Zella's short rib and cheese sandwich. Photo: Kate Williams
Zella’s short rib and melted cheese sandwich. Photo: Kate Williams

Even when the display case is empty, there are still plenty of smiles at Zella’s Soulful Kitchen. The first time we tried to stop in for lunch, the counter-service restaurant was closed to a catering event. The disappointment was quickly tempered by a cheerful, helpful explanation from the staff and their encouragement to come back the next week.

The following Monday, we were greeted by more smiles and friendly banter as we ordered up a veritable lunchtime feast.

Zella’s Soulful Kitchen is one of many successful businesses to come out of the La Cocina culinary incubator in San Francisco. Owner Dionne Knox calls the restaurant a “a tribute to [her] grandmother,” named Zella, and said that it was her grandmother who taught her the “ value of a great meal and the way in which it can unify people.” Knox baked and cooked alongside her as a child, but it wasn’t until she left a career in youth development and community advocacy in 2005 that Zella’s became a reality. Knox worked out of La Cocina until opening her deli counter in the Mandela Food Cooperative last fall.

Chef Dionne Knox. Photo: Zella’s

Zella’s is open for much of the day, serving take-out breakfast and lunch sandwiches, as well as prepared soul food items like macaroni and cheese and barbecue chicken. Grain and leafy salads round out the daytime menu. In the evenings, Zella’s sells a rotating selection of entrées to go. Think fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and turkey meatloaf. Everything is sold to-go; there’s a small counter inside the co-op if you’d like to eat in, but Zella’s is much more of a take-out joint than a sit-down restaurant.

Most of the selections have a healthy slant. White meat and fish are far more common than pork and beef, and organic vegetables abound. Still, the size of the slabs of macaroni and cheese is impressive — Zella’s is clearly here to comfort as much as nourish.

Case in point? The short rib and melted cheese sandwich. Sure, it sounds strange. Short ribs are not the first thing that comes to mind when we think of sandwiches. One bite, however, and the dish makes total sense.

It’s a patty melt, done up with style. The tender, rich short rib meat is shredded and crisped on the flat-top with sweet caramelized onions. An unspecified yet creamy melted cheese (Provolone? Mild cheddar?) does its job of holding the sandwich together, but doesn’t get in the way of the beef. The few rogue leaves of peppery baby arugula are nice from a health perspective, but seem like an afterthought. The real hero is the beef, and it shines.

Zella’s barbecue chicken drumsticks. Photo: Kate Williams

Knox’s barbecue chicken drumsticks are also winners. They’re sold by the pound to be re-heated at home, but are just as good — maybe even better — eaten cold. The chicken is barbecue in the loosest sense of the term: there’s no long, slow smoke involved, but that fact hardly matters. The glistening, thick sauce is made with a mad scientist approach to ingredients. There’s some seriously smoky Willie Bird turkey bacon, pleasantly bitter depth brewed coffee, ketchup, Worcestershire, and a mess of spices, shrouded in secret-ingredient mystery. It falls into every nook and cranny of the drumsticks and cries out for a side of wet naps.

Zella’s biscuit. Photo: Kate Williams

That turkey bacon makes several more appearances on the menu, but it is most successful on the chicken. The thinly sliced and crisped lardons atop the spinach salad taste too much like turkey and not enough like bacon. Pork fat could, in fact, have saved the salad from an overdose of sour vinegar. Between the plethora of pickled onions and balsamic-heavy dressing, the tossed dish was simply too tart.

Knox typically serves her salads with honey-buttered cornbread, but the kitchen had already sold out during this visit. She did, however, still have a stack of biscuits. The oversized, fluffy pastries cost extra, but they’re worth those couple of bucks. Come in before 11 a.m., and you can snag a breakfast biscuit sandwich with egg, cheese, and sausage. Consider that our next order.

Zella’s Soulful Kitchen is located in the Mandela Foods Cooperative at 1430 7th St. (near Mandela), Oakland. Connect with Zella’s on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Kate Williams

Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...