It's a common scene at Jonathan's Fish and Chips on Willow Road just west of U.S. 101 in Menlo Park, next to the Mi Rancho Supermarket. People in various styles of attire, from business suits to custodial uniforms, queued up before noon in the 14-year-old family-owned eatery.
Relatives of all stripes have worked at Jonathan's from time to time, but it is Phyllis Cooksey who oversees the business. The day we met, the bill of her well-worn beige baseball cap almost eclipsed her warm brown eyes. She had a quick, friendly smile and greeted customers old and new as if she had known them for years.
Cooksey was reared in Louisiana Cajun country. Her late mother, whom she affectionately refers to as Miss Leanna, was a Creole baker and cook extraordinaire. She and her four sisters taught Phyllis how to cook.
Traditional Creole cuisine is a style of cooking that applies European technique to local ingredients. Creole food is more refined and subtler than Cajun food, which is rustic and spicier.
"Cajun" refers to the Louisiana descendants of French colonists in Arcadia, eastern Canada, who were exiled by the British in the 18th century. Louisiana Creole is a convergence of native, European, West Indies and African cultures. While the flourishing societies have intermingled their antecedents differ.
"I was the youngest of five and had a marvelous childhood growing up in Lake Charles. I even played in the school band and loved it," Cooksey said. Her parents, both dry cleaners, moved the family to the Palo Alto area in 1967.
No stranger to hard work, Cooksey labored in construction, primarily concrete sawing, and worked for OSHA for 20 years. She helped build many of the BART stations, including the newest in Millbrae.
She married the Rev. Johnny Ray Cooksey, a stone mason for 45 years and "a man that can fix anything and still speak to the Lord," she exclaimed. Ordained 34 years, he is pastor of True Light Missionary Baptist Church in East Palo Alto.
The Rev. Cooksey, the youngest of 16 siblings, started cooking when he was 14. Also a native of Louisiana, he made his way to the Bay Area in the early 1960s. Phyllis and her husband met here. Physically, the Rev. Cooksey is reminiscent of the late Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club fame, dapper, graceful and self-assured.
In 1994, when the previous three-seat fish and chips outlet was for sale, "I jumped on it," Phyllis Cooksey recalled. The name was changed to Jonathan's in honor of her son. In 2003, when the proprietor of the beauty salon next door retired, she expanded the restaurant. It now seats 25. "God favored us," she intoned.
Jonathan's started with a dozen choices but now boasts a menu of about 50 items and combinations. The newest additions are fried turkey wings, Philly cheese steak and deep-fried corn on the cob. There are fish tacos and fried chicken, turkey burgers and popcorn shrimp, hamburgers and oyster burgers.
The mainstay, though, are the fish and chips. Catfish, red snapper, sole, whiting and buffalo (a delicately flavored freshwater fish), gulf prawns and calamari are available with most of the seafood coming directly from Louisiana.
In general, styles of fish and chips vary. Most area restaurants offer English-style fish with cod, haddock, pollock and whiting — any firm white fish that does not fall apart while deep-frying. English-style is battered, in white flour, with wide-ranging additives such as beer, spices, bread crumbs, eggs, oils, baking powder, cornstarch and seasonings.
Southern-style fish, as seen at Jonathan's, uses contrasting fish varieties, dredging them in cornmeal before deep-frying. The result is a different product. Southern-style is lighter with more discernible fish flavors. The cornmeal does not absorb as much oil as the battered versions, either, and is thinly crusted.
At Jonathan's, catfish, snapper, prawns and hush puppies are the most popular dishes. Everything, from the cornbread and tartar sauce to peach cobbler and lemon cake, is house-made.
It's not fast food but it's quick enough: five minutes or less for most individual orders. While comfortable, the dining area is smallish and designed for eat-and-go, not loitering. Utensils are paper and plastic. No alcohol, but many fountain and bottled beverages are available.
Fish and chips can be ordered with two, three or four pieces of fish. Catfish, red snapper, sole, whiting and buffalo are variously priced from $5.40 for a small buffalo order to $9.10 for a large catfish order.
Cooksey says she tries to keep prices consistent, but said, "We were hurt by Hurricane Katrina."
She added: "After the hurricane, prices went crazy. We couldn't get a lot of our fish because the fishing fleet was wrecked, and when we could get supplied, deliveries had heavy surcharges. Things are finally settling down. By the grace of God, we're still here."
The menu also includes combos galore and side dishes of red beans and jambalaya, cornbread and hush puppies, crab and shrimp sandwiches, crawfish and fried okra — much of the heart and soul of Louisiana cuisine.
Despite the somewhat difficult location (near a busy freeway entrance, with limited parking), the restaurant thrives because the Cookseys are proud of what they serve, are diligent about keeping prices affordable and, most importantly, they consider customers family.
Jonathan's Fish & Chips
840 Willow Road, Menlo Park
Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
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