//Dave Eats: Chef Paul’s Cafe

Dave Eats: Chef Paul’s Cafe

By Dave Fountinelle | dave@fresnoflyer.com

When Paul Pearson was running his catering business out of a modest kitchen in Fresno’s Chinatown around 2010, he debated whether he wanted to open it up to the public and turn it into a restaurant. A wager from a friend would be the impetus to take the leap.

“I had mentioned to someone that I was considering opening a restaurant and they asked me where? And I said maybe I’ll do it right here,” Pearson explained. “They told me, ‘you’re crazy, there’s no way you could keep the doors open in this neighborhood.’ I said, how much do you wanna bet? They said ‘I’ll bet you a thousand dollars you won’t stay open a year here.”

Pearson smiled and said, “that was 13 years ago. I think I won that bet!”

Since then, Chef Paul’s Cafe has become the best-worst kept secret of the Fresno foodie scene serving southern-style comfort and soul food, or “just good food,” as Pearson describes it. Customers from all over the Valley line up out the door to try one of Chef Paul’s mouth-watering creations.

Some of the most popular items on Chef Paul’s menu include fried chicken, made from his wife Pinky’s recipe, braised oxtails, and fried catfish. Everything is served with a variety of delicious, down-home sides, including mac n’ cheese, collard greens, and mashed potatoes with gravy.

Now, Chef Paul’s Cafe has been on my “gotta try it” list for a long time, and I was so excited to finally see for myself what all the hype was about.

The vibes were immaculate from the moment our group walked through the door. The walls were adorned with a beautiful hand-painted mural, a collection of framed jazz record albums, and various other mementos. A warm, inviting energy in the air was instantly confirmed when Chef Paul himself greeted us with a smile and welcomed us to have a seat wherever we liked.

Inside Chef Paul’s Cafe

After a quick look at the menu, we ordered fried chicken, fried catfish, a smothered pork chop, and a tri-tip sandwich. For the sides, we chose collards, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac n cheese, and chili beans. And for our appetizers, fried green tomatoes and fried okra served with an arugula aioli.

I’ve never been a fan of tomatoes, so this would be my first time trying a fried green tomato. They were coated in a crispy, heavily seasoned cornmeal breading that gave a satisfying crunch when I bit into it. The tomato was tangy, ripe enough to burst, and reminded me somewhat of a fried pickle. When dipped into the arugula aioli, the combination of the cool, creamy sauce and peppery arugula complimented the tartness of the tomato and the crunchy texture of the breading like Wednesday Addams and Enid Sinclair. My only criticism was that there were only three tomatoes on the plate – because our group had four hungry mouths.

As if reading our minds, Chef Paul glided up to our table with four more fried tomatoes on a plate.

“I heard you guys complaining about not having enough of these tomatoes,” he teased. “So I brought you some more.” He served them to us with a wink and a smile, and off he went.

The fried okra was another first for me. They were coated with a crispy, seasoned breading, and if I had to compare it to something I was familiar with, it might be fried zucchini. But really, there’s nothing I’ve ever tasted quite like it. The bite-sized pieces made the flavor of the aioli stand out when dipped. Out of the two appetizers, the fried green tomatoes were by far my favorite. I will order them every single time I go back.

Now it was time for the main courses. A friend recommended the smothered pork chop, so I ordered that. For the sides, I chose mashed potatoes and gravy and chili beans. The pork chop almost covered the entire plate, barely leaving any room for the bowls holding my sides. The brown gravy smothering the chop was thick, luscious, and had hints of seasonings I couldn’t identify that made it unique and scrumptious. In the words of Guy Fieri, you could pour that gravy on a flip-flop and eat it.

The chop itself was unlike any I had ever tasted. The breading still had a crunch under a blanket of gravy. All of the flavors and textures complemented each other so cohesively. The crust was salty and assertive, and the chop was thick and juicy. It gave me elevated country-fried steak vibes, and adding that unctuous gravy is an absolute must for this dish.

The mashed potatoes were whipped smooth as silk and overflowing with rich, brown gravy. They made for a superb accompaniment to the hearty fried chop. The chili beans had a mild spicy flavor that conjured memories of family cookouts on warm summer evenings.

Next, I sampled the mac n’ cheese. It took one bite to question everything I thought I knew about mac n’ cheese. It was outrageously creamy and decadent, with an immediate black pepper presence and sharp cheddar notes swirling around in a luxurious bechamel. The macaroni was a flawlessly chewy al dente. It was a surreal feeling to eat foods that were so familiar but with a level of flavor beyond what I had ever experienced before.

Which brings me to the order of green beans – a vegetable I absolutely despised as a kid. But, once again, I was willing to venture into the heart of darkness to complete my mission. I trepidatiously took a bite and experienced the unbelievable. I loved them! In fact, they might have been the best thing I ate there. They arrived swimming in a sweet, savory bourbon bbq sauce and melted in my mouth. I don’t know if even my highest praise could do them justice. If you think you don’t like green beans, I’m telling you, these might change your entire worldview.

Collard greens are a food I grew up thinking I wouldn’t like, so these would be a first for me too. I was gobsmacked by the incredible, unexpected flavor when I took a bite. Salty and vinegary, with a robust smoky finish. The potlikker broth was heavenly and steeped with the hearty flavor of smoked pork.

Now, what can I say about the fried catfish? For starters, it is fried in a crispy, generously-spiced cornmeal breading. The fish was moist, flaky, and cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection. At least two dozen hot sauces and seasonings were at the center of our table, including some of Chef Paul’s brands, so I chose Chef Paul’s hot sauce and shook a couple of dashes on my next bite. The sauce added a slightly sweet, vinegary tang with a slow-building heat that played incredibly well off of the catfish’s peppery breading and subtle flavor.

The tri-tip sandwich was deceptively simple-looking. A toasted hoagie roll with a generous stack of sliced, smoked tri-tip served with a side of house-made BBQ sauce. But, as any Californian will tell you, when tri-tip is cooked correctly, that’s all you need. The roll was crispy, chewy, and soft. The tri-tip was juicy and smoky. But the BBQ sauce was the absolute kicker—sweet, savory, tangy, with a bold, spicy heat. Notes of bourbon and brown sugar sang harmoniously and turned a simple sandwich into a carnivore’s symphony.

Of course, I saved the best for last – the fried chicken. Chef Paul brines his chicken for 24 hours in a salt, sugar, and black peppercorn solution. Then it’s coated in a thick batter seasoned with a secret blend of spices and fried golden brown. The first thing that hit me when I took a bite was the crunchy coating. It was a full-court press of herbs and spices that ignited my tastebuds. Followed immediately by chicken that exploded with flavor and so much juice that it ran down the sides of my mouth. Brining the chicken for 24 hours allowed it to penetrate thoroughly, making the last bite as succulent as the first.

It has to be said that, as wonderful, comforting, and soul-satisfying as all of the food was, the customer service at Chef Paul’s Cafe was indeed the most special part of the meal. Chef Paul greeted us at the door and welcomed us like we were guests in his own home. The wait staff was friendly, attentive, and felt like distant cousins helping to prepare a big family dinner. As we were leaving, Chef Paul hugged us, thanked us for letting him cook for us, and invited us to come back soon. That is the Chef Paul’s experience. It’s so much more than the most amazing “just good food” you will ever have. It’s being treated like you’re part of the family. I left feeling like I had discovered the “hidden secret” everyone has been talking about, and now I get to be in on it too. If you have never been to Chef Paul’s Cafe, you need to change that immediately. You will not find a better dining experience anywhere else. 10/10.

Chef Paul’s Cafe is located at 952 F Street in Fresno. They are open Wednesday to Sunday, 11:30 am to 4:00 pm. You can follow Chef Paul on Facebook @facebook.com/ChefPaulsCafe, or Instagram @chefpaulscafe_