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Marquise Cross, the owner of Norma Jean’s Soul Cuisine, prepares mac and cheese for the restaurant.
Marquise Cross pours cheese sauce over mac and cheese.
Geoff Fortune

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At Norma Jean’s Soul Cuisine, Marquise Cross Delivers Smothered Oxtails With His Grandmother’s Hospitality

The restaurant, newly open on Northeast 42nd, serves soul food classics alongside Dungeness crab and steaks

Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

Marquise Cross — the owner of Gourmet Brothers Catering and its sibling food cart, Gourmet Brothers Grill — is in the restaurant industry because of his grandmother. But if you’re imagining a scene in a kitchen, with a young Cross assisting his household’s aproned matriarch as he learns to cook, the chef would be quick to correct you.

“People will assume that my grandmother is from the South, and that she was this great cook, but that wasn’t really it,” Cross says. “My grandma didn’t teach me how to cook; she taught me how to be successful at it.”

Cross’s grandmother, who raised him as well as her own six children, encouraged Cross to apply for his first food service position when he was 14. She modeled the value of hard work and hospitality. So when Cross had the opportunity to open his own restaurant, he knew he had to name it after her.

Norma Jean’s Soul Cuisine, newly open on Northeast 42nd Avenue, specializes in dishes meant to make the diner feel cared for. The menu retains several classics in the soul food canon — smothered oxtails, red beans and rice, mac and cheese, collards and cabbage with smoked turkey leg — but Norma Jean’s also heads into broader territory, with things like whole Dungeness crab drizzled with garlic herb butter, or a 28-day aged, Cajun-seasoned rib-eye. “Once you give them an elevated experience,” Cross says, “the food can speak for itself.”

Two plates of food sit on the pass at Norma Jean’s Soul Cuisine in Portland, Oregon.
A steak with mac and cheese and red beans and rice, as well as the restaurant’s Dungeness crab.
Geoff Fortune

On Cross’s 14th birthday, he discovered a McDonald’s job application lying on his dining room table. He spent about two years at the fast food chain before someone offered him a job at the Old Spaghetti Factory from the window of the drive-thru. From there, Cross graduated to a legendary Portland restaurant: Campbell’s Barbecue, a smokehouse owned by Oakland expats Felton and Mary Campbell. The couple’s restaurant no longer exists, but their grandson now sells a line of sauces and seasonings inspired by their recipes. “That’s still my favorite barbecue,” he says, “even if it has closed down.”

After Campbell’s, he crossed the river to work under Vida Lee Mick, the owner of the long-closed Northwest Portland stalwart Foothill Broiler. “She taught me how to run a business,” he says. “She bit the bullet to offer a higher quality product. I live by those same standards now.”

Marquise Cross drops a Dungeness crab into a pot of water at Norma Jean’s.
Marquise Cross prepares a Dungeness crab at Norma Jean’s.
Geoff Fortune

Gourmet Brothers was born in the parking lot of a dispensary in Vancouver, Washington. Stepping away from the culinary world for a moment, Cross had started working at High 5 Cannabis in Northeast Vancouver. Each day, he saw employees of the dispensary leave for their lunch break, coming back late because restaurant options nearby were limited. When the dispensary offered him a promotion, he asked if he could start selling barbecue in the dispensary parking lot instead.

He soon transitioned to events, cooking for places like the Vancouver Jazz & Wine Festival. When COVID-19 began to spread, he switched things up. “I started seeing restaurants shut down, events shut down,” he says. “I said, ‘To do food right now, I have to do a food cart.’”

He opened Gourmet Bros Grill on Northeast MLK, serving dishes like lobster mac and cheese, cheesesteaks, and smoked meats. The cart did well enough that he decided to open a second, specializing in barbecue. “I was trying to work both carts at the same time, running back and forth,” he says. The barbecue cart closed down, but he continued to smoke meats, whether it was a brisket for mac and cheese or chicken for a sandwich. But he didn’t want to stay in carts forever; that was never the end goal.

A dining room filled with two-tops is lit by hanging lights. “Norma Jean’s Soul Cuisine” is written on the walls.
The dining room at Norma Jean’s.
Geoff Fortune

“The restaurant was just a longstanding dream,” Cross says. He had been searching for a restaurant space for years, getting close a few times to no avail. Friends kept sending him listings. When he first stepped into the former Yonder space, he knew — this was Norma Jean’s. He gave the restaurant a fresh coat of paint, leaning into royal purples and yellows. A crown sits over the restaurant’s name, painted on the wall.

The restaurant’s menu is a tour through Cross’s culinary history. For instance, he sold his version of Dungeness crab at the Seafood & Wine Festival, as well as his Cajun chicken and shrimp pasta. At the restaurant, the crab comes with a choice of pasta — Cajun chicken and shrimp or jambalaya mac — and it must be delivered to the table by the chef.

Cross’s oxtails first appeared on his catering menu; when he started selling them at the cart on Sundays, he’d sell out every week. Here, they’re roasted for around seven or eight hours, served with a gravy made from the drippings; Cross likes to serve them with red beans and rice as well as the stewed greens.

As he gets settled, Cross wants to introduce more appetizers and small plates, like Cajun Rockefeller oysters and fried shrimp. He’s also excited to serve harder-to-find things like alligator tail. “My idea is to upgrade and elevate the plate,” he says. “Why can’t soul food make you feel energized?”

When his restaurant opened, Cross’s family flew in from all over the country to be there — both for Cross, and to honor his grandmother. She may not be a world-class chef, but she knows how to make a meal feel vital. “She cooked a home-cooked meal every single day,” he says. “It made us feel loved, valued, and appreciated. That’s how I want my customers to feel, how my grandmother’s home-cooked meal felt. ... If I can lock that in, make people feel the same way I felt, I think we’ll be here a really long time.”

Norma Jean’s Soul Cuisine is located at 4636 NE 42nd Avenue.

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