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L.A. at Large : Charlie's Place Offers Food for Thought, Soul

November 23, 1987|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

Between philosophical musings and political diatribes, the orgasmic-like oohing and ahhing of patrons at Charlie's M&M Quick Snack restaurant makes one thing clear: These folks think hogs should be bustin' down the slaughterhouse door just to be immortalized as one of Charlie Martin's pork chops.

As patron Charles Trammell pronounces: "Charlie Martin is the black Wolfgang Puck. In fact, he's badder than him."

It's the food that brings hard-working people from every sphere here, including such luminaries as singer Little Richard, actress Esther Rolle, "227" star Jackee, actor Kevin Hooks, Magic Johnson and nearly "every other Laker but Kareem," the owner says.

But an attractive, family atmosphere is as powerful a magnet. In tandem, they have made the Inglewood establishment "the community watering hole," says a long-time customer with the single monicker, Rasheed.

"How long have I been coming here?" says Kevin Hooks, child star of "Sounder," adolescent co-star of "The White Shadow"--"Oh, about 20 minutes now." He laughs and points to his wife, Cheryl, seated in the thickly padded booth with their toddler son, Michael. "She brought me (today) for the first time."

"I found out about them when they were a hole in the wall on West (Boulevard) and I used to have to stand outside for an hour to get in," Cheryl Hooks says. She stood outside then and comes now because "the food is just great. It's like home cooking and better."

There is another M&M restaurant near El Segundo, patrons say, but this is Charlie's M&M in Inglewood, 504 Nutwood Ave., right behind the Sears on Manchester Avenue. Its off-the-main-drag location obviously has not deterred customers. Word of mouth has been filling the 200-seat eatery since it opened in this location a little more than a year ago.

As you finish a meal here, and a satisfying stupor begins to envelop you, the brain's pleasure center finds it must compete with the intellect. The mind cannot ignore the threads of conversation wafting its way. It seems there is food for thought as well as the soul.

It is Sunday morning, the busiest time at Charlie's M&M. Framed by a rectangular opening that exposes a half-dozen hopping cooks including the man himself, Charlie.

Tall, muscular, boyish-looking without a wrinkle on his bearded face, Martin, 48, cooks and nods at the patrons who shout greetings at him as well as orders--"Beef patties and eggs, Charlie." "I want the pancake special." "Could you put more cheese in my grits, Charlie?" He wears a white nautical cap that reads "Captain."

"You see that man?" asks Mel Kemp, seated at the counter in front of the kitchen. "Charlie is a curious species: A quality man."

It took 13 years for Martin to move from that "hole in the wall" on West Boulevard to the present site he rents for $5,000 a month. "Banks don't loan money to people like me," the black businessman says. Every cent of his own money has gone into the restaurant.

Politics, economics, sociology--even if cast in the most casual terms--tinge conversations among the mostly black, largely middle-class patrons.

"Black people are used to quality," says Kemp, a garage owner and high school auto mechanics instructor. "Who pays more for it? No one gives higher tips than we do, principally because until the last few years we were the providers of service. We just never provided it for ourselves in our own community."

At a center table in the restaurant sit eight self-described connoisseurs of soul food. "Talk to us," they say. "This place is the pride of the community," offers Marla Reid, wife of the pastor of Ward African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angles.

"This is continental cuisine"-- African-American style--"at its best," she says, her words reflecting cultural nationalist sentiments many middle-class blacks eschewed 20 years ago.

Back at the counter, Kemp is discussing black history. He's talking about the contributions of Africans to the Americas before Columbus arrived, as chronicled in the book, "They Came Before Columbus," by Ivan Van Sertima. When he shared the information in the book with white colleagues--other high school teachers in a class for college credit--they were amazed, he says.

"I got an ovation after the presentation," he says. But he lamented the reaction of one teacher who said she wished she weren't white anymore. She despaired over the long history of denials and distortions of black achievement by whites, Kemp says.

"Nobody should hate themselves," says Kemp, a man with precise diction and a courtly manner. Black people, he says, know how destructive self-hate can be. The point is to use the information "to change things, move forward," embrace each other's humanity.

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