Christmas at Warren and JJ’s Place

Christmas is a particularly awkward holiday when you are an expat. It was alright when I lived in London because they basically spoon-fed you all the holiday spirit you could stomach from the start of November. And it was cold and dark. There was mulled wine. And a whole plethora of Dickensian allusions to be made. I think London was tailor made for Christmas, actually. Living on a tropical island, however, is a bit different. And Japan…oh Japan….If I were to embrace the traditions in my current home country of Japan I would be left eating Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. I kid you not, this is a “thing” in Okinawa. KFC is ordered ahead of time and lines can wrap around the block. Mos Burger is doing a fried chicken package as well, as my family and I found out when we were in Kyoto and the husband and the best friend husband decided it was a clever idea to order 20 pieces of chicken and then get on a train, the foul fowl stinking up the car, making me painfully aware of being an embarrassing American.

This Christmas, the hub and I decided to gamble the lot on last minute Priceline deals and we were pleasantly surprised to land a great deal for a suite at the Rizzan Sea-Park Resort, right on the beach in Onna Village. There is something great about hotels at Christmas. That, I am certain, I have adopted from living in Japan. If you AREN’T doing KFC you are doing a hotel. Especially if you are a couple and unencumbered by small humans. The Hub and I were SET! I even managed to negotiate an upgrade and we found ourselves in the penthouse, gazing out at the beautiful East China Sea.

The real excitement though were the dinner reservations.

For a year or so we have been trying to visit Warren and JJ’s Place, a true Okinawan phenomenon. This isn’t so much as a restaurant per say, more of a gathering place with food and booze. It’s a family affair. Warren, a consummate cajun with that heady, thick accent that drips roux, opened up his family’s home to bored and hungry marines years ago and has since turned his old shed into a bar and kitchen. There are no annoying maitre ds here. You send a text message to the man himself and say “Hey I want to eat food with you guys” and he replies something to the effect of “Oh yeah, what time?” and that is that.

We arrived via car from the hotel. I honestly have no clue where this place is. Back roads. Things like that. But you could smell it as we approached. Luscious. That’s it. Just luscious. We ducked into the bar and decided we should just stay there. We could see the kitchen from our perch, it’s huge tin pots simmering away, emitting the potpourri of onions and garlic and trinity. Warren’s daughter, JJ, a darling young woman with an obvious head for the industry and a sublimely pleasant demeanor, served us drinks. The younger kids, and I am talking YOUNGER, toddled about clearing plates and doing the general serving work that people I knew back in NYC would have bitched about. “But I’m and ACTOR!” None of that here. You really feel that everyone is just doing a normal everyday thing. In an almost voyeuristic manner you almost feel like you are intruding in someone’s family life.

When we got a chance to chat with Warren, as he served us some decadent mess called German Potatoes, he spoke of his years living homeless and the desire to keep his family from ever experiencing that. He wears his homeless years on his sleeve, a badge of honor, and I understand this. I was homeless myself, for a time, in London. But not to the extent our man Warren has. When you hear him speak you get a sense there is a fuck-ton of dark and deep going on there. It makes sense he would start a restaurant with the simple idea of feeding people when they are hungry and lonely. And boy does he.

The food is, in a word, decadent. He throws around a “double roux” like a master, creating a sublime Étouffée. There was a shrimp dish that was so perfectly executed I started looking for Michelin stars on the door of the “old shed.” And I just want to cry when I think about the beignets! Christalive! Warren can throw down! His whole family can! It was very clear to me that this is, and probably always will be, a family affair. The coming together of a lovely family of folks to create some really special food, and in turn, a really special experience. Whilst the Hub and I don’t have our family near us at the holidays, we were blessed with the opportunity to be welcomed into a new one. One replete with hugs and laughter and the most important thing, really damn fine food.

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