It’s Saturday night, and you’re in a mini-mall parking lot in La Palma, a city you never thought you’d be in for anything, let alone an evening out on the town. This is OC’s smallest city by size, after all—a blip on the GPS between Buena Park and Cerritos. You see a printing shop, a dry cleaner and a State Farm agent, all closed up for the night. But as you approach Gram’s Kitchen, the new Creole restaurant that took the space of a failed build-your-own-poke-bowl shop, you hear not only signs of life, but also boisterous live music pouring from the open doors.
Walking in, you see the band—a bassist, a singer and a saxophonist—have the entire restaurant on their feet, clapping and singing along to “My Girl.” It’s infectious. Although you haven’t been seated, you can’t help but belt out the chorus with the crowd.
Before the next verse, your waiter, a charming guy in dreadlocks named Jordan, bounds out to greet you. He sets up the very last available table for you and your date. As you follow him, you notice that your fellow revelers are made up of every ethnicity. The diversity is also reflected in the wait staff and the band members. You see all ages and colors—black, Asian, white and everything in between. And everyone, from the grandmas to the bros, are having a good time.
To commemorate the moment, your date decides she wants a selfie. You oblige her, but to get a wider angle and capture the energy of the place, you decide to set the camera up awkwardly on the edge of the table and turn on the timer. The group of older ladies at the next table sees your lame attempt and takes pity; one of them offers to take the picture for you. She does, and you thank her profusely.
Jordan returns with glasses of sweet tea, the brim caked with sugar. He recites the specials, which include a fried catfish with red beans and rice that you immediately know you want. You order it, as well as the shrimp and grits. The band finish a rousing rendition of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” then the saxophonist announces to the crowd that their CDs are free for the taking.
Between sips of that delightful tea and anticipating the next song, you munch on your first appetizer: a platter of crisply fried okra dipped in a tangy sauce that’s most likely a remoulade. It’s addictive. You nearly finish the tray before you move on to the handmade crawfish cake that’s just arrived. With chunks of the shellfish embedded in cornmeal, it eats like a hush puppy but looks like a fried green tomato. You’ve never seen the likes of it anywhere else, even in New Orleans. But they’re delicious, especially with the salad of greens, red onions and cherry tomatoes they’re paired with.
Before long, Jordan (who also turns out to be one of the owners) brings out the catfish entrée. It includes a steaming dome of rice surrounded by an ocean of red beans that, with its pieces of Andouille sausage, is already a meal unto itself. But on top of it all is that catfish, a massive filet cocooned in a cornmeal coating that’s not only crunchy, but also so well-seasoned you don’t end up using the wedge of lemon he gives you. Breaking into the crust, the flesh is so melty and creamy it’s like soft serve.
The portions are also generous, as if there’s actually a grandma in the kitchen who wants to fatten you up. Despite being full, you are duty-bound to at least take a forkful of the shrimp and grits. You make sure to sample a little of everything with the grits, including the spicy sausage, the shrimp and the bacon. Your eyes roll to the back of your head as you taste them. You go in for a second forkful, and by the third, the heat of the cayenne has radiated to your face, making it tingly and warm. When the saxophonist calls for the crowd to give the chef a round of applause, you clap the hardest.
To close out the night, you order a classic banana pudding with whipped cream and Nilla Wafers, but your date has other ideas. Cued by the baseline for “Blurred Lines,” she convinces two of the older ladies to go up and dance with her. Before long, she and nearly a third of the customers are stepping it to the “Cupid Shuffle.” The chef comes out to immortalize the scene on his phone. You do, too.
You watch in amazement as everything—the comforting food, the warm service, the inclusivity of the crowd, the live music—culminated into this magical moment . . . in La Palma, of all places.
Gram’s Kitchen, 12 Centerpointe Dr., Ste. 106, La Palma, (657) 255-4036; www.gramskitchenlapalma.com. Open Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Entrées, $14-$18. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.