My Two Cents serves soul food with a purpose

My Two Cents has celebrity fans among the likes of Solange Knowles and Ana DuVernay. (Photos from MyTwoCents/Instagram)

My Two Cents is a soul food restaurant hidden on Pico Boulevard in Mid-City. There is no ubiquitous sign for the eatery, represented only with a knife, fork and heart poster atop a storefront. A few days ago, I walked into the restaurant and sat down at one of the wooden tables, quickly noticing that scattered along the walls were cultural relics of black America. Cajun and Old Bay seasonings sat on the shelves, while sweet potatoes surrounded a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce — it reminded me of my grandparents’ home, a sweet mixture of culture and soul food cuisine.

Soul food is traditionally eaten and made by African Americans who live in the Deep South, specifically from the Cotton Belt, which spans across Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. The cuisine originated during slavery, when African slaves were only given food which was deemed by their white masters to be “undesirable.”

Over time, the slaves combined their traditions from Africa with their limited food options in America and created what is now known as soul food. The recipes were passed down by word of mouth, as slaves were restricted from reading and writing, and then, during the Great Migration — when many African Americans began to leave the South and migrate to northern states — the cuisine began to spread throughout the United States. In today’s age, soul food is typically associated with decadence and comfort.

My Two Cents considers itself to be the latter. Yet, there are many soul food restaurants which can pose themselves as representative of the black Southern food genre, without ever having a true marker of association with the heritage. But as my eyes lingered on the wall, I realized a remarkable aspect which gave this restaurant a different sort of cultural relevance — it was a black-owned establishment.

I noticed this due to the presence of a Tom figurine. More commonly known as Uncle Tom, this is a caricature which originated during the antebellum period and referred to black men who were always eager to serve, who defended slavery and who were deemed to be submissive and psychologically dependent on whites for approval. Immediately, I figured, a black person must own this place — as only a black person could get away with publicly having Uncle Tom décor so close to a Holy Bible.

But I didn’t come here because it was a black-owned establishment. I came here for another reason — the head chef is a black woman, a satisfying, yet still very uncommon sight in the modern restaurant industry. But it is on par with the fight for African Americans to reclaim and commercialize our culture, which white people have already exploited and profited off of for centuries.

The executive chef’s name is Alisa Reynolds, and she is well-known around Los Angeles. Her fans include Solange and Ava DuVernay, as well as myself.    

Black women are essential to Southern cuisine, as generations of the American South were raised on recipes created by slaves. Today, white people are often the ones who are praised for cooking the food my ancestors created for survival. Discrimination, like in most professions, has always restricted the upward mobility of black chefs, making it hard to achieve success and even harder to reclaim the recipes which have come to define Southern black culture.

Reynolds, who was taught by a French chef, sought to infuse those teachings with her soul roots, creating a Southern comfort menu that serves items such as gluten-free mac and cheese alongside plantain stuffed pork chops.

The first food served is corn bread — the hallmark of soul side dishes, topped with a honey-like sauce on the top. I bit into it, almost expecting to taste chunks of pineapple hidden in the batter the way my grandmother used to make it; sadly, there weren’t any.

I ordered my meal with an Arnold Palmer, still reserved on ordering sweet tea in places outside of the Bible Belt, recounting the experiences where it was made too bitter, too sweet or as the wrong drink entirely.

The entree I chose was Creole shrimp and corn grits, served in a way I had never seen before. I was used to my mother splattering grits on a plate and with shrimp drowning in a puddle of melted butter. Instead, it came in a wooden bowl, with the corn parmesan grits hidden at the bottom and the Creole shrimp resting at the top.

“Her main recipe is love, hands down,” said Eric Jamal, a server at the restaurant. “This is her art and she cares about the presentation … the flavor.”  

For years, it seems, I have been trying to find a place in Los Angeles that could satisfy my collard greens, fried chicken and okra cravings, and it saddens me that I find such a place four months before I am set to graduate and move back to the East Coast. My Two Cents, a soul food restaurant, black-owned and operated, is reclaiming the African American narrative of this country in bold ways, like putting an Uncle Tom figure near the top shelf for all the white patrons to see. America needs more restaurants like this.

Dominic-Madori Davis is a senior writing about Black-owned businesses in Los Angeles. She is also the chief Copy Editor of the Daily Trojan Her column, “The Black Cat,” runs every other Thursday.