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Thursday, August 26, 2004

EMERIL VERSUS EARLEAN

Posted on Thu, Aug 26, 2004 at 4:00 AM

In my line of work, people often ask me my favorite place to eat. If they expect a dissertation on the merits of Alain Ducasse's twist on classical French as opposed to Thomas Keller's new California cuisine, they will be sorely disappointed. My favorite place in the whole world to eat is at Judy's – my mother-in-law's house. Her chicken and dumplings make me long for the childhood in North Carolina I never had. She has turned me into a person who can devour a whole plate of collard greens. And her pecan pie is such a gift to the world that I'm sure it has ensured her a spot in foodie heaven. But since most people are not regularly invited to Judy's, I have a place in my arsenal of recommendations: Johnson's Diner, which is reminiscent of Judy's food, if not her house. No invitation required.

Johnson's Diner is tucked to the west of downtown Orlando on the corner of Robinson Street and Parramore Avenue. You may have noticed the lonely little building with a lively painting on the side, including a slug reading "Soul food to please the taste." I know, I know. You're thinking, "There's a good restaurant in THAT part of town?"

And I'm telling you, the best food (besides Judy's) in the whole damn world is there waiting to be had, cooked by Earlean Taylor, the lady with the magic.

Step inside Johnson's, and the hum of the air conditioner and a blast of cool air hit you. It is bright but undecorated, except for an area devoted to photos of NBA stars who have eaten there. The people sitting at the closely adjacent tables are not necessarily together, but many seem to know one another. The smell of pies sitting out to cool and stewing meat permeates the air. A woman who calls you "baby" shows you to a seat across a small sunroom to an even smaller main room.

The same day that I ate smothered pork chops for lunch at Johnson's ($6.95), I ate at an upscale restaurant for dinner where I paid $30 for a pork chop. Now, don't get me wrong. The $30 rosemary-encrusted pork chop with a truffled port demi-glace served at a gorgeous restaurant with a spectacular view had its merits. Dollar for dollar, though, I'd take Taylor's chops any day – tender meat, sweet with a healthy hint of salt, covered in fragrant onions.

My husband, who was raised in North Carolina, managed to say his fried catfish ($7.50) was just like the stuff his grandma used to make before he forked in another bite. Earlean did it again!

There is a recommended strategy to eating at Johnson's. They serve a different menu every day of the week with many changing options, from main dishes to vegetables to desserts, so learn to plan accordingly. Highlights are Tuesday's smothered pork chops and Friday's fried chicken. But the best thing to do is call the restaurant and listen to the taped message of the specials offered that day – the line can be busy, so be persistent. And you can place an order over the phone too.

By the way, this is no new discovery. Practically the entire NBA has visited here over the years, and some congressmen and some celebrity-types, as well as a lot of other hungry people. Which just goes to show that satisfied customers are the true navigators of good restaurants. This satisfied customer filled herself with the outrageous pork chops, three full glasses of sweet tea (95 cents), a whole plate of corn bread (free) and a slice of homemade sweet potato pie ($1.50).

When you're looking for a no-nonsense meal – sans pomp and circumstance – you simply can't go wrong with Johnson's Diner.

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