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JT's Soul Food
****
Out of a possible five
$
James Thomas Sr. and his wife, Dadrie, surrounded by some of their children -- from left, Jerimey, James Jr. and Kyla -- at their restaurant on East Pontiac St.

JT's back, and wings still reign

They were the chicken wings all other chicken wings were compared to.

The whole wings were coated with the perfect salty, zesty, crispy seasoning and I always ordered them naked with just a little hot sauce on the side.

For six years I mourned their loss and the loss of JT's Soul Food, a little ramshackle takeout spot at the corner of Hanna Street and McKinnie Avenue.

The last time I had them, the owner, James K. Thomas Sr., with one of his young children by his side in the parking area out back, told me that business was down and that he had just been devastated to find out a small tumor had been found near his brain stem. Not long after, JT's closed its doors.

I never heard from or saw Thomas again, and actually wondered whether he was still with us. And I pined over his wings.

So when Kimberly Dupps Truesdell, who pens The Journal Gazette's restaurant news column The Dish – told me that a new soul food place was opening up and that this new place was called JT's Soul Food, I not only screamed with glee into the phone and her ear, I drove down to its new location at 2516 E. Pontiac St. that very night to have some wings.

And they were just as magical as I remember.

Thomas had, indeed, survived the cancer scare and that tumor has been gone for five years. He runs the new JT's with his wife, Dadrie, who also worked with him at the original, and with help from some of his six children – the little one by his side years ago included. He also works as the dieting manager at Riverbend Healthcare Center.

A former minister who also was a parent to 21 foster children, his faith is clearly spelled out on the walls of his restaurant. He says that is what made the tumor go away and what has led him back to what he loves, running his restaurant.

"I have been blessed," he says.

I felt blessed every time I ate at JT's.

Aside from the wings, Thomas knows how to bread and fry fish. He offers catfish, whiting, tilapia and perch – and each is distinctive. All of them are coated in a gritty cornmeal breading with a similar combination of seasonings as the wings, but it is different, Thomas assured me.

The catfish was my favorite. It was fatty, meaty and had that wonderful sweet flavor good catfish should have. The perch was moist and much flakier, and was very mild. The whiting would be the best choice for those who want their fish to really taste like fish. The meat was firmer and much more intense in flavor and aroma.

On Sunday's, JT's offers a two-for-$20 special that includes two dinners – with two sides and cornbread – two drinks and two desserts. Among those Sunday dinners are "JT's Famous Chicken & Dressing," smothered pork chops and smothered beef roast. The smothered chops and smothered chicken are also sometimes available during the week.

The chicken and dressing was worthy of its famous tag. The chicken is not crispy fried here, it is baked and coated in pretty standard brown gravy. What makes it special is the cornmeal dressing, which adds just the right sweetness and hint of sage to bring the whole thing together. I had the smothered chicken on a weekday and was not as impressed, but with the dressing it was fantastic.

The beef could also be famous. The same brown gravy covered fork-tender, stringy roast beef that was slow cooked with onions and green peppers. It needed a little salt, but that is it. I mixed in some of Thomas' perfect collard greens and I would suggest you do, too, because they added some of that salty flavor the beef needed.

The collards at JT's, like the wings, were what I have compared all other greens to over the years. Thomas uses smoked turkey and just the right amount of seasonings to make them smoky, sweet, salty and delicious. The macaroni and cheese is a nice homey side choice, too, but I have the greens almost every time I dine there. If not, I have the yams, which could basically be dessert as Thomas infuses them with sugar, nutmeg and a little vanilla.

Nutmeg is all Thomas uses in his sweet potato pie and peach cobbler, too, because he doesn't like cinnamon. And both of these desserts are must-haves if he has them.

The cobbler has a thick, flaky top crust, is packed with sweet fruit and is just a sticky, gooey, scrumptious pile of goodness. JT's serves two kinds of sweet potato pie: a standard one with just sweetened, seasoned, whipped potatoes and another one that incorporates a little cream cheese. The latter is thicker and lighter with a less intense yam flavor, but it is just as tasty.

JT's is usually well stocked in desserts on Sunday, and a heavy, sweet glazed pound cake is available during the week if the pies and cobbler are gone. Also, if Thomas claims to be out of cobbler on Sunday afternoon, ask him nicely and he may dip into his stash because he usually holds some back for himself to enjoy Sunday night.

That is just the kind of guy Thomas is. He makes the rounds greeting his regulars and was taking time to get to know his customers during my recent visits.

And he has more room to make those rounds now. The new JT's is in the former Elco Tap building, which has plenty of seating, including an old bar lined with stools. There is no alcohol served there, however. The only beverage options are canned sodas and bottled water.

Even with a more sit down-receptive space, JT's still follows its former take-out habits as all dinners are served in sectioned foam take-out boxes and sides arrive in containers with lids. So it is not exactly fancy.

But you probably will want to stay there and eat. Thomas and his family members are just the kind of people you want to stop and visit with.

And if you stay in, you can always order more. And you are probably going to want more.

Restaurant: JT's Soul Food

Address: 2516 E. Pontiac St.

Phone: 443-1866

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Wing dinner ($6.25), fish dinners ($6.99), desserts ($2.29), a la carte side ($2.69)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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