Restaurant’s standout items include hand-trimmed oxtail, 28-day-aged steaks
PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Since Marquise Cross was just 16 years old, he knew he wanted to launch a restaurant named after the matriarch of his family. Thirty years later, the business owner has opened Norma Jean’s Soul Cuisine — a labor of love that honors the woman who raised him, as well as the historic neighborhood where it all happened.
Cross grew up in a Northeast Portland household where his grandmother Norma Jean always prepared home-cooked meals for him, his mother, aunts and uncles.
The restaurateur remembers coming home from school on his 14th birthday when he was welcomed by a job application to work at a nearby McDonald’s — where his uncle served as a manager. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was just his first role in a career centered around serving food.
According to Cross, he didn’t see the restaurant industry in his long-term view until he became a staff member at the now-closed Campbell’s Barbecue.
“I still remember their food,” he said. “Barbecue gives people a different kind of satisfaction because there’s so much time and effort put into it. I think that’s where [I began to think] cooking could really make people happy and it feels good to be a part of making people feel that way.”
Growing up on Northeast 17th Avenue, Cross says there was a variety of Black-owned businesses that he loved and hoped to add to their legacy.
There was also a push for these businesses toward the beginning of the pandemic when he says many entrepreneurs discussed revitalizing the neighborhood as a hub for Black people.
“We all kind of know the story that gentrification kind of pushed anybody out and a lot of folks unfortunately chose to sell their homes, but a lot of us still have our heart and soul here,” he said. “Where are you supposed to go when a place is your home?”
This thought inspired him to launch his business Gourmet Brothers Catering back in 2017, and in June of this year, Norma Jean’s Soul Cuisine.
According to Cross, his catering company and the connected food cart gave him firsthand knowledge on being an adaptable restaurateur. He listed customer service, attentiveness and quality of food as a few factors that define both businesses, but overall, the concepts are different.
While Gourmet Brothers has a rotating menu because food carts allow for more freedom, Norma Jean’s will have an established menu so guests know what to expect.
Standout items on the restaurant menu include hand-trimmed oxtail, fried fish plates and 28-day-aged steaks. Guests can also order soul food favorites such as greens and mac and cheese.
Find the restaurant at 4636 NE 42nd Avenue in Portland.