Legacy of comfort
With Wanda J’s Next Generation, six sisters bring their grandmother’s culinary traditions to Greenwood
Fried catfish and fried chicken meals at Wanda J’s Next Generation
I stepped into the diminutive dining room of Wanda J’s Next Generation in the Greenwood District, the intoxicating smell of fried chicken and peach cobbler welcoming me. Tyreiha Walker, one of the six sisters who own and operate Wanda J’s, greeted me with a warm grin.
Though Wanda J’s Next Generation Café has only been in this location a few months (Abears occupied the space previously), the food has a family history that goes back decades. Wanda J. Armstrong, family matriarch and long-time restaurant owner, has been churning out her brand of comfort food since the ‘70s and still operates the legendary Evelyn’s Soul Food restaurant in north Tulsa. Now, six of her granddaughters, inspired by their granny, are carrying on the tradition.
“I feel like I learned how to cook before I learned how to read,” Tyreiha said. “I don’t even think we ate Happy Meals growing up because we always cooked. Birthdays, holidays, any day—we cook.”
Whether the family was cooking in their homes or helping out in their granny’s restaurant, the experience made an impression on the six sisters, who range in age from 14 to 30. Two sisters are still in high school, so they help in the evenings while the other sisters attend college. Though it’s tedious to plan around the demands of their classes while also running a restaurant, they make it work.
“I think my dad is starting to realize why he has six girls who are all so different,” Tyreiha said. “Where one of us may be weak, the other is strong. We all add our own talents to the operation and I can see that my dad is proud.”
Her grandmother helped in the beginning, she said, making sure the new operation was up to the “Wanda J standard,” but she has since stayed mostly hands-off, letting the young women take the helm.
“We come here and cook all day. We laugh and play and live like no other,” Tyreiha said. “The first month was a struggle, figuring out the inventory and taxes but we continue to overcome and learn something new every day.”
For fans of Wanda J’s style of cooking, the dishes coming out of Next Generation will not disappoint.
My two-piece fried chicken meal came out piping hot. Plump and not over-battered, the first bite melted on my tongue like a salty, deep-fried snowflake. The crisp, airy coating offered a satisfying crunch that gave way to succulent, expertly-seasoned fried chicken ambrosia.
The catfish was another showstopper. It may be a bold assertion that fried chicken could possibly be topped by catfish, but the preparation of these hunky filets won my heart, bite after crunchy bite. The cornbread coating kept the interior flaky yet firm and the simple seasoning didn’t overpower the fresh, understated sweetness of the fish.
Each meal comes with a choice of two sides, but choosing among so many worthy accompaniments produced an existential agony: mashed potatoes and gravy (white or brown!) or sweet potatoes, collard greens or green beans, fried okra or fried corn on the cob. Comforted that I can always come back, I zigged away from standard favorites like mashed potatoes and green beans and zagged towards sweet potatoes and collard greens. The sweet potatoes aren’t inundated with sugar or butter, but instead are a naturally sweet foil to the greens, spiked with thick pieces of salty bacon that mellows the collard’s characteristic bitter notes.
Now, some folks may assume that fried chicken and collard greens would be categorized as soul food. But Tyreiha explains the nuances between soul food and what they do at Next Generation.
“We do more comfort food, like chicken fried steak and pork chops. When someone says ‘soul food,’ they tend to think of things like pig feet, oxtails or chitterlings,” said Walker. “Which, chitterlings? Not my fave.”
Despite her ambivalence toward chitterlings, Next Generation offers them for its weekly Soul Food Fridays, during which the small dining restaurant bursts at the seams.
“Grandparents and people who know how to cook these things are not teaching others like they used to,” Tyreiha said. “And these foods are not easy to cook or easily accessible. So when we make them on Friday, they are gone in two or three hours.”
As I finished my last bite of catfish, the gleeful bell on the front door rang and a toddler with a familiar smile scuttled towards Tyreiha. She scooped up her two-year-old son and in his big brown eyes, I saw the next generation.
Wanda J’s Next Generation Restaurant
111 N. Greenwood Ave.
Mon-Sat, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
For more from Angela, read her article on sister restaurants Tallgrass Prairie Table and The Bramble Breakfast & Bar.