Down the block from a McDonald’s and Burger King lies the real thing—an authentic dining experience. Captain Hard Times Dining is a center for upscale soul food and a haven for community connection in Greater Grand Crossing. The restaurant is manned by a god-fearing champion community benefactor, Head Chef Josephine Wade. Wade, founder and owner of the 22-year-old establishment, is often visible busy behind the stovetop, preparing the food that solidifies her reputation bite by bite.
The restaurant has a mix of diner style booths and cafeteria tables that are upholstered with murky magenta fabric, reminiscent of a 1950s café. Like any good local diner, the wall is plastered by framed photographs of famous Chicagoans: telecasters, community leaders, and pastors. At left center, a crooked signed portraiture of a dignified Barack Obama stares out at the diners. Plants hang precariously from the ceiling, wood paneling hugs the walls and booths, and drapes colored with the same murky magenta cover the windows. Waitresses dressed in black and a simple white apron attend to the steady flow of customers.
Scanning the menu, there’s a spread of the simple and the complex, of the time-honored classics and guilty pleasures. Every dish is anchored in a deep history of the South with bursts of high-class flair. Offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the menu includes striking plates such as salmon croquettes, farm-raised catfish steaks, Long Island Duckling, and Rock Cornish Game Hen. The more traditional, however, can order pork chops, cheese burgers, short ribs, or pigs in a blanket.
“I highly suggest the quarter fried chicken,” says Yvette, my waitress for the day. “It’s what we’re known for around here.” Chicken quarters are lightly breaded in what seems to be a cayenne-infused breading and flour mixture, dunked into a pot of bubbling oil, and served with my choice of macaroni and cheese and chilled coleslaw. Something so simple could not have been executed so excellently, but indeed it was. One cut broke through the golden brown crust and into the moist and tender chicken. The breading held a powerful kick of agitated spice and tones of sweetness, slightly overpowered by the salt. This framing highlighted the meat, which was sometimes overpowered by overly complicated seasoning or uneven cooking. Nonetheless, I was immediately transferred to the eateries I patronized in my Southern birthplace.
The macaroni is cooked al dente with a bite to it. There are no embellishments: no fancy cheeses, gratuitous herbs, or experiments with ingredients. It was only pasta and sharp cheddar cheese, covering each morsel of the dish. While I would have preferred it to be more submerged in cheese, it was a good complement to the other dishes. Its flavor was more muted than the other more spicy items, however the cheddar introduced a familiar but beloved flavor to the palate after each bite. The coleslaw was neither too dry nor too soaked in their especially sweet and tangy dressing. Adjoining the steaming chicken and macaroni, it provides a cooling relief, marked by a creamy sweetness and crisp chomps.
“Will you be having peach cobbler?” Yvette said to the group behind me. She repeated this request to other patrons, so that when she reached me, I could not refuse. Peach cobbler seems to be a staple. The flaky crust and reduced peaches are mixed in with splashes of cinnamon to make a heartwarming final dessert.
Throughout my meal, many people walked in and out of Captain Hard Times. Some never ordered; they came in, addressed the waitresses by their names, and sat down with seated customers. Friendly pats on backs, silent fist bumps, and roaring laughs reverberated through the place. The mood was festive as diners moved around the place to shake hands or gossip.
Captain Hard Times manifests a true power of food, of shared meals; through simple ingredients and easy execution, food creates a bridge to disparate souls. “You should come back some time, and bring your friends!” said Yvette.