May 17, 2022

carlospizzarestaurant

Foodies welcome

This Alabama soul-food restaurant’s special ingredient? A second chance

I first heard about G’s Country Kitchen about 10 years ago, from a Huntsville fine-dining chef who liked to eat lunch there. Of course, when there’s a local restaurant back-of-house staff from other local restaurants are into, that’s a high compliment. What made this instance particularly intriguing is G’s does soul-food, the antithesis of the white-tablecloth realm. But good food in a good place, that happens at every price point.

G’s Country Kitchen has everything you want in a soul-food place. Tasty, down-to-earth food served in a funky space by people with smiling faces. The fried catfish, mac and cheese and fried okra are all tops. Pork chops, meatloaf, turkey dressing, chicken, collard greens and yams are a big deal there too.

Asked where country cooking ends and soul-food starts, G’s owner Maurice Russell says those two pretty much go hand in hand. “The different is that soul-food touches the soul,” Russell adds. “That’s from that old saying, ‘That from the heart touches the heart.’ So when you grew up on this type of food, and the people that used to make it for you have passed on and went their way, and you can find something that’s close to it, you want to go there. It brings back memories, so it’s food for the soul.”

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The G at G’s Country Kitchen stands for Greta. As in Greta Russell, Maurice’s wife. Back in the ‘90s, Greta was working a corporate job that became increasingly demanding on her time without increasing her pay. Earlier in their relationship, Greta used to cook a lot for Maurice. He loved her pot roast, cheeseburgers and other meals she’d cook. “Pretty much everything she put her hands on turned to gold,” Maurice recalls. “One day I told her, ‘Leave your job and find a place and let’s just go open up a restaurant.’ That was 25, going on 26 years ago.”

Since then, G’s, address 2501 Oakwood Ave. N.W., has become a signature Huntsville spot. It’s an affordable go-to for students from UAH, Oakwood University and Alabama A&M, as well as lunch-breakers with collars both blue and white. Actor/comedian Cedric the Entertainer has eaten at G’s. So have former University of Alabama football standouts. Politicians too.

G's Country Kitchen

A catfish plate at G’s Country Kitchen. (Matt Wake/[email protected])

Think of all the local restaurants that have come and gone in the last 25 years. A lot of them, right? In addition to food that connects at a price that clicks, Maurice credits people skills with G’s staying power. “Some of the things,” Maurice says, “that used to take place in the restaurant business and business in general, mom and pop type businesses, are fading away because of big corporations buying into it. A lot of the customer service just went out the door.”

The G’s experience starts even before you eat the food or even step inside. The restaurant’s located in an old-school shopping center that’s entirely submerged below street level and also home to a barber shop, dance studio, salon and accountant. They’re open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Much like barbecue, soul-food just tastes a little better when served in a venerable, whole-in-the-wall joint. Inside G’s dining room, there’s a mural of yesteryear Huntsville, a few knickknacks and Bama football mementos on the walls. The tables, chairs, dishes and silverware are cafeteria-esque. By far the most charming thing about the space is the patinaed ambience, the kind that comes from the years and work the Russells and their 12 employees have been put into this space.

Behind the counter, which Maurice mans, there’s a wide window to the kitchen, where on a recent afternoon I can see Greta, who’s busy in front of the grill back there, still cooking away after all these years. “She’s the matriarch,” Maurice says. “She comes in like 5:30, six in the morning, getting everything prepared.”

Soul-food is a cuisine rooted in Black culture and Maurice Russell is a Black man. G’s is welcoming to everyone though. Personally, I’m a totally average white dude (enjoys Van Halen, “Seinfeld” reruns and Volkswagens), and the times I’ve eaten at G’s, the vibe’s always warm and welcoming. Family-like, really. Maurice says, “I travel to different places to eat food, South Huntsville … If you have a good product, people will come to you.”

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Of course, the last 24 months or so have been a hell of a two years. The pandemic. And also the tumultuous racial reckoning that’s occurred in this country. Maurice hopes G’s can be a place that brings people together. “When you come here you see all difference races sitting at the table having a good time. We want peace and harmony. This is like the melting pot, and where people come in and they try to find solutions for some of the things that have happened.”

Maurice hopes his own path can serve as an inspiration – and a lesson – to others. I wasn’t going to go there, as it didn’t seem relevant to a restaurant story, but he brings his past up and looks me straight in the eye when he takes me through it. Having grown up in the projects, Maurice – a 1980 Butler High School grad who served in the military and became a father at an early age – got involved in drug trafficking. He was arrested in 2007 and served five years in prison.

“I thought my world was over, but it wasn’t,” Maurice says. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says, “I LOVE GOD” on it” and his dark dreads are pulled back. “Sometimes God has to sit you down to stand you back up, and to do His work and to be more of a positive figure in the community. People will question the fact when I say that was the best five years I got to spend. And the reason it was because I got to know me – all day, I did.”

During those long five years, Greta ran G’s. While he was inside, Maurice prayed that the restaurant would get more exposure and they’ve since been featured on TV a couple times. Now, some nights after work, he’ll drop off food for the homeless, he says. “I see a lot of people that don’t have hope,” Maurice says. “People that know me, know my path. When you know my story or my wife’s story, it gives you hope that you can do it too.”