Chrissy Johnson and ‘Mama’ Helen Frizzell1/5/2022
Mike Whalen, a developer, restaurateur and pundit, once spoke to the Iowa Restaurant Association suggesting that a restaurant, as well as any institution, personifies our collective humanity. That was a romantic notion that has intrigued me for decades. Small bars and diners, where everybody knows your name, represent that idea well. But modern times have made the personality-driven places that writers like Nelson Algren and Raymond Chandler romanticized rare. The Joppa Experience, in many ways, is a throwback to a kinder, gentler America.
Chrissy Johnson moved to Des Moines a year ago and opened that restaurant about six months later in the Merle Hay Mall food court — Local Eats. “Mama” Alice Frizzell is a hospitality industry veteran who asked for a job when she first checked out Joppa. I asked Johnson to lunch recently, and she insisted Frizzell join us. We went to Joppa, which means “beautiful” in Hebrew, according to Johnson, and has no relationship with a local agency that helps the homeless. Johnson and her staff of three seem to be on a first-name basis with all their customers.
“We pretty much are. More than anything, I want this place to be a place for families. I think it’s helpful to treat people like family,” said Johnson.
Johnson lived 40 years on the southside of Chicago before her brother finally talked her into moving to Des Moines. The restaurant caters to Chicago tastes, with Polish sausages, fried chicken, turkey tips, Chicago Italian beef sandwich, catfish sandwiches, oxtails, sweet potatoes, cabbage and collard greens, etc.
What defines Chicago food?
“You don’t find it anywhere else, it’s just an expression of the city,” Johnson said, adding that it represents the foods that Italian, Polish and African-Americans brought with them when they moved to the city in the early 20th century.
How hard is it to supply a Chicago style kitchen in Des Moines?
“I have to take a trip every month to Chicago to shop for Italian style beef, Polish sausage and steakburgers. Everything else I can find at B&B or Brewers. I get my catfish from Potthoff’s,” Johnson said.
Turkey tips and oxtails are not something one sees much in Des Moines.
“No, but they are really popular. They are hard work to make so we have them on Thursdays and Fridays only. I get my tails from the boys at B&B. I cover them in beef stock and braise them overnight at 200 degrees, with mirepoix, garlic, thyme, onion and my blend of seasonings. They are ready the next morning. Turkey tips are a little different here. I make mine out of breasts that have been sliced into one inch strips. Most in Chicago use thighs. I marinate them overnight and finish them on the grill. They are amazingly juicy for breast meat,” she said.
What are her favorite examples of Chicago classics?
“For fried chicken, it’s Harold’s. For Chicago Italian beef, I prefer Mr. Beef. My favorite pizza place in Chicago is Portillo’s; it’s thin crust not deep dish. The original Maxwell’s on Sacramento is great for all Chicago foods,” Johnson added.
Has she been in Iowa long enough to have found favorite places here?
“Probably not. I spend all my time in the restaurant or with my kids. My kids love Zombie Burger and Texas Roadhouse. I guess my favorite place is B&B. I love those guys, and they are good to me,” Johnson said.
How has life changed since moving to Des Moines?
“Let me tell you about my life in Chicago as a single mom with two kids. I worked for the Chicago School System and had to get up at 4 a.m. to get to work at 6. After that job, I worked as a personal caretaker till 10 p.m. Then I went home and started over again the next day.
“That was the life I had to live to take care of my kids. It was not the life I wanted to live. I had been to culinary school, and that was always my dream. So, when I made it to Des Moines, I determined to bet on myself as an entrepreneur. That was easier to do here,” she explained.
“I found helping hands extended in Iowa. If you are dedicated to a dream of entrepreneurship here, there are networking opportunities. I took a business workshop at the Evelyn Davis Center. Friends and family helped me get started. I found amazing staff here. They show up early every day to bless the dream and the vision.
“Best of all, though, is what my life here does to make me a better mother, to give me the time with them to help them grow up to live the lives they want, not the ones they have to accept. My single mom somehow did that for all her kids, though she lost us for a while in the Chicago welfare service system. But she got us back and made sure we all got to college. In Chicago I worried all the time about my kids. Single moms have to be there for their kids. I am so proud of what my mom did as a single mom in the ghetto. I think sometimes I was supposed to come here to break the family history cycle,” Johnson said.
Because a customer was asking specifically for Johnson, she replaced “Mama” Helen behind the lunch counter. Frizzell is a Des Moines girl.
“Yes, I went to East and graduated from Valley. I have been in the hospitality industry most ever since. I worked for Marriott until the COVID laid me off. Then I started working at Mullet’s, but COVID has forced them to cut back hours. They close at 4 p.m. now on weekends and at 2 p.m. on weekdays.
“So when a customer suggested I check out Joppa, I did but wasn’t planning on making any promises. As soon as I saw this place, I wanted to work here. This whole food court is about helping each other. Everyone helps everyone else. That’s a rare, good thing these days,” Frizzell said. ♦