406 S. Sanford Ave., Sanford | 407-732-7728 | shantellscafe.com | $$
And my vote for friendliest greeting by a restaurateur goes to … Shantell Williams! On seeing us enter her soul food haven, the delightfully affable proprietress of Sanford’s Shantell’s Café rose to her feet and gave us all hugs like we were long-lost family, then sat, chatted and gave us the lowdown on the menu. She spoke of her former restaurant and catering business in Beacon, N.Y.; her move to Sanford and subsequent partnership with co-proprietor Larry Higgins; the historic building and stylish 1920s-era furnishings of her current restaurant; and the irresistible “mackabella” ($6) – a portobello mushroom crowned with a heap of thick and peppery macaroni and cheese. It’s one of those comforting, sleep-inducing numbers – a lullaby on a plate that hit all the right notes.
That dish may have given Morpheus the upper hand, but we weren’t about to let our waking moments fade without a fight – not when there were all these fried dishes to sample. With glistening digits, we gave each other pats on the back after spiritedly downing a perfect (and I mean perfect) execution of fried okra ($3), thin-cut fried green tomatoes ($5) and Jamaican beef patties ($5). The latter was given a quick fry for added glaze to the pastry. “I’m Ja-fakin’, not Jamaican,” joked Williams when asked if she had any West Indian bloodlines, but you’d hardly know it, given the patties’ properly minced and spiced filling. I’ve eaten my fair share of beef patties over the decades, and while the frying negated the flake in the crust, the filling was as good as any I’ve ever sampled.
Then came the heavy hitters. First up was chicken and waffles ($12), bringing a bit of Northern Soul to the Deep South. The batter on the chicken was teased with cinnamon, thyme and some of Williams’ proprietary all-purpose barbecue seasoning. Williams says her spices were sold in Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in New York, and that she’s working on stocking them at stores in Florida. Fish and chips ($9) employed a significantly spicier batter that gave the fried flounder a fab flair; accompanying crinkle fries were just fine. The specialty burger ($12) is a 1-pound behemoth fashioned from house-ground sirloin. You can choose any number of toppings (bacon, sautéed mushrooms or jerk seasoning, to name a few), but it was the beef that really got our attention. It’s as big on flavor as it is in size. Our eyes widened at the very sight of that massive, succulent patty, and after all the food we’d eaten, we needed a jolt. Plus, we were saving room for a slab of Williams’ homemade chocolate cake ($3), which wasn’t the filling ending our pleasant server said it would be, but rather light and moist. It practically begged to be enjoyed with a cup of coffee, but we resisted, and rose from our stools as bright-eyed as ever.
On our way out we got hugs and kisses, followed by a plea urging us to help spread the word of her eatery south of Seminole County. Evidently, Sanford Avenue will be shut down for the next three months for improvements and Williams was more than a little concerned about keeping the momentum she and Higgins have generated over the past five months. It’s a long drive to Sanford but, trust me, Shantell’s really knows how to treat the road-weary traveler.
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