Restaurant Reviews

Jackson Soul Food and Aguacates got soul

View a Jackson Soul Food and Agaucates slide show.

The original Jackson Soul Food was established 64 years ago in St. John's Missionary Baptist Church on NW Second Avenue. Owner Johnny Mae Johnson passed the restaurant to his brother, Demas, and wife, Jesse E. Jackson, who in recent years handed it to their daughters. They have operated the current (and fourth) incarnation on a neat stretch of NW Third Avenue that's been revived with help from the Overtown Community Redevelopment Agency.

Aguacates is newer. It arrived in Doral's Westend Commercial Center strip mall only five years ago — though its Mexican-born proprietor, Gloria Garcia, has been tendering tacos at Ernesto's in Cutler Bay for years.

Jackson serves soul food, but tacos at Aguacates are soulful too.

Let's begin with the older of the two: Jackson is a soul-food restaurant, not a joint. Framed black-and-white photos depicting the neighborhood's history hang on beige walls above booths ringing the dining room's perimeter; a few plasma TV screens dangle here and there. A horseshoe counter with about 20 seats takes up the rear portion of the spiffy space. There is ample parking in a lot outside.

If the menu lacks certain soul-food staples such as chitlins, collards, and the like, it's because Jackson is primarily a breakfast spot. It will extend to lunch and dinner hours in the near future.

Like many other patrons in the room, we started with an insulated urn of freshly brewed coffee that's placed on the table. The menu contains à la carte dishes (oatmeal, waffles, and so forth), but most breakfasts consist of some combo — either pancakes or French toast with choice of protein — or eggs any style with grits or home fries, biscuits or toast, and choice of protein. It would be crazy, perhaps criminal, to choose toast over two square, homemade biscuits with a floury crust and moistly crumbed interior.

The selection of protein, while including the usual sides of ham, bacon, or sausage, likewise encompasses meaty main-course foods such as steak, chicken wings, pork chops, liver and onions, and fried catfish (historically a Jackson Soul Food specialty). Prices range from $2.25 for an egg sandwich to between $5 and $8 for most other items.

Jackson's service is coffee-shop crisp, the friendly but businesslike staff efficiently doing what it is there to do: Water, coffee, and menus are delivered to the table, orders get taken, food is brought, and diner satisfaction is quickly gauged. Plates are cleared in a timely manner, and the check is handed promptly upon request. They make it seem so easy you wonder why waitstaffs in fancy places often struggle.

While most folks associate soul food, like soul music, with African-American culture, the lines can sometimes blur (which reminds me: Whatever happened to Hall & Oates?). A Jewish person might see soul food in a bowl of chicken soup. An Italian might spot soul in a hearty lasagna, and a Mexican might see it in the tacos tendered at Aguacates.

Which brings us to the newer of these two restaurants. Aguacates operates like a fast-food venue: Diners head to the counter, place an order, pick it up, and take it to one of the 30 indoor or 20 outdoor seats. The room is spacious, clean, and bright, with framed black-and-white photos of Mexican actors on the walls. It's packed each day at lunchtime.

Menu selections read like a fast-food joint as well: burritos, chimichangas, enchiladas, quesadillas, and so forth. But the food is tastier, more authentic, and much fresher — prepared from scratch daily — than anything you could ring up at BajaTacoFreshMexBell.

That said, some menu items are far better than others. Skip the fried beef taquitos (too dry), tortas (too bready), and quesadillas (too bland). Hearty appetites should head straight for a chimichanga or burrito. The former features either shredded beef, chicken pastor, or steak carnitas wrapped in a large flour tortilla with refried beans and Monterey Jack cheese; the whole enchilada, er, chimichanga, is then deep-fried to crisp splendor. The carnitas version was delicious, especially when complemented with the sour cream, guacamole, and salsa served on the side.

(Incidentally, the enchiladas are also worthwhile, with a bright red sauce offering light cover for rolled, filled corn tortillas.)

The same choice of proteins comes in the big, bulky burritos, which are stuffed with Mexican rice, refried beans, lettuce, cheese, mushrooms, salsa, sour cream, and whatever else you want the able assembler to add — guacamole, jalapeños, etc. If these considerable garnishes aren't enough, a salsa bar on the side of the room allows more customizing via a tart tomatillo salsa, mild red salsa, very hot and smoky red salsa, onion-cilantro blend, lime wedges, and a terrific mix of pickled carrot curls, onion, and thick strips of jalapeño.

The authentic tastes of Mexico come through clearest in the tacos. They are priced at just $2.25 each, but most patrons try the popular "3 Amigos" trio for $6.50 — with greaseless corn chips on the side. Diners have lots of options, starting with choice of soft flour or corn tortillas, proceeding to protein (we selected pork al pastor, pork carnitas, and steak carnitas), and ending via pick of add-ins (lettuce, cheese, tomato, mushroom, jalapeño, sour cream, etc.). Then you can pile on some more stuff at the salsa bar. All the meats we sampled were fresh and packed with flavor, although because all get cooked in the morning, the product becomes a little less fresh as evening unfolds.

Numerous combo plates are likewise proffered, including taco and enchilada, carnitas with tortillas, and grilled chicken or steak fajita. Excepting the fajita platter ($10.49), the menu ranges in price from $6.25 to $7.89. Add an ice-cold Mexican beer and you're set with quite a nice meal for a ten-spot.