Austin’s Nubian Queen is Moving Out
Words by Jessica Devenyns Photos Eric Morales
It was unexpected to see the seasoned eyes of Lola Stephens-Bell swell with a fire to match the pink dreadlocks looping around her head as she began speaking about her work on the east side of Austin. A one-woman ministry of food and gospel, Lola has been serving the unseen Austin community of the homeless with soul food and compassion at the Nubian Queen for years. “I’ve been doing this since 1980,” she clarifies. “I just started being recognized for this only since I opened up the restaurant.”
The restaurant in question is Rosewood Avenue’s Nubian Queen. This Creole soul food restaurant runs as a one-room schoolhouse for an education on Cajun culture—food and God included. Scripture is scrawled upon the wall where colors melt into each other: a reflection of the languid heat and heady scents drifting out of Lola’s kitchen. Open doors at both ends of the shop encourage patrons and friends to pop in their heads to ask after the latest neighborhood news, grab a bite to eat, or receive a blessing. In fact, Lola’s food is the best blessing you could ever be served.
The menu is Cajun. Her fried shrimp—the tourist trap of seafood—are lightly breaded and merely sizzled in oil to preserve the plump texture of the shellfish. Her rice and beans dish is a spoonful of tough love with its spicy nature combatting its comforting intentions. She also serves up a house specialty called “Cajun Tea,” which rolls up fruity, tart, syrupy, light, and sweet all into one refreshing beverage. And her gumbo? The intricate relationship of a deep roux and spice defies description. Perhaps you can search for a description yourself on a Friday when you can order a bottomless bowl of her specialty.
Despite this, she claims, “I’m just a cook.”
Lola opened Nubian Queen on Rosewood Avenue just as a flood left her homeless. Since then, the restaurant and the east side community have been her home. “I haven’t lived in a house in 12 years,” she explains. Instead, she lives in a mixed-use night club a few streets over and still spends her time on the road. Now, however, she wanders the streets serving up soul to those in need. “That’s my hobby, getting out and feeding the public. That’s compassion to me. You know you’re giving out great tasting food, great ice cold drinks, water, coats, shoes. Whatever you can give. It’s an honor to get out there and see the success and know that you made somebody’s day.” She also ministers to those who come and enjoy her cooking.
Even though her passionate doggedness has brought her recognition, she wasn’t always able to make ends meet. With only her own income, one “faithful volunteer” named Elly Hughes, and a whole lot of determination, it has taken 13 years for her to be able to pay her rent consistently and punctually.
Ironically, her ability to pay her rent on time has caused her more problems than it’s solved. “As long as it was late,” she says, “it was like, ‘Oh, okay no problem.’” Now, she says things are different. “Last year,” Lola laments, “they called the police,” and “locked up my church in the backyard.” Both these setbacks have left Lola struggling to continue her mission in the community after 13 years.
“It’s not that I’m tired of taking a stand because I never get tired. It’s just time for me to take my stand—sometimes you do all that you can do and then you can’t do no more. Your ship gets flooded, and then you’ve got to go to the next city.”
So, come this summer, Lola hopes to open her own restaurant in Taylor, Texas. “I hope to be opened, God’s will, no later than June.” That means that her last planned day of operation at the current location of Nubian Queen is April 18.
If you can’t make it before she closes, keep your eyes out for her grand opening in Taylor. Out there, however, she intends to use her given name, Lozina. She’s also planning on expanding her menu. “When I move from here to Taylor, God’s will, I’ll be doing breakfasts. I tried to do breakfasts here, but nobody ever came.”
Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Soul Food
1815 Rosewood Avenue
(until 4/18, new address will be posted when open)