Credit: JEFF MARINI for Chicago Reader

Dinkey DaDiva, the Egg Roll Lady, and her sister Pinkey grew up on the west side eating their Auntie Cathy’s egg rolls stuffed with ground beef and cabbage. So when they opened L&B Soul Kitchen in Bellwood in 2012, it made sense to put them on the menu.

“I called them ‘soul rolls,’” says Dinkey, who, along with Pinkey, was given her nickname as a child, and whose real names are Ernesta and Lekia Berry. The soul rolls did OK, but it wasn’t until 2015 when she noticed the jerk taco trend sweeping the west side that the light bulb lit up the path to her destiny—as the probable originator of the current jerk egg roll wave and the creator of some 75 egg roll varieties.

I learned about Berry after reading taco scholar Titus Ruscitti’s recent egg roll roundup where he wondered why these deep fried jerk rolls seemed to have become the unofficial snack of the west side. Turns out Ruscitti had visited ground zero two years earlier, long after Dinkey and Pinkey changed the name of the restaurant to Tastee Rolls in the midst of a marathon, 18-month egg roll brainstorming session.

“After I did the jerk chicken egg roll, it went crazy,” she says. “I set a trend on social media. There are so many restaurants and so many people trying to do it. We sat at the table and came up with so many egg rolls—jerk chicken, jerk steak, jerk shrimp.” 

The OG jerk chicken egg roll, unofficial snack of the west side
The OG jerk chicken egg roll, unofficial snack of the west sideCredit: JEFF MARINI for Chicago Reader

DaDiva’s original jerk chicken egg roll is a shatteringly crispy bundle of chopped breast meat, carrots, and cabbage bathed in the warm spiced glow of the tropics. But the sisters didn’t stop there. They stuffed rolls with scratch-made Italian beef, Philly steak, Buffalo chicken, and gyros. There was a surf-and-turf egg roll, a “mean green” veggie roll, peach cobbler and cheesecake rolls, and a “mystery roll.” They made mini egg rolls for kids’ parties, supersized 12-inch egg rolls for big eaters, and breakfast rolls like bacon, egg, and cheese. Every egg roll can be ordered with molten hot cheese inside.

The sisters didn’t just rebrand, they expanded. While Pinkey held down the fort in Bellwood, Dinkey introduced the rolls to the city, opening a new soul food spot in 2017 on Madison with a partner. But that arrangement fizzled in April 2018, and Dinkey pivoted to making egg roll deliveries from a family food truck.

Last November she and another partner opened Eggplosion Rolls on Chicago Avenue, where they introduced “make your own egg rolls” that encouraged customer-driven, genre-bending mashups like Italian beef and Philly steak in one roll. But that relationship was short-lived too. Dinkey struck out on her own again in June, and while Eggplosion Rolls is still open, its egg roll offerings are much diminished. 

There are bitter feelings about the breakup, but Dinkey is proud of the overall ascendance of jerk egg rolls. “I don’t care about anybody else doing them,” she says. “It’s just like chicken wings. Anybody can do chicken wings. Anybody can do egg rolls. I feel honored that I started a trend in Chicago and everybody wants to do it because of me.” To complete the circle, the Jerk Taco Man, probable originator of the jerk taco craze, now has a jerk egg roll on his menu.

Dinkey still controls the Eggsplosion Rolls Facebook page, which she uses to steer fans to her new location, Dinkey’s Lucky Rolls. She’s now inside a small carryout kitchen next to the video slot and poker machines at Bobby’s, a strip mall gaming parlor in Hillside, part of a burgeoning suburban chain. Dinkey has been planning to expand along with it, offering her rolls in each new location, along with breakfast, sandwiches, nachos, wings, rice bowls, and tacos—“Make it jerk,” recommends the menu. She’s projecting egg rolls in 29 total locations.

To ensure consistency, she’s mandated a two-week egg rolling course for employees. Graduates—eight of them so far—get a certificate upon completion. 

She’s hired a restaurant consultant to help her grow, and she’s plotting a return to the west side too, Chicago Avenue in particular. Meanwhile, there are always new egg rolls to conceive. “I’m steady creating,” she says. “I love this business. My mind—I eat, sleep, poop egg rolls.”  v