Antonio Ellis gets it all the time. "You know, I used to come here when it was Mary's place" and "Does Mary still come around?" Then there's the most important question, the one on almost everyone's lips: "You didn't change the chicken and dumplings, did you?"
The answer to that pivotal question is no. Ellis and his crew at Five Aces Bar-B-Que kept the chicken and dumplings made famous by the space's previous tenant, Mary Samuelson of Mama Josephine's, following her mother's recipe to a T. The humungous dough balls still float with hunks of white and dark meat chicken in rich, herbed gravy. The massive dish remains the best example of comfort in a bowl this side of the Mississippi — just like when "Mary" used to make it.
And Ellis isn't offended when people seem more fixated on Samuelson's greatest hits than curious about his more recent additions to the small storefront. After he took over the beloved neighborhood restaurant on the corner of Shaw and Lawrence in April, he pretty much expected it.
Ellis' original plan wasn't a buyout. He'd simply responded to a Craigslist ad that Samuelson had posted and the two got to talking. Samuelson didn't want to walk away from Mama Josephine's; she simply could no longer balance her full-time career as a data scientist with an even fuller-time career as a restaurateur. In Ellis, she found a kindred spirit who offered a solution. Why not form a partnership? The plan seemed like a win for everyone. Samuelson could work her day job and still come in a few times a week to prep her mom's recipes and mingle with her loyal guests. Customers would still be able to get Mama Josephine's food, while Ellis would finally get a brick-and-mortar location for his burgeoning business, Five Aces Bar-B-Que.
The arrangement lasted a mere two months before Ellis and Samuelson agreed to a buyout. It was amicable — with one foot still in the door, Samuelson was unable to disconnect sufficiently, and also worried she was hindering Ellis' plans to expand his business. As part of the terms, Ellis agreed to keep many of Mama Josephine's favorites on the menu, serving as a steward of Samuelson's mother's recipes. This was no takeover. Instead, Ellis saved Mama Josephine's from extinction.
But to view Five Aces as Mama Josephine's 2.0 is incorrect. Ellis, a Navy veteran who has been smoking meat in parking lots around town for the past several years, has transformed the Southern cooking spot into a bona fide smokehouse. He's made few changes to the space — some artwork, a television (although he admits the old timers don't care too much for this addition) and two massive smokers that sit out front on Shaw. The room is filled with the scent of hickory smoke, a telling sign that he's cooking so much more than just the old recipes.
As for those recipes, he spent months training under Samuelson so that he could learn exactly how to make them. His efforts have paid off in more than just the chicken and dumplings. Meatloaf is still done in Mama's style, flecked with bell peppers, onions and Italian breadcrumbs and glazed with a layer of ketchup. Fried fish — on one of my visits Ellis was proudly serving walleye — retains Samuelson's delicate, herbed breadcrumb crust, which crisps up to a greasy golden brown from pan frying. Both were enough to make me nostalgic for the old days.
Ellis' ribs, however, shook me firmly back into the present. He offers them in two different styles, a "competition" version with the appropriate chew and pull to please barbecue purists and the self-explanatory "fall-off-the-bone" version, a style that may be out of favor with barbecue judges but is beloved by those of us with a soft spot for the molasses-glazed meats of backyard cookouts. Ellis doesn't use salt for his rubs, instead opting for a secret spice blend. The result is a flavor that spikes the brown sugary glaze with Creole or jerk spices like thyme, chiles, garlic, cinnamon and clove — wet-nap barbecue at its finest.
Ellis' pork steak uses the same rub and glaze, and the meat takes on that beautiful bittersweet barbecue char flavor. Having just devoured the ribs, however, I found this cut on the tough side. The opposite was true for the brisket. The slow-cooked beef, swimming in thick, molasses-style barbecue sauce, resembled pot roast and sweet gravy. You can certainly undercook a brisket. This went too far in the other direction — though ladling it over mashed potatoes and treating it like a stew proved a good solution.
My dining companion apologized for, in her words, "being boring and ordering the pulled chicken sandwich." It turned out she had one of the best dishes if the night. The juicy chicken tasted as if it was taken straight off a campfire and placed on a bun. The smoke cut through the sweet sauce, balancing the flavor for the night's best surprise.
Ellis likes to tell diners the story about the teenage girl living in the upstairs apartment who asked for the biggest burger he could make, then devoured a nineteen-ounce version of "Uncle Tony's Best Burger Ever." I'm not sure I could take down such a monster, but I'd sure have fun trying. This is a mighty fine burger. Ellis cooks the thick, quarter-pound patty in the smoker; it comes out around a medium-well but is so juicy and infused with wood smoke, the extra cook time makes little difference. When Samuelson put her faith in Ellis to carry on the home-cooking torch, this is surely what she had in mind.
Five Aces' signature sandwich shares a similar origin story to gooey butter cake — Antonio's wife Toisha goofed on her meatloaf recipe and ended up with a falling-apart mess; she put it on a bun, called it a sloppy joe, and inadvertently created a signature dish. Ellis calls the creation "My Wife's Mistake Meat Loaf Sloppy Joe," but everything about this sandwich tastes right. Succulent, free-form ground beef is spiked with spices and a touch of barbecue sauce, then piled onto a plain white bun — the simple comfort of your youth.
Side dishes at Five Aces are standard soul food fare — mac and cheese, greens, okra, mashed potatoes. The standouts are the sweet potatoes, cooked in so much sugar and autumn spices they should be the centerpiece of a Thanksgiving dessert table.
I could've plopped a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top and been on my way, but Five Aces' fried pies were too tempting to pass up. Blueberry and cherry versions were like homemade versions of a McDonald's apple pie — greasy, somewhat savory on the outside and gushing with gooey fruit. Certainly, Mama Josephine would approve.
But really, there's not much the restaurant's former inspiration could object to at this Southern soul food and barbecue gem. It may have been Mary's place, but Antonio Ellis proves that she placed her mother's legacy in capable hands – even while he is busy creating a legacy of his own.
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