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Ms. Jean's Southern Cuisine brings the South up north

Long before restaurateur Jean Gould opened her business on Penn Avenue, church ladies and beauty salon patrons were her No. 1 audience.

They were the first to sample her palate of distinctive fried chicken and fish with peach cobbler.

Now, Gould, 52, shares a little bit of her Southern upbringing with Wilkinsburg each day.

Ms. Jean's Southern Cuisine restaurant probably is the one place in the borough where people get dressed up to go to have a down-home dining experience.

Here, blue-collar regulars and after-church bigwigs alike scarf down generous helpings of Southern fried chicken ($7.95), pork chops ($10.50) and Cajun fried catfish ($8.75) with tasty sides of collard greens, fried okra and candied yams.

Homemade peach cobbler and Gould's "Million-dollar pie," made with crushed pecans and pineapple, also are popular tummy-filling dessert chasers.

"Southern food is cooked with love," she says. "I come from a family of people who can cook. I try to bring that passion to every meal I serve."

The restaurant is labor of love for Gould, who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and spent 20-some years working with the handicapped -- in homes and independent living centers -- before taking a chance in the restaurant game.

She runs the day-to-day operations and its half-dozen cooks, wait staff and other employees.

Since 2008, Ms. Jean's has been run out of what was once the old Standard Bank on Penn Avenue, the main drag through Wilkinsburg. It was in a smaller storefront around the corner on Wood Street for eight years before that.

Ms. Jean's is open for lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays. The restaurant serves breakfast Saturdays.

There's an all-you-can eat buffet Sunday that starts at 2 p.m. for the after-church crowd. For $12, you get Cajun-fried fish, baked and fried chicken, greens, pepper steak with rice, yams, sweet potatoes and barbecued ribs. Each Sunday, buffet begins with a prayer in the dining room, most times delivered by Gould.

"That's how I was brought up. We always sat at the table and said a blessing." "I think it adds a lot."

Gould started out learning the finer points of cooking as a child by peering over the shoulders of her mother and aunt -- Ella and Emma Blue.

Southern soul food always was on the menu in the family, especially ribs and chicken dishes. She experimented in the kitchen as she got older, and family and friends became her first test market.

As her skills became more refined, she took her dishes to customers at beauty salons and parishioners at local church events.

"Everyone was encouraging," she recalls. "They were like 'You should be running a restaurant.' "

Emma Blue, her aunt, was a particularly strong influence for Gould; she made a living in a kitchen, having worked for years at Potomac Bakery in Dormont. Gould moved to the Pittsburgh area in 2000, when Emma Blue became ill and went on to open Ms. Jean's the next year.

Gould considers the restaurant a "work-in-progress," and is considering bulking up the salad menu. She hopes to pen a cookbook one day.

"Freshness is the key to good Southern cooking," Gould says. "There's just a difference in the taste. People can tell when you're not using fresh things. That's how you stay alive in this business: by pleasing people."

Additional Information:

Ms. Jean's Southern Cuisine

Location: 730 Penn Ave., Wilkinsburg

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Thurdays, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday (breakfast buffet is 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.), 2 to 7 p.m. Sundays

Details: 412-242-4084

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