The humble storefront held a grand reopening last month. It originally opened in November 2020, but Turner tired of the pandemic's off-and-on indoor dining restrictions. She shifted her efforts to catering—a successful venture that she still offers.
There’s no fancy presentation or frills at Ja'Das Soulful Eatz, but those trappings are unnecessary. This is comforting and satisfying fare—everything soul food should be. The reopening presents a chance for folks to become reacquainted with the outstanding flavors they missed. Furthermore, Ja'Das now has expanded parking, at the Albina Headstart lot (kitty-corner to the restaurant) after 5 pm on weekdays and all-day on weekends.
Turner’s entry into the food industry was happenstance. She spent much of her career—38 years—as an account executive for Bonneville Power. Then, one night, she was having dinner at the bygone soul food restaurant Christopher’s Gourmet Grill and noticed that they didn’t offer any desserts. A couple days later, Turner brought in a cake at the owners request. She ended up supplying them with desserts until their closure, in 2013.
In 2008, Turner started her own dessert company, Ja' Das Desserts, specializing in cupcakes. She set up a booth at Downtown Portland's Saturday Market before morphing the business into a soul food cart, which debuted at Cartlandia in 2014.
Ja'Das’ food cart is still in operation, now stationed at Park the Carts food pod, a two mile straight-shot north, on NE MLK, in the Piedmont neighborhood. Turner’s son Donte Savage, a former Green Bay Packers linebacker, runs the outpost with his wife Naomi and will soon take over operations completely. While the cart’s menu—a slightly pared down version of the brick-and-mortar's—will largely remain the same, Savage intends to give it his own spin, starting with changing the name to SavDaddy’s.
Speaking of names, you might be wondering where “Ja’Das” comes from. The origin is heartwarming—it’s an acronym of each of her immediate family’s first initials, a subtle nod to the restaurant’s beginnings, when all its employees were family members. Turner also recalls learning cooking skills from her grandmother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law. Family is at the heart of Ja'Das.
“I really like to see people enjoy good food,” Turner told the Mercury. “When my kids were young, everyone would come over to my house after church… friends, family, everybody knew that they could come over and have something to eat. And they said, ‘oh, you should have a restaurant!’ But I never dreamed I would be doing anything like this.”
Now that she’ll be able to focus solely on her brick-and-mortar restaurant, Turner is looking to switch things up a little, testing out what works best in this “post-pandemic” dining landscape. She hopes to develop a static system of daily or weekend specials and may soon add happy hour and weekend brunch service.
No matter how it evolves, Turner envisions Ja'Das Soulful Eatz as a hub for Portland’s Black community. She says seeing the neighborhood change over time has been sad and laments the lack of places for Black folks to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. “We had one couple in here that stayed for almost three hours… and that’s what I want, that sense of community,” Turner said.
Folks come for the catfish, served in a basket with seasoned fries and Texas toast. You can also have it in a po’boy, or as an entrée meal, with your choice of one or two sides. Perfectly battered, piping hot, and best dipped in remoulade, the catfish is flawless. To accompany it, I had mac and cheese and red beans and rice.
Turner's mac and cheese is one of the best I’ve ever had. The dish is lauded as the pinnacle of Black American cuisine by many—last year the Baltimore Afro-American wrote a very convincing piece about it. Ja’das’ approach is garlicky, tender and creamy, with a glorious cheese pull to boot. The red beans and rice are slow cooked with turkey meat, which gave it a hearty depth.
Turner still makes the cakes that started it all and rotates dessert specials in varieties like pink champagne, red velvet, and chocolate caramel. For my money, a well-rounded soul food meal has to be capped off with banana pudding, which blessedly has a permanent spot on the dessert menu, along with sweet potato pie.
We can also consider ourselves lucky to be able to enjoy Ja’das’ pineapple sweet tea. It's a family recipe that recently made it on the menu, after years of limited appearances at events with family and friends. My soul is content.
Ja'Das Soulful Eatz, 4200 NE MLK, (971) 325-7396, orders.jadassoulfuleatz.com; Ja’Das Soulful Eatz food cart is in the Park the Carts pod at 7339 NE MLK.