Published February 25th, 2020 at 11:31 AM
LEAVENWORTH, Kan. – In a tiny box of a kitchen bathed in a muddy yellow light, Earthell Bynum of Excellent Choice pulls the handwritten paper ticket hanging from a string. As she submerges the wire basket of cornmeal-dusted catfish fillets into hot, bubbling oil, a soft, gentle hiss escapes.
Excellent Choice is located inside a red square brick building at 1000 N. 7th St. across from the entrance to the Fort Leavenworth Army installation. Customers enter the soul food kitchen through a side door and leave with Styrofoam boxes of fried catfish strips and sides of candied yams, fried okra, collard greens, macaroni and cheese or hushpuppies.
Rachel Minnis is Bynum’s business partner and daughter-in-law. Minnis, a bubbly Englishwoman, is protective of her mother-in-law, who is shy and not big on publicity. The beloved duo divides the labor: Bynum does all the cooking while Minnis handles customer service and works to keep the lines moving.
The lines are frequently out the door on Fridays, and with Lent, which starts this week, the lines are expected to get even longer than usual.
“Lent is our Christmas!” Minnis says with a laugh.
Customer LaShanda White flies through the door and wraps Minnis in a warm embrace as she arrives to pick up her weekly soul food fix.
“This is a little gem in Leavenworth,” says White, an African American interior designer and owner of the personal concierge service “Consider It All Done.” White recently bought a loft in the city of 36,000 located northwest of Kansas City.
“They put their heart and soul into the food, and you can taste it. I even like the music they play,” White says as she cocks her head to indicate she just caught a strain from the blues soundtrack.
Excellent Choice is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 4 to 7:30 p.m. for dinner. The restaurant is known for its fried catfish, and Bynum fries up 200 to 300 pounds in the four days they are open, although fried shrimp, chicken wings and livers and gizzards round out the menu. The most expensive item is whole catfish (bone-in or fillets) and two sides for $13.29.
Chalkboards are the main décor. Daily specials include smothered pork chops on Tuesday, gumbo on Wednesday and jambalaya on Thursday. Every entree comes with a generous square of cornbread and containers of house-made tartar sauce and a fairly mild orange hot sauce.
Bynum skips the traditional ham hock with the collard greens, which customers like the “veg-transitioning” White appreciates. “My secret? Just vegetable oil and salt and pepper,” Bynum says with a smile that crinkles the corners of her eyes.
Over the past seven years, Excellent Choice has become a gathering place where people feel a part of a family, whether they’re long-time Leavenworth residents or passing through the base on a temporary assignment.
During a Wednesday dinner hour, the flurry of customers includes a soldier, a dad with his young son and a teenager driving by who only wants to come in to give Minnis a hug.
“Hello there, Earthell!” Brenda Johnson calls over the high countertop when she arrives to pick up her food.
Johnson lives in Parkville, Missouri, but she was raised in Mississippi and gets a hankering for catfish now and then. “You just crave it if you grew up with it,” she says.
Johnson discovered Excellent Choice through her late brother-in-law, George, a Leavenworth resident. He died more than a year ago, but on hearing his name Minnis pulls out a Splenda box labeled with George’s name and the two women fondly recall his order: liver and onions, and Splenda to sweeten his tea.
“Can I get you to throw a peach cobbler in there?” Leavenworth regular Larry Chmidling asks as he picks up a meal to bring a sick friend.
Minnis enquires about the friend’s condition as she grabs a cobbler from the refrigerator and slips it in the plastic bag.
“Send him our love!” Minnis calls out as Chmidling waves goodbye and the door swings shut.
Desserts sell for $3.59 and include peach cobbler, sweet potato pie and pecan pie. But a decadent chocolate layer cake is the best seller.
Bynum grew up in Ridgeville, South Carolina, worked in New Jersey where she earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration and eventually moved to Leavenworth to live near a brother who was stationed at Fort Leavenworth. She started Excellent Choice in 1996, cooking by herself and using an empty cardboard egg carton as a cashbox.
Minnis grew up in England and came to the United States at age 21. While living in Chicago, Minnis attended culinary school and worked at Webster’s Wine Bar, named one of the top 100 bars in Chicago. She also held management positions with Boston Market, Starbucks and Scholtzky’s Deli.
Bynum moved restaurant locations a few times, finally landing at a hotel where she supervised 23 employees and two banquet halls for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. In 2003, she decided to hang up her apron.
But as soon as the eldest of Bynum’s two sons, Ivan Minnis, Jr., introduced his mother to his friend (and eventually wife), the women got to talking about reopening a place together. When the same building Bynum started her culinary venture became available, the two decided it was a sign.
“She’s a local celebrity,” Minnis says. “The minute we put the sign up, people were elated saying, ‘The Catfish Lady’ is back! There were cars honking their horns and screaming out the windows when they drove by.”
Around 7 p.m., Bynum enjoys a spoonful of macaroni and cheese and starts to tidy the kitchen. Minnis also begins to straighten her command post at the counter’s end. There’s a small American flag poking out of a Styrofoam cup, a souvenir from Minnis’ citizenship ceremony.
Although Minnis had never eaten a whole catfish until she met her husband, Minnis was familiar with oxtails and trotters growing up. “It’s really the same thing, just different names,” she says.
After shyly posing for a photo, Bynum gives her daughter-in-law an affectionate squeeze and declares, “It’s hard to find a good partner. She makes me happy!”
“She’s my BFF!” Minnis replies, and returns the squeeze.
Jill Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.