Shawn’s Table: ‘Food for the Soul’ in Jersey City

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On a late Sunday morning in late August, the quiet neighborhood in Jersey City’s southmost Greenville area suddenly came to life, for a street fair celebrating the area’s vibrant Black business scene. Music started to play. Tents were propped up along Ocean Avenue. Colorful crafts and textiles were laid out and proudly displayed. Near the center of the procession, a row of heavy cast iron grills was set up. Charcoals cracking and popping, a lavish spread of chicken thighs and fat sausages were sizzling on the grid. A small crowd began to gather, contemplating the menu written on a whiteboard — grills, stews, mac’n cheese, coleslaw, and boiled peanuts — all mainstays of southern cooking. Below a “Black Businesses Matter” sign is the name of the caterer — Shawn’s Table, located at 271 Ocean Avenue. The gregarious host working the grills and courteously consenting to visitors’ requests to take photos is Shawn Mathis himself, the master chef behind this beloved neighborhood gem. Here’s a look at what to expect from this Jersey City restaurant.

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The Backstory

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A Jersey City native, Shawn loves to trace the restaurant’s “origin story” to his grandparents’ kitchen. “One day my grandma told me, ‘either you go out to play basketball and have some fun, or stay in and watch me cook rice,’” Shawn told Hoboken Girl. “I chose to watch her cook rice. And I fell in love with cooking that day.” 

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After graduating from a local culinary school, he honed his skills at Brenda’s Place, a neighborhood haunt where bartenders and patrons know one another’s names. Ten years later, in 2017, he opened Shawn’s Table at a small space on the same street, right next to Brenda’s Place. The new place was to focus on soul food staples, or as he himself puts it, “food for the soul.”

What’s on the Menu

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“This is what the community gravitates to,” Shawn said of his decision on the menu. The recipes are largely based on the homey dishes he grew up eating, but he took them to the next level with bolder seasonings and professional techniques.

The stewed oxtail, for example, is braised in a house-made browning sauce and then slow-baked for more than two hours. The sweet, smooth maltiness of the gravy seeps well into the fibers of the meat, which tastes velvety, almost creamy when it melts in your mouth. 

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Another local favorite is the shrimp. Fresh off the grill, the shrimp meat is springy, juicy, and subtly sweet despite the bold herby seasoning. It’s great on its own and is even better when served on a bed of buttery grits. Make sure to get a square of macaroni and cheese on the side. Perfectly slick and gooey, it is worth every single calorie.

The menu, posted on Shawn’s Instagram page daily, changes slightly every day, according to “social media reactions from customers,”, as Shawn himself puts it. Oxtails and fried/grilled fish and shrimp are fixtures of the menu, but other festive items such as massive, finger-licking {literally} barbeque ribs, also pop up from time to time. 

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A Closely-Knit Community

The young restaurant has a tight-knit community vibe, with about three quarters of its customers coming from the neighborhood close by. Although the interior space was converted to a grocery and deli during the pandemic, Shawn’s Table has remained a neighborhood hangout, partly thanks to the cookout events held by the community. 

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“I miss the atmosphere {before the pandemic},” Shawn reminisced of the pre-pandemic dining room where eaters rub shoulders in the intimate space. “But I’m looking forward to doing more cookout events. Maybe the next one will be organized by ourselves.”. 

He also has plans to bring his food to a wider audience, potentially by opening a second branch at a different location. Regardless of the plan, his homey, comforting dishes that have fed a neighborhood will certainly feed everyone’s soul.

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Yiwei was born and raised in China. She has lived extensively in Beijing and Hong Kong, before finally settling down in New York. She moved to Hoboken after a few years in Westchester and immediately felt at home here. Two years ago, she left her job at an investment bank to travel the world and explore her interests, and has since then taken on a few freelancing gigs in career coaching, college admission consulting, and writing. When she is not wandering wildly in the streets of Europe, Asia, or Latin America, she can be found sipping an espresso in one of Hoboken's coffee shops or trying out restaurants in Hoboken and Jersey City area.