In Southern California, our food is often as frenetic, disconnected and over-processed as our lives. So I have begun a mission to find fare that is more than just calories or the sum of its ingredients, but is truly nourishing—to the body and the soul. Enter Simply Sharon’s Restaurant & Catering: “Home-style cooking with Louisiana flair.”
This family-run restaurant opened its doors last November and just expanded to Jefferson and Winchester, taking over the old Tony Roma’s. I find it fitting that a national chain restaurant, for which the suburbs are so well-know, is being turned into a locally-owned eatery, where everything is fresh, home-made, and Grandma is cooking in the kitchen. Literally.
Owner Sharon Cunningham has enlisted her talented family to help realize her dream. Her brother, JB Wagoner, oversees the restaurant’s bar, the Temequila Lounge; her nineteen year old son Devan is a culinary prodigy, creating signature dishes with her in the kitchen, and her mother Irma comes in every day to make the Gumbo. Photographer, Michael Chavarria, and I had the sincere pleasure of sharing their incredible food and wonderful company for an afternoon. And I left thinking that this is what food should be.
Just for the record… here is the total of what we sampled: Sweet Tea, Seafood Platter, Alligator Bites, Crab Cakes, the Special Every Bite Burger & Fries, Southern Bruchettes, Reuben Sandwich with Sweet Potato Fries, Fried Chicken & Waffles, Jambalaya, Seafood Gumbo, Red Beans & Rice, Macaroni & Cheese, Maque Choux Corn, Collard Greens, Black Eyed Peas, Candied Yams, Fried Okra, Hushpuppies, Bread Pudding, and an impromptu Sweet Potato Pie Milkshake. Reads like a Thanksgiving dinner in Creole heaven, doesn’t it?
First the obligatory fried foods. I admit that I’m not usually a fan, but I’ll make an exception for these. Not greasy and not too much batter, just exceptional flavor and incredibly moist. The Fried Chicken was sumptuous, and the Alligator Bites—“like chicken nuggets without the chicken”—are my new guilty pleasure.
Sharon’s amazing Jambalaya had serious heat and savory spices. This will be my husband’s new favorite for sure. And I cannot say enough good things about Irma’s Seafood Gumbo. Huge chunks of meat and crab legs swimming in a broth so nuanced, you know she uses only the best ingredients and includes a lot of TLC.
The menu contains many of Irma’s old family recipes, who was born and raised in Opelousas, Louisiana. But since the Southern Hospitality attitude is also being served, Sharon was sure to include items for every palette. Vegetarian? There are many options, including the Tofu Po-Boy. Wheat allergy? There’s gluten-free bread and pancakes. And you can also find some terrific salads for a lighter lunch. But my favorite note on the menu: “If you don’t see it on the menu, ask your server and we’ll try to accommodate.” And they did—without our even having to ask.
This is often where Devan’s inventive spark comes in. He’s creative and imaginative in his cooking, and he just has a knack for what tastes great. You can tell good cooking is genetic. For example, he brought out something I couldn’t find on the menu. “Oh, just something I came up with today,” he casually says. We nicknamed it Southern Bruchette for now, and I’m sure it’ll be on the menu soon. (But if not, just ask.) Slices of garlic roll covered with sautéed shrimp, artichokes, and mushrooms topped with melted parmesan cheese, loads of garlic, and parsley. A definite “make-ya-smile” dish.
I am already a big fan of Sweet Potato Fries, but these knocked me out. They are like none I’ve tasted. There was a hint of cinnamon, sugar and vanilla powder. And if that wasn’t enough, Devan has developed a Cinnamon Cream Cheese Dipping Sauce. Simply put, these are special.
I didn’t care how stuffed I was, when he proudly came out of the kitchen with a milkshake version of their Sweet Potato Cream Cheese Pie, I knew I had found food nirvana. Even though it’s rich and creamy, it had a cool lightness to be the perfect aperitif to our feast. This will replace my pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.
But after all those culinary masterpieces, what kept calling me back for seconds and thirds? The red beans and rice! Now, that speaks volumes about what a spectacular cook Sharon really is. So simple, so good. Maybe that’s how the place got its name. You can taste the love and care she slowly simmers into these beans. Such a relaxing cooking pace (nothing less than 4-5 hours) makes them the perfect texture and flavor. She didn’t rush their cooking, and I don’t want to rush their eating. Now that’s comfort food that nourishes the stomach and soul.
But if you’re not quite that hungry, stop on over to the Temequila Lounge and say hi to JB behind the bar. He’s the man behind the popular Temequila beverages, blue agave liquor (“don’t call it tequila”) and drink mixes. While we were waiting for our food, JB treated us to two new concoctions: Temequila Blood Orange Mimosa and Temequila Meyer Lemon Mimosa, both made with Temecula sparkling wines. Delicious! These will be just two of the options at their new Bubbles and Brunch, Sundays from 11am – 4 pm.
And Simply Sharon’s is already expanding the fun. They’ve got Happy Hour (M-F, 3-6pm) with drink specials and wine tastings, live music on the weekends, and karaoke on Fridays. In addition, they will be building an outdoor patio with a fire pit and a micro-distillery for making Temequila on-site.
Simply Sharon’s promises to be a new local favorite for many years to come. And in the finicky restaurant world, I hope they will last a long, long time. Not just for their benefit, but for ours. Temecula needs more Southern hospitality. Southern Californians are starving for nourishing home-cooked food made with love. Or in Sharon’s words, her food is quite simply “love you can taste.”
Simply Sharon’s Restaurant & Catering
27464 Jefferson Avenue, 951-308-0016
Open daily 7am – 9 pm