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At Restaurant Indigo, Chef Jonny Rhodes Serves Salient Social Commentary and Stunning Dishes

Rhodes’s “neo-soul food” doubles as a lesson on African-American history

Mai Pham

Since opening its doors in a tiny Lindale Park space in early June, Chef Jonny Rhodes’s Restaurant Indigo has quickly become one of the city’s most compelling dining destinations.

The former Oxheart line cook and pop-up chef has been working on the menu for Indigo since at least 2014, when he began fermenting and pickling the ingredients — think thin slivers of pumpkin pickled with citrusy satsuma skins — that appear on the menu today. Those ingredients are transformed into stunning, endlessly-creative dishes that double as social commentary.

Right now, Rhodes offers two different tasting menus — an herbivore option for vegetarians, and an omnivore menu that features line-caught Gulf fish, aged and smoked pastrami, and the uncannily meaty “vegetable ham,” or a turnip that’s been smoked, hung to dry, and preserved. At $79 per person, both options are decidedly budget-friendly, especially considering that Indigo is currently a BYOB restaurant. In the coming months, Rhodes will add a “carnivore” menu option that will feature venison, squab, and more wild game.

Chef Jonny Rhodes serves diners at Indigo Mai Pham
Restaurant Indigo [Official Photo]

Dinner at Indigo is an educational experience, one that begins with a discussion of scurvy, the vitamin-deficiency that plagued slaves traveling through the middle passage, and culminates with a discussion on the place of protest in the United States. As each course comes out, Rhodes delivers an in-depth description of the dish, tying every plate to a piece of African-American history.

Rhodes will change the menus at Indigo as the months go on thanks to the ephemeral nature of his ingredients — once that pickle started in 2016 is gone, it’s gone. Below, take a tour through Restaurant Indigo’s most compelling dishes before making the drive to Lindale Park.

Gold Links

Amy McCarthy

The first course of both the omnivore and herbivore tasting menus, the name “gold links” is a reference to gold teeth. As Rhodes explains, many non-black people see the gold teeth worn by Black people as an attempt to be “flashy,” but the practice actually began when African slaves were ripped from their home countries and brought to the United States and Caribbean on ships.

Over these long trips, Rhodes tells diners that slaves developed scurvy, a tooth-rotting disease caused by vitamin C deficiency, and acquired precious metals like gold and steel to fill in the holes in their teeth. This dish, made with potimarron squash preserved in the citrusy peels of satsuma, a bright kumquat confiture gel, and anise hyssop, is designed to ward off scurvy.


Restaurant Indigo [Official Photo]

For Rhodes, the game of life isn’t chess — it’s dominoes. While playing hundreds of hands of dominoes, Rhodes learned the classic art of trash-talk and, as he says, “throwing someone off their game.” This dish is inspired by a phrase Rhodes heard often during his childhood, “fish and bread keeps a poor man fed,” frequently hollered across the table after someone scores five points in a game of dominoes.

On the plate, that phrase translates to an endlessly flaky, perfectly smoky piece of fish cooked over embers, line-caught the day it was served. Ramp ranch dressing, preserved in 2015, adds a little high-low appeal, along with a small dollop of thick caramelized tomato and chunks of dill pickle.

Cornrows & Convictions

Amy McCarthy

Arguably the most stunning dish on Rhodes’ herbivore tasting menu, Cornrows & Convictions is also one of its most poignant. Autumn squash, charred over embers, is slathered in a spiced benne seed sauce, a nod to the sesame seed predecessor’s roots in West Africa. Perfectly plucked sunflower petals make for a bright garnish, while small gourd pickles preserved in 2016 lend balance.

As the course is served, Rhodes explains its connection to mass incarceration in the United States. He notes that Black men are incarcerated at rates five times higher than whites, and once they are incarcerated, many are put to work on prison farms growing vegetables that are sold at American grocery stores. In Rhodes’ view, and the view of many experts on mass incarceration, the country went from one system of slavery to another.

Assimilation Is Not Freedom

Mai Pham

On the omnivore side of the menu, Rhodes puts the tiny smoker in his kitchen to good use for a dish that symbolizes the Great Migration. From 1916 to 1970, more than six million Black people moved north of the American South to seek better economic opportunities and escape terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Rhodes says that this migration meant an influx of poor Black people into communities that were already populated by poor white immigrants, which resulted in high rates of poverty and crime.

During this same time period, a phenomenon began to emerge that Rhodes describes as the “romanticization of white crime,” referring to the glamorous portrayal of the Italian Mafia in media, and films like The Gangs of New York. This dish is intended to be a study in contrasts — the smoky, rich pastrami made famous in the Northeast playing against a dollop of Southern sorghum-stewed beets and dots of Carolina brown mustard.

If Marcus Garvey...

Mai Pham

In the 1920s, Jamaican-born Black separatist and journalist Marcus Garvey was of the belief that African-Americans should return to their African homeland to escape the racism and economic oppression in the Caribbean and United States. With this dish, offered on the herbivore menu, Rhodes asks diners to ponder what the world would be like if Garvey had gotten his way. In this dish, tender field peas are bathed in a sauce spiked with warm Jamaican curry spices and topped with cauliflower that Rhodes pickled in 2016.

Okra Seed Coffee

Mai Pham

While technically not a dish, the okra seed coffee at Indigo is an absolute must. Offered as a $5.50 supplement to the tasting menu, there’s no actual coffee in this richly-flavored, warming drink. Instead, the seeds of okra are dried and twice-toasted, which adds a pretty surprising depth of flavor. With a little bit of cream and sugar, the similarities to coffee are striking, though it’s slightly less bitter.

When it comes out alongside dessert, Rhodes explains that the origins of okra seed coffee can be found in ancient Egypt. In the United States, though, the drink became popular among Confederate soldiers during the Civil War after Union troops blockaded all of the South’s major ports, preventing goods like coffee from entering the southern states. Desperate for a coffee substitute, soldiers then turned to, as Rhodes says, “the people they were fighting to keep in chains” to find this replacement.

There are at least a few moments in the experience that are perhaps intended to make diners feel a little uncomfortable, like when Rhodes explains that at least some of the fruits and vegetables that end up on American tables are grown and picked by people who are incarcerated. In a time when racial inequality is at the forefront of our consciousness, and elected officials who support policies that harm vulnerable populations are being chased out of restaurants by protesters, these types of conversations at the dinner table are essential.

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