To find Lancaster soul food restaurant Time 2 Grub, you have to do what every other Antelope Valley resident does the first time: Drive around between strip malls and car dealerships, squinting against the sun, looking for a sign. You won’t find one.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Time 2 Grub isn’t a traditional restaurant, at least by Antelope Valley standards, where national chains and standalone restaurants with big parking lots thrive. It’s more of a market stall, tucked inside of a giant, bright orange monolith known as the Sol Plaza Boutique Mall. Three dozen or so mostly black-owned small businesses cluster together in rows under the building’s open steel beams, selling everything from children’s clothing to jewelry to electronics and toys. Time 2 Grub is in the back, a low-slung plywood stand wrapped in faux brick under a shingled 10-foot roof. The menu is a cascade of soul food basics, served simply in Styrofoam containers; combos come with sides like black-eyed peas or greens, with either sweet tea or Kool-Aid to drink.
If you’re looking for Time 2 Grub, it is likely for one very specific reason: It is perhaps the best soul food restaurant in the entirety of the Antelope Valley, all 2,200 square miles of it. One of the only other contenders for Time 2 Grub’s crown is D&B BBQ Catering and Events, which is 100 feet away, also in Sol Plaza Boutique Mall.
Time 2 Grub owner Tanya O’Neal counts herself among the migrating masses that have left Los Angeles in the past decade for the allure and hopes of more land, cheaper housing, safer streets, and a sense of community in the Antelope Valley. For years, that meant joining the tens of thousands of other commuters in exurban cities who drag their cars well over an hour each way back into the Los Angeles basin for work every weekday. It’s the kind of foreboding drive that doesn’t take long to cast its shadow over one’s entire life.
“I was getting really tired of driving from Compton to Lancaster [for work],” says O’Neal, who spent a career doing billing work for the Marines. “I was missing time with my family, pulling over on the side of the highway to take naps. But they always say God has a plan.”
Divine intervention or not, in 2017 O’Neal found herself just shy of her 40th birthday and rehabbing from a work-related injury at home when she was notified in a letter that her position was being terminated. She took it as a sign, albeit a scary one, and decided to go to work for herself, filling a need in her community by selling soul food out of her home.
“I had been asking God to be retired by the time I turned 40,” she says, before adding: “But I said retired, not fired!” Then there’s the kind of laugh that you only hear when, thank heavens, it’s all worked out.
At the time, the only place in the area that came close to catering to her Southern-leaning desires was Lee Esther’s Creole & Cajun Cooking, a staple Louisiana restaurant doing po’ boys, mac and cheese, and jambalaya in nearby Palmdale. But where were the fried turkey legs, the smothered pork chops and chitterlings and shrimp-loaded alfredo pastas she found herself craving? Though they were common staples at home, that sort of cooking didn’t much exist in a restaurant anywhere in the Antelope Valley. O’Neal decided to change that.
With cues from big South LA Instagram names like Trap Kitchen, Keith Garrett of All Flavor No Grease, and Mr. Fries Man, O’Neal started Time 2 Grub in early 2018 by cooking out of her house, without permits, and showing off the food to potential customers on social media. It didn’t take long for like-minded friends, then friends-of-friends, then complete strangers to catch on.
She thinks it may have been her crab legs that convinced the Sol Plaza Boutique Mall owner to let her have a space in the back of the building. He’d been a fan for some time, ordering at-home meals from the sprawling menu that includes oxtails, smothered steak, and weekend meatloaf, plus a few vegan options. That’s the burden of being one of the most prominent soul food restaurants in an area eager for the stuff: You’ve got to keep as many people happy, and fed, as possible.
Los Angeles communities like Watts, Crenshaw, and Leimert Park are largely viewed as the hubs of black life in greater LA, but demographically, speaking Lancaster is not far behind. When combined, side-by-side Antelope Valley cities Palmdale and Lancaster are the third-largest population base in the entire county, trailing only Los Angeles proper and Long Beach. Antelope Valley overall, including other heavily black communities like California City, counts over a half million total residents.
Lancaster itself is almost 25 percent black, compared to 9 percent countywide and 6.5 percent statewide, and has a larger total black population than the city of Compton. Palmdale and California City are also well above the county average, each with double-digit black population percentages. Today, Compton is only 30 percent black, and every year families find themselves moving north to settle in the communities that line up along California highway 14, just like the O’Neals.
Beyond the promise of affordability, the area offers plenty in the way of jobs, and is in reachable distance to Los Angeles for commuters. Edwards Air Force Base, Air Force Plant 42, and the private defense sectors are big economic engines in the Antelope Valley that offer a chance at a blue-collar life, complete with tract-home living, two-car garages, and enough open space for like-minded folks to find each other out in the high desert.
The dream of uniting in some wide-open space for a common vision is a historic one for many black families in Los Angeles County. Throughout the 1900s, countywide racial redlining policies proliferated, leaving many black, Latino, and Asian groups with fewer places to live, often driving them farther out of the city center in the process. In 1938, a black lawyer named Melvin Ray Grubbs moved from Chicago to found an entire city named Sun Village, due east of Palmdale, as an enclave of black business and homeownership, even working to secure private loans for mortgages for many of those who moved in. At its peak, Sun Valley held more than 2,000 residents and spawned a thriving downtown all its own, all while staring down (still ongoing) civic issues like police harassment and a lack of health services that have led to a lower life expectancy among black people in the Antelope Valley.
While the utopian promise of Sun Village has largely dissipated (thanks in part to water- and land-rights issues with neighboring cities), the greater Antelope Valley has continued to experience a population boom, particularly of black families, even as some local politicians push back against their arrival. In 2011, Lancaster mayor Rex Parris and his city officials were sued by the County of Los Angeles for waging an “unrelenting war” on low-income black and Latino families moving into the area, particularly around the use of Section 8 home vouchers. Parris was elected to a fifth-straight term in April of this year.
In that sense, it’s no surprise that Time 2 Grub has found easy success selling its soul food staples to folks who grew up eating them at home. If anything, it’s a wonder more restaurants haven’t popped up to help fill the void.
Historically speaking, restaurants exist to feed their immediate communities. They’re often referred to as “third spaces,” casual in-between places that service neighborhoods and locals when they’re not at work or at home, and they carry their own cultural weight. They are, generally speaking, an extension of the people around them, as is the food they serve.
Of course, any type of restaurant can open anywhere, serving any type of cuisine at any price point it pleases, but if that restaurant doesn’t provide for the people most likely to pay its bills, then, well, good luck.
D&B BBQ Catering and Events, the second black-owned restaurant inside Sol Plaza Boutique Mall, is equally committed to serving its community, albeit with a Southside Chicago barbecue bent. “Our recipes here are from our grandparents,” says owner Bella Blackmon, “and we couldn’t find anything like it out here.”
Bella and husband David Blackmon are also transplants to the Antelope Valley, having both spent a lifetime attached to the military as well. After multiple deployments — including Bella’s stint as a food inspector for bases in the Middle East — the pair decided to hang up their fatigues and don aprons in 2016, selling meal kits out of their car to office park workers, at-home customers, and anyone else with a craving for ribs.
“We just showed up, knocked on doors, did tastings,” says Blackmon. “We gave out so much free food, just to get our business up and running.” On slow days the couple handed out leftover plates to the homeless. “It was tough, but we’re soldiers. We’re resilient.”
Now, after several years working the weekly Lancaster farmers market, the Blackmons have a stall all their own inside of Sol Plaza Boutique Mall, right up near the main entrance. Bella runs the shop from behind the deli case, lined with slices of pie, banana cream pudding, and deli containers filled with macaroni salad. There’s mac and cheese and collard greens and more in the back, and Dave is usually out in the side parking lot flipping a rack of ribs on an open charcoal grill. They’re tender, meaty things, heavily sauced and rubbed, while the oxtail and rice is its own rich plate of comfort food — especially when finished off with some dessert.
As the name implies, D&B is still mostly a catering operation, though now the couple has leveled up to doing events for the city, the chamber of commerce, and large-scale parties and meetings for an open hall attached to Sol Plaza. The cafe is just the most visible aspect of a lot of hard behind-the-scenes work, says Bella Blackmon, but the repeat customers make it worthwhile. “Our biggest thing is word of mouth,” she says. “You can flyer and all that, but word of mouth brings business. We take pride in what we do, and we love to see our repeat customers.”
Like D&B, Tanya O’Neal’s food at Time 2 Grub continues to resonate with the community, though the model has changed from Instagram direct messages to Postmates orders to, now, a food truck. Back in February, when Eater first began reporting for this story, O’Neal estimated that maybe 50 percent of her business came from delivery, especially during the sleepier weekday nights at the mall. Sundays were better, when black families would arrive after church for lunch, followed by some shopping at the other stalls nearby. Children played in front of the restaurant’s jazz mural, and O’Neal’s parents would run the register and help man the grill.
Both Time 2 Grub and D&B closed for prolonged periods once the pandemic struck and California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his statewide stay at home order. O’Neal was able to secure funding for a food truck, which she opened in April right in front of the then-closed mall. Now, with some restrictions lifted countywide, Time 2 Grub’s restaurant space is up and running inside and the food truck is free to roam. Likewise, D&B returned to service on June 4.
By design, Lancaster and Palmdale remain relatively isolated from the greater narratives of much of Los Angeles County, including the coronavirus pandemic. The region has recorded under 40 total deaths so far, but still falls under the same reopening timeline as every other part of the (much more densely populated) county. The area has also seen little in the way of sustained large-scale Black Lives Matter protesting over the death of George Floyd and greater issues of ongoing police brutality, particularly against people of color. That’s not to say things are “normal” for O’Neal or the Blackmons as they navigate reopening and running their restaurants; it will take time, maybe even years, to recover financially from the lost months, canceled catering, and dire economic forecast.
But for now, they’re both back to work, as is Lee Esther’s Creole & Cajun Cooking over in Palmdale. A sense of community once again pervades the Sol Plaza Boutique Mall, and people are stepping out to tuck into smothered pork chops and meatloaf and black-eyed peas — food that, if not for Time 2 Grub and D&B at least, would hardly exist in the Antelope Valley at all.