Soulful Passion in Southern Cuisine

by Mae Gilliland Wright

Something beyond food is created at Moja… where traditions are passed down and new customs begin.

Nestled beneath the bluffs of Moss Avenue on North MacArthur Highway, Moja Southern Kitchen is a relative newcomer to Peoria’s culinary scene. An anchor of the near south side, the restaurant serves up more than food—it’s a hub for community gatherings and a welcoming sight for locals and travelers alike. 

 The word moja (pronounced MOH-djuh) is a Swahili word meaning “one,” and it carries a great deal of significance for co-owner Pat Robinson. It isn’t about just being number-one; it’s about striving to be one—bringing together a community. It’s a lofty vision, but Robinson is fiercely dedicated to seeing it come to fruition. 

Creating a Destination
“I was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta,” Robinson explains, as wait staff place a glass of wine and macaroni and cheese, fresh from the kitchen, on the table. “My business partner, Eric Montgomery, is from the Gulf Coast.” The concept of Moja as an authentically southern joint was a perfect match for their backgrounds. “The Gulf Coast is more about Cajun and Creole—and the Delta is the heart of fried and
smothered foods.” 

Moja’s unique fusion highlights the diversity of the South. After all, southern cooking is not a single cuisine, but a hodgepodge of dishes that bridges the “Old South” and the “New South,” from pan-fried chicken and waffles to traditional gumbo. Explaining this with a palpable enthusiasm, the entrepreneur pauses, mid-sentence: “Have you tried our fried catfish?” Glancing back at the staff, he shouts, “Grab them some fried catfish!” This is Robinson: bold and confident in what comes out of his kitchen, and eager to introduce it to anyone who walks through the door.

Online reviews speak highly not only of the food, but of the Moja experience: “Great environment… Great people… Staff was amazing… a gem… a piece of heaven on Earth.” For as much as Robinson strives to perfect his menu, he works even harder to ensure that guests feel welcome. He views Moja as an extension of southern culture, where food was a force that brought people together. “I have always loved to have folks over—this is just an extension of that,” he says. “I truly love it.”

When the two business partners set up their new restaurant in 2017, they selected the location purposefully. Robinson often refers to Moja’s neighborhood by its zip code: 61605, among the poorest in the country, with few restaurants or grocery stores. “It was a food desert,” he explains. “We could have easily put this restaurant in north Peoria or Dunlap. We want to show that we care enough to invest in this community and hopefully create a destination for Peoria.”

Moja’s co-owners are both IT professionals, with no previous experience as restaurateurs. They met 30 years ago at Caterpillar, where Robinson worked as a software developer—and where he still works today. As he bounces from table to table keeping a watchful eye on his customers’ needs, it’s astonishing how he manages to balance the demands of the restaurant and his full-time work at Caterpillar. “It means hiring great managers,” he explains. “It means training them and letting them do their job.”  

To ensure his customers receive the best that Moja can offer, Robinson holds his staff to high and exacting standards. Having worked for decades in the painstakingly detail-oriented field of software development, this is hardly surprising. “With software, you have to pay attention to the little things—something as little as a dot or a backslash will cause the thing to fall apart,” he muses. He views the dishes coming out of the kitchen in much the same way—if a piece of toast is missing, for example, he’ll alert staff before the customer even notices. “There are multiple reasons why that piece of bread is so important,” he declares. “Every plate matters—because every customer matters.”

Authentically Southern
The term “soul food” is often used to describe southern cuisine because, as Robinson states, “It makes you feel good.” Yet it comes out of a history of violence and oppression, born in the homes of families forced into slavery in the American South. “Slaves took the foods that had a high fat content because food was scarce. That’s how [soul food] started—it was making lemonade out of lemons,” he explains. “They turned it into a delicacy. As people left the South and went to the North in the manufacturing migration, they brought their culture with them.”

If you’re looking for an authentically southern experience, Robinson recommends Moja’s Soul Food Sundays. “That’s when we go hardcore southern,” he says with a smile. “Oxtail, neck bones and purple hull peas might be on the menu.” Moja’s kitchen staff makes everything from scratch, and many of the vegetables are grown on-site. “The guys are back there every morning,” he notes, “peeling potatoes and picking the greens from our urban garden out back.” 

The menu also features what Robinson refers to as “contemporary Southern” food. “People nowadays like chicken and waffles, Cajun shrimp, fried catfish with cheesy grits and eggs,” he explains. Moja recently opened a small bar and offers a selection of wines, as well as mimosas and champagne, which pair perfectly with their brunch selections. “We have a sophisticated customer base,” he says, noting the diversity of Moja’s clientele. “We get everyone… and we take pride in that. We want to provide service to everyone.”

When Robinson looks back at his formative experiences with food, his late mother comes to mind. “Best cook ever,” he declares. “You don’t see too many skinny people walking around where I grew up. Food is so integral to the culture and to the community.” Freely admitting that many of their menu items are not the healthiest, he points out a variety of grilled items for those watching their caloric or sodium intake, including chicken, salmon and vegetables. And if you’re simply looking for a hamburger or a taco, Moja can do that, too. “I truly believe we make some of the best hot dogs in the city.”

Beyond the dining experience, Moja aims to be an anchor in its community, whether assisting with food needs at Head Start or the nearby Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center, or providing neighborhood Easter egg hunts. “We try to give to the community,” Robinson explains. “We’re not just about trying to be a restaurant—we’re really trying to be socially conscious.”

At the far end of the establishment, photographs of well-known visitors cover the wall—politicians, coaches, athletes, business leaders and more. It’s a reminder of the down-home significance of such a restaurant: an old-style kitchen respected for its food and its service, offering an experience that is second to none, a center of community where people can gather together for laughter, food and stories. 

“We’re all about service and the customer at the end of the day,” Robinson declares. With a smile, he gestures toward his staff. “They will tell you I can’t shut down, and I can’t. I really love this. It’s a passion.” iBi

Moja Southern Kitchen is located at 301 N. MacArthur Highway in Peoria. For more information, visit mojapeoria.com, call (309) 839-2086 or find them on social media.

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