It was the vinyl banner announcing “Halal Fried Chicken” on the corner of Calaveras Street and Lake Avenue in Altadena that hooked me.
It could have said, “Anything Fried Chicken” and I would still be impelled to investigate. That said, “halal” indicates that the advertised chicken is butchered and prepared according to Islamic prescriptive standards, similar to the “kosher” specifications of Jewish dietary law. The plot thickens as I discover the halal fried chicken purveyor is in fact UEDF Fish & Chips, a small take-out operation that shares the corner building with a tax preparation/ real estate/ notary business, as well as the Masjid Al-Taqua mosque.
I smell a story here… and fried chicken.
On Friday May 29, the LA County Department of Public Health suddenly announces restaurants are allowed to resume “dine-in” service, following strict social-distancing guidelines. Protests in Minneapolis over the death of George Floyd turn violent and spark protests over the weekend in cities across the country. In Los Angeles, instances of rioting and looting ensue and a 6 p.m. curfew is imposed. But you probably already know all that.
It is then purely by good fortune, destiny and my love of fried chicken that I stroll into UEDF Fish & Chips on “Black-out Tuesday” as my phone alerts me to the evening’s impending curfew.
On meeting the owner, Abdul Muhammad, 79, he assures me that “UEDF” does not refer to a defunct coalition of progressive Ethiopian political parties (as Google suggests) but in fact stands for “United Economic Development Fund.” This still does not explain why I’m about to order halal fried chicken at a fish and chips stand in Altadena.
UEDF Fish & Chips has been operating from this location for 25 years and is the most public face of a local nonprofit organization founded by Muhammad, a tax accountant and his wife, Dr. Regina C. Grimes, 78, a real estate broker. The couple bought the building in 1998 in part to facilitate the move of the mosque, which had been located on Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena since 1975. They are long-time members of the mosque and Muhammad sits on its board of directors. As we chat in the bustling office he shares with his wife, Muhammad explains that UEDF was formed with the mission “to bring economic empowerment to our local African-American community, including affordable housing, a credit union, and revenue-sharing funds.“ A successful serial entrepreneur, he goes on to explain the challenges that the local African-American community has faced in raising start-up capital for new businesses. “We’ve been working on it for many years. It’s difficult… [but] it’s coming together now.”
The UEDF has also maintained a local food bank, supported free health clinics and senior meal programs in other parts of Los Angeles, and until recently had a community center just up the block that hosted community events and live jazz. The food operation began as a snack shop catering to the students at Eliot Middle School across the street. But soon there was literally other fish to fry…. And halal chicken. That’s why I’m here!
The fish and chips can be ordered with a choice of catfish, red snapper, or whiting and comes with coleslaw and a slice of wheat bread as well as “chips” of the crinkle-cut variety. Portions start at two pieces for $5.25 and run to six pieces for $10. Likewise, the chicken starts at two pieces for $5.80, runs up to five pieces for $9.80 and also comes with fries and coleslaw. Hushpuppies — fried balls of seasoned corn meal dough — are available for $1.25 each or three for $3.50, and yes get three!
If you haven’t surmised this yet, the fish and chips are not prepared British pub-style. For that, go to Lucky Baldwin’s (or Fox’s up the block). This is Southern-style cornmeal coated fried fish and battered chicken. Side dishes include yams, greens, potato salad, green beans, black-eyed peas, and salad priced at $3 for a small portion or $5 for a large container. The menu also includes a “Lamb Burger” ($5.50), a “Halal Burger” ($4.50) and a “Halal Hot Dog” ($2). But come for the fish and chips… and the fried chicken… and definitely the hushpuppies!
“I’ve always worked for community involvement… [over time] you know what the community needs to grow and develop,” Muhammad says.
A resident of Altadena for more than 40 years, Muhammad first arrived in Los Angeles from rural Arkansas when he was 15. We discuss the history of the generational middle-class African-American neighborhoods in Pasadena and Altadena. He notes that there was a demographic shift in the 1950s, with the African-American community moving from below Del Mar Boulevard northward, toward Washington Boulevard by 1960 or so, and that Pasadena and Altadena have always been distinct from the other larger African-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
Reflecting on the nationwide protests and ensuing curfews, Muhammad offers a sage perspective.
“I can understand the protesters… you have to be able to understand oppressed people. It’s the nature of human beings.” But, he says, “Violence is not the solution. Knowledge and understanding; that’s the solution.”
Muhammad has spent his life and career providing support and care to his local community, and so to our greater community, and to the very spirit of community that now seems to provide a beacon guiding us out of this dark, prevailing storm.
UEDF Fish & Chips is the work of a purposeful lifetime dedicated to community engagement. It helps point the way forward, for all of us.
And the chicken is pretty good too… but don’t forget the hushpuppies! –
POST SCRIPT: Fox’s Diner in Altadena and Cindy’s Diner in Eagle Rock (The New Normal Part 1, PW March 26) are among the first local restaurants to resume dine-in service. I just had breakfast at Fox’s. It was literally life-changing.