweet as a prom queen’s bosom. It’s all served cafeteria-style, in the most unassuming setting imaginable. On the counter, a mounted bass leaps eternally for an imagined no-see-um. In the corner, a television set is pegged to the soaps. A big bulletin board near the door is papered with flyers, posters, business cards for hair salons, detail services, quick refund tax places, and at least two sets of lost car keys. An adjoining wall groans with signed photos of celebrities who have eaten there in the past: rap stars, actors, comedians, and basketball star Shaquille O’Neal — O’Neal standing in the doorway of the restaurant, looking so big that it’s easy to think it must be some kind of trick photography.
Humble or not, Kitchen Express is doing something right. At lunchtime during the week, teachers, mechanics, garbage men, city cops and downtown suits wait in a serving line that can fold back on itself several times before people start spilling out the door. Every weekday, the staff said, they send around 200 people back to work fat and happy.
Sedrick Mays is the founder of Kitchen Express. A native of Helena who went to work for the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise when he was 16 years old, cooking is in his blood (grandparents on both sides of his family ran small cafes, his grandfather wrapping hamburgers in wax paper and driving them out to the fields to sell to workers chopping cotton). In 1985, after serving for many years (so many he can’t say how many) as the manager of Little Rock’s Breaker Drive-In, Mays took $6,000 and started his own restaurant.
Mays doesn’t get philosophical when asked about why people keep coming back. It’s good food, he says. “It’s nutritional. We sell things like greens and yams and cornbread, stuff that gives you energy and sticks with you all day long.”