The Natural Soul Food Non Profit Cafe isn’t like the other restaurants on this, the 1400 block of Martin Luther King Blvd. Behind three ordinary-looking storefronts, this cafe serves healthy soul food with a side of culture. It’s a culture canteen in South LA.
All day long in the cafe’s sparse kitchen, simple plates of yellow and blue are loaded with generous portions of honey-baked chicken and turkey meatloaf, then adorned with scoops of fragrant yams and greens steaming from pot to plate. The heavy plates are rushed through swinging salon doors, past tables of chess pieces standing at attention and hollow-eyed African tribal masks keeping watch over this cultural "living room" to the next room, where they’re served on simple picnic tables with cotton tablecloths in traditional African patterns.
And behind it all is Jacinto Rhines, Jr., the passionate patriarch of the cafe, who can be found variously brooding over a game of chess, performing his own spoken-word poetry, or converting unsuspecting patrons to his creed of healthy living. At 69, he says he’s in the best shape of his life.
"I’ll drop and give 100 to anyone who asks," he boasts and then falls to his hands and knees on the dining room’s linoleum floor as if to answer an unvoiced challenge. As he bobs up and down on the floor, a tuft of wiry gray curls that have loosened themselves from his chest-length dread locks bobs in time. He counts his pushups aloud in disciplined sets of 20, and the last set is noticeably breathier as his counting approaches panting. He braces himself as he rises from the floor. Between breaths, he attributes his good health to his own strict diet and explains that he’s brought the same principles to the food at the cafe.
"We’re using that natural soul food concept to make soul food as tasty as it’s always been, but now be healthy."
The criteria for ingredients at the cafe is a colorful checklist of exclusions: no red meat, no white sugar, no black pepper. Instead, leaner meats like chicken and turkey, along with the sweetness of honey and the bite of cayenne pepper, find their way into the cafe’s soul food dishes. Here, chicken is baked not fried, potatoes are mashed with the nutrient-rich skin still on, and everything from lemonate to fruit cobbler is sweetened with honey. It’s Rhines’ own dogma of nutrition that guides the menu.
That menu, by the way, doesn’t list prices.
"Pay what your taste buds say," Rhines explains with a modest smile and a solemn, soul-searching stare that warns not to pay too little. "Some people, they just come in and give us whatever they can, and some people, they do much more. Just the other day these businessmen came in on their lunch break from downtown and they paid $200 for lunch. Oh, that was great. But not everyone can do that, you know?"
It’s a business practice he hopes will make healthy food available to all residents of South LA, which, according to a Los Angeles Times review, has the highest concentration of fast-food chains in the city and has been haunted by the adverse effects of overconsumption of fast food, including diabetes and obesity. Just across the street, the garish red, square-shaped sign of a Jack-in-the-Box is a towering reminder of that fact.
The world outside the walls of the cafe bears reminders of the community’s other afflictions, too. Every storefront on this block has barricaded itself with steel armor that is rolled down or slid across and locked up at the end of the day.
"Some people, they like to call this area the jungle. Well, if you call it that then the people are going to act like animals. But that’s self-hate. What we need is self-love," Rhines preaches. He’s a poet and much of his poetry addresses this need for self-respect and cultural identity in the African-American community. He frequently interrupts his own speech with a slow and measured demand: "Let me share a poem with you."
Who will save the Black Male Child who’s lost his smile because he feels no pride?
The Black Male Child is growing wild he feels self hate self doubt inside!
The Black Male Child needs all your love to help uplift his life!
The Black Male Child needs self respect to turn from drugs and street gang strife!
At home in school the Black Male Child is seldom understood!
He feels put down and all alone oftimes he feels he’s not much good!
Rhines’ poems, like this one called "Black Male Child," gain their meaning in the performance. They ebb and flow in waves of volume, and they’re speckled with long interludes of jazz-style scat. As printed in his self-published anthology, the poems are long blocks of text with scarce punctiation, broken up only by these long patterened strings of vowels and consonants. When performed, they’re an interactive experience which engage the audience.
Natural Soul Food Non Profit Cafe is located at 1444 W. Martin Luther King Blvd. and open 9:30 am to 9:30 pm daily. (323) 298-0005