Ella is still a row of mostly fast-food joints like it was when I was growing up in Oak Forest back in the 1990s and early 2000s. A few new ones have popped up and replaced the old, and a few new brick buildings have taken over old lots.
But that chunk of Ella, from Judiway Street to North Loop 610, has always been part of my life. I realized this when I recently was asked which restaurant from the neighborhood I felt most nostalgic about. My answer was none of the traditional sit-down restaurant, which were only for the best of occasions when I was a kid. My nostalgia was actually for the fast-food restaurants lining Ella.
Turns out, there is a place for the fast-food joints of the world. I wouldn’t say for health, of course, but for efficiency, for overly salted food and for kids who could walk a few blocks on a summer day to get lunch.
My brother and I frequented Jack in the Box, which at that time was where Dream Wings is. We’d run through the streets with $2 and some change in our pockets. I’d always buy the chicken sandwich, plain, and sometimes I’d get the two-for-$0.99 tacos.
Once, I forgot to scrounge up change and my brother had to buy my chicken sandwich. For no less than 10 years did he hold that dollar he spent on me over my head.
To this day, the only Shipley Do-Nuts I will go out of my way to get donuts from is the one that sits on Ella – which is technically “Shipley’s” according to its sign. I was raised going to the church behind it, so every Sunday we’d grab a donut between services.
I’ve been going there so long that I could tell you who has worked there since I was born. And I could tell you how to spot a new worker. The standard at this particular Shipley’s is a dozen donut holes means a full bag, a half-dozen means a half bag. Newbies don’t know this unspoken rule right away.
After my brother got his driver’s license we’d go to Shipley’s on late nights and get “Day Old Donuts,” which was a big bag filled with donuts leftover from the day. It only cost $1. The last time I tried to get it, none of the workers knew what I was talking about, so I assume they no longer offer it.
Shipley’s in particular has followed me across state lines. When fishing for salmon in the Alaskan wilderness our river guide mentioned he was from Houston. I don’t stretch the truth when I say that the first thing he said he missed about our city was the Shipley’s on Ella.
Less often, my brother and I would make the longer trek to McDonald’s. This was before the kids’ playground was updated and sheltered. We’d order a large fry and hang out in the hot tunnels of the playground.
These are the memories I have in relation to my childhood and food. Simple, cheap and good enough for my uncultured taste buds.