One of Baton Rouge’s oldest restaurants honored as 2024 Soul Food Pioneer

Round the corner on Fairchild Street, and there it is: a crimson-and-white building that’s been open for decades. The sign over the door reads Ethel’s Snack Shack.

Here, “snack” is code for soul food. And these days, that means smothered chicken and cornbread dressing on Mondays, and smoked baby back ribs and seafood-stuffed potatoes on Fridays. Red beans and rice, an Ethel’s mainstay, are on the menu daily, while pig tails, chitterlings and other vestiges of the soul food canon—catnip for diehards—make occasional appearances.

A longtime haven for generations of Southern University students and faculty, Ethel’s was run for years by Lawrence Ned, a local minister, and his wife, Gloria. Since 2021, it’s been operated by the mother-son team of Paulette Thomas and Roderick Brown. The two have breathed new life into a restaurant whose future, at one point, was questionable.

Last month, Ethel’s was named the 2024 Baton Rouge Soul Food Festival Soul Food Pioneer. It will be honored during the upcoming festival, held May 18-19 on the grounds of the East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library at Goodwood.

“It was the spot,” Soul Food Festival founder Henry Turner Jr. tells me over lunch at Ethel’s. “Everybody ate (here).”

The musician and recording artist says Ethel’s was a big part of his life throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when he would meet friends who attended Southern for lunch. He says his favorite dish was smothered chicken, but adds that he worked his way through the rest of the menu.

“I tried it all, everything I could catch,” he says, forking up a Tuesday special of smothered pork chops with rice and gravy.

Red beans and rice are an Ethel’s mainstay, on the menu daily.

The familiar building lies on a quiet block, located roughly between Southern’s fraternity and sorority houses on Harding Boulevard and its main campus off Scenic Highway. The look hasn’t changed much over the years, including the hand-painted boast on the side of the building about its highly regarded red beans.

Chatting over the counter with the diminutive Thomas, I ask how she makes hers, a creamy, full-flavored version studded with thin discs of pork sausage. She demurs.

But when I ask pointedly if it involves “two sticks of margarine,” a well-trod formula revealed to me once by a Thibodaux soul food cook, she grins slyly and says “yes,” also copping to the addition of Rotel tomatoes.

That explains the extra kick.

Breathing new life

In its heyday, Ethel’s served breakfast and lunch to legions of fans. Ned took it over in the mid ’50s and ran it until he died in 1996, after which his wife assumed the reins, recalls current owner Carl Fontenot. Gloria Ned Coleman, known for her easy charm, beehive hairstyle and occasional bouts of French, ran things until her health said otherwise. She died in 2021, but she had stepped back from the restaurant a few years earlier, passing on ownership to Fontenot, her godson.

The years after Coleman’s decline were hard ones for Ethel’s, says Fontenot, who was living out of town then.

Numerous operators tried running the place, he says, some for just a few months at a time. Occasionally, the restaurant sat dormant. Then in August 2021, Thomas and Brown approached Fontenot about leasing it.

Thomas was no stranger to cooking. A few months before, she had opened a successful cottage catering business out of her home, a personal project meant to fight retirement boredom. She had just closed the book on 40 years of working for a local dry cleaner and was keeping busy making to-go lunches and prepared meals. Cooking came naturally. It was how she fed her five, now-grown, children—four of them boys.


Lunch specials rotate on weekdays at Ethel’s, like smothered pork chops with rice and gravy on Tuesdays.

“You’re feeding a bunch of hungry kids all the time,” Thomas recalls. “And you got to have food for them. You can’t go out to McDonald’s all the time. You got to cook. I cooked every day and worked two jobs.”

Soul food, inherently thrifty, is what she prepared. And those same stretchable, well-seasoned foods are what she whips up at Ethel’s. She and Brown renamed it “New Ethel’s” to signal its fresh start. Brown says after seeing his mom start her own catering business, he figured running a restaurant would be an easy transition.

“She was already cooking and working hard,” Brown says. “So, I said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

The restaurant has since rocked along with weekday lunches ordered from its small food line, as well as catering orders from local businesses. A healthy crowd forms during our visit, with one regular, a sheriff’s deputy, audibly blaming a growing waistline on the menu.

“Miss Paulette’s doing a great job,” Fontenot says.

Trade secrets

Few soul food restaurants continue to make chitterlings. They’re laborious and unpopular among many younger diners. You won’t find them on Thomas’ regular menu, but she does serve them occasionally.

Those who still cook the dish subscribe to a universal truth.

“You got to clean them first,” Thomas says. “Even if it says they come cleaned.”

Pig intestines just require that extra level of confidence.

Once cleaned, Thomas cuts the chitterlings into small pieces with kitchen shears and braises them for about two hours with onions, celery, bell peppers and a Cajun spice blend. She confides another trade secret: adding cream of mushroom soup to the pot as a gravy starter.

Prior to Ethel’s, Paulette Thomas ran a cottage catering business out of her home.

Generously portioned plate lunches come with two sides at Ethel’s. Among them: candied yams, collard greens, and rice and gravy. Cheese and spaghetti, the soul food equivalent of mac-and-cheese, is another option—and it’s one that reveals the culinary genre’s refusal to be swallowed up by broader definitions of Southern cooking. Elbow macaroni might be commonplace across Americana, but in soul food kitchens, it’s vermicelli that often finds itself bathed in cheese sauce.

Pasta strings are further reimagined in Thomas’ Mexican Spaghetti, a rotating specialty that features shredded chicken breasts and a sauce made with that reliable combo, Rotel tomatoes and melted Velveeta.

Pig tails, an economical cut from, yes, the animal’s backside, also hit the menu semi-regularly. Thomas sources them from local markets like Scallan’s Choice Meats on Airline Highway and Kelly’s Meat Market on Plank Road, she says.

The boney cuts, generally about 6 inches in length, are crevassed with small hollows of meat, made tender by a low-and-slow braise with aromatic vegetables and lots of dry seasonings.

Preserving local traditions

The Soul Food Festival’s Pioneer Award helps highlight practitioners of the centuries-old food form, rooted in the culinary practices of enslaved people. Soul food is something-from-nothing fare, a cooking style defined by coaxing bold flavor and large portions from cast-off ingredients.

Past Pioneer Award winners include Delpit’s Chicken Shack on North Acadian Thruway, D’s Soul Food Café in Plaquemine and Café Express in Mid City.

Turner says it was time to give the Scotlandville neighborhood a shoutout.

Henry Turner Jr. is the founder of the Baton Rouge Soul Food Festival.

“I thought it’d be great to revisit and come back to a location like this,” he says.

Turner, also the founder of the Henry Turner Jr. Listening Room on North Street, says the goal of his six-year-old festival is to celebrate the tradition of soul food through music and food. The event includes back-to-back bands, a cooking contest among small caterers and home cooks, and the announcement of the Soul Food Pioneer.

“A lot of times, these are places that don’t have advertising budgets,” Turner says about the annual honorees. “We want to expose them to more Baton Rouge diners and give them a boost.”


The New Ethel’s Snack Shack is at 1553 Fairchild St. It is open on weekdays for lunch.

The free Baton Rouge Soul Food Festival is Saturday, May 18, and Sunday, May 19, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. It features an array of musical genres, including blues, soul, R&B, funk, smooth jazz, gospel and contemporary Christian, as well as its annual Soul Food Cooking Contest and Pioneer Award presentation. Vendors and food for purchase will also be available. Find more information at brsoulfoodfest.com.