Hot Buttered Soul | Wine | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Hot Buttered Soul 

Catfish, collard greens and corn bread in Utah’s soul food capital'Ogden.

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I knew I was in the right place when an ultrafriendly server brought four large, piping-hot bricks of corn bread to our table. The unique joy that only comfort food can bring pinged through my system as I devoured every last crumb of my hot buttered corn bread. Is there really anything better for the soul?

There was a time when Ogden’s OJAM Grill would have been called a soul food restaurant. Today, many food writers would probably refer to the food there as “American Southern Regional Cuisine” or some such thing. Call it what you like, there’s no disputing that OJAM Grill has soul.

Crack City Weekly circulation manager Larry Carter’s job takes him to places I’ve never even heard of. And when it comes to food, he’s yet to steer me wrong. So when he said I ought to check out the catfish at OJAM Grill, it went to the top of my restaurant “hit list.” Thanks, Larry. I’m totally on board with you concerning OJAM.

What’s an OJAM? Well, it’s an acronym for the names of the partners who opened OJAM Grill a few months ago: Otis, John And Mitch. Mitch is also the owner of the 18-month-old Wine Cellar, a private club downstairs from OJAM Grill on downtown Ogden’s Washington Boulevard. When the pizza joint in the location that OJAM now occupies went belly up, the building’s landlord intended to turn the former restaurant into office space. But Mitch and his partners stepped in, convinced the building owner to give them a shot at creating a home-style barbecue restaurant, and OJAM Grill opened for business just over 100 days ago.

Because the OJAM Grill space is so large, it tends to look half-empty when it’s half-full. A dozen-and-a-half tables and booths are scattered throughout the cavernous restaurant and there’s an odd, unused stage on the right when you walk in. The stage’s only occupants are a handful of purses for sale, made from record album covers: ZZ Top, Sammy Davis Jr., The Boss, Elvis and Ray Charles all share the same stage. On the walls hang art and photographs by local artists. So ambiance isn’t OJAM Grill’s strongest suit.

No worries'the food makes up for any lack of décor. Not too long ago, a reader e-mailed me inquiring about where to get fried okra in Utah. My response was something like, “You’re kidding, right?” Well, you’ll find fried okra, onion rings and deep-fried mushrooms on the appetizer menu at OJAM Grill. There are salads and sandwiches on the menu as well, but who eats salads at a soul food restaurant? Unless you’re feeling guilty about having a little too much fun, skip the salads and order up a hot link sandwich ($4.99) or OJAM’s pulled pork sandwich ($5.99) while the kids enjoy their chicken strips, hamburger or grilled cheese and fries ($3.99).

All entrees at OJAM Grill ($5.50-$7.50) come with a side dish and corn bread, making for a very economical dinner. There are also combo plates for $7.99 which feature a combination of two entrees (catfish and barbecue chicken, for example) along with two side dishes. That’s a heaping plate of rib-sticking food for only $8.

OJAM’s fried chicken is the holy grail of fried chicken. It’s nothing fancy, just a meaty, tender chicken breast and a wing cooked up in a no-nonsense crispy covering with no fancy spices or sauces'as simple and sensational a dish as you’ll find, just fried chicken the way it oughta be. Ditto for the fried catfish. I’ve had fried catfish many times in many places, but I’ve never tasted fried catfish more satisfying than at OJAM Grill. The catfish is moist and tender with a crunchy cornmeal crust, and every bite just melts right in your mouth. Fantastic.

Mitch told me that he’s still training and hiring kitchen staff. That might explain the one false note at OJAM Grill: the beef brisket. I’d always assumed that it was pretty hard to screw up brisket. I was wrong. The beef brisket I ordered was virtually inedible: a slab of fat with a few tough morsels of meat attached here and there. I literally had to discard 90 percent of it. It was as if the cook had sliced the brisket horizontally and given me the slab of fat that’s on the bottom. Quite horrendous, in stark contrast to everything else I ate at OJAM.

In restaurants like OJAM Grill, the side dishes are nearly as appealing as the main courses. The homemade macaroni and cheese is terrific, and you could make a fine meal out of an assemblage of sides ($2 each) like candied yams, sweet potato french fries, hushpuppies, collard greens, black-eyed peas and sweet carrots. Oh, and our server wasn’t exaggerating when she called the homemade peach cobbler at OJAM Grill “incredible.” It was. And so was the whopping (most people would use the word “sinful” at this juncture) hunk of rich, moist chocolate cake ($3.50), about the size of a poodle and easily large enough to split three or four ways.

Think Utah ain’t got soul? Then you haven’t been to soul central: Ogden’s OJAM Grill.

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More by Ted Scheffler

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