After church, come experience the gospel of fried chicken | Food, Drink, and Cannabis Issue | Chicago Reader

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After church, come experience the gospel of fried chicken

Darnell Reed shares his family recipes in his two Luella’s restaurants.

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The Moore family eats a post-church brunch at Luella's Southern Kitchen. - LESLIE FREMPONG
  • Leslie Frempong
  • The Moore family eats a post-church brunch at Luella's Southern Kitchen.

My reward for sitting through church was always food. Growing up, I'd stumble through Hail Marys, impatiently checking my dad's watch to see how close we were to breakfast. I'd strategize how to beat the closing-hymn crowd to make sure we got the license-plate booth at Riley's, the local diner in my hometown, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The booth sat under the wood wall showing all the places food could take you. Family is a feeling you can't stray far from, but one you can revisit in homemade southern food cooked fresh daily at Luella's Southern Kitchen in Lincoln Square.

"I want people to have that family experience when they come to Luella's," says owner-chef Darnell Reed. "Like a piece of home that takes them back to when they were a child."

Reed named the restaurant after his great-grandmother Luella Funches and included many of her family recipes on the menu. While the shrimp and grits and fried chicken have taken on a life of their own, Luella's- the-restaurant's famous corn-bread recipe is a Luella-the-great-grandmother original. Luella moved to Chicago from Morgan City, Mississippi, in 1943, and growing up, Reed spent hours after school hanging around her kitchen. The taste of her unique, homemade food inspired the decision to open his own restaurant. Reed later hired his brother, Tyris Bell, as general manager to keep it all in the family.

"We opened Luella's [in February 2015] a week before my daughter was born," says Reed. "I had a second daughter born in July [2018] and realized I needed more income, so we opened a second location."

Luella's Gospel Bird was inspired by culinary historian Adrian Miller's book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.

"Adrian Miller wrote that African Americans in the past called fried chicken 'gospel bird,'" says Reed. "It was usually prepared for Sundays or church days, and when I read that I thought that'd be a great concept."

Luella's Gospel Bird opened in November 2018 in a cozy storefront in Bucktown. Reed named its signature dish the Gospel: it's a serving of buttermilk fried chicken with special "gospel" sauce that features African benne (sesame) seeds. As with Luella's Southern Kitchen, Reed chose to open it in an area devoid of southern soul food.

"We looked at different neighborhoods and my real estate agent told me there's nothing like what you want to do in Lincoln Square," Reed remembers. "We opened Luella's Southern Kitchen there because it was unique. Once I ate at surrounding restaurants, I knew I could offer something Ravenswood didn't have.

"More southern soul-food joints started popping up in Chicago," he continues, "but we were one of the first. The fact that everything is homemade sets us apart from others."

Chicken and waffles and brown sugar and bourbon French toast - LESLIE FREMPONG
  • Leslie Frempong
  • Chicken and waffles and brown sugar and bourbon French toast

The restaurant gained popularity after it was featured on the Cooking Channel show Cheap Eats in 2016. People from Alabama, Georgia, and, surprisingly, California came out to try Luella's cuisine. Chicagoans traveled from the south side regularly for the homemade food they saw on TV. Weekends are especially busy for both locations.

"We see a lot of churchgoers on Sunday," says Reed. "Church definitely plays a factor in to Sunday being our busiest time. Sometimes we get a before-church crowd, but if we open later, we get an after-church crowd."

Brunch at both Luella's restaurants evokes the feeling of family by re-creating Reed's great-grandmother's kitchen, serving her southern recipes in a cheerful wood-paneled storefront filled with Motown music and Ernie Barnes artwork. People may come for the food but they stay for the connections.

"Because I work in the kitchen daily, I've established relationships over four years with people who come in often. I've gone to some of their shows and bought clothes from one for my girlfriend," says Reed.

There are two families in Luella's Southern Kitchen after church lets out. Luella's is the epicenter of churches in Lincoln Square, and I can feel the exhilaration of people abandoning their cars on the street to get a seat near the window. A father laughs at his ambitious daughter pouring syrup over her chicken and waffles the same way my dad did when I'd ask the waitress for more. She looks out the window as her dad wipes food off the counter and watches leaves fall.

"We had someone start coming to us right when we opened, and now her daughter is three and a half," Reed says. "I hope we create memories they can look back on when they're older."   v

Luella’s Southern Kitchen 4609 N. Lincoln, 773-961-8196, luellassouthernkitchen.com.

Luella’s Gospel Bird 2009 N. Damen, 773-904-7704, luellassouthernkitchen.com.

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