Thursday, July 13, 2006

SOUL STANDARD UPSIZED

Johnson's new digs signal the unstoppable change in Parramore

Posted on Thu, Jul 13, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Since opening its doors on the corner of Parramore Avenue and Robinson Street nearly a quarter-century ago, Lillie Johnson's diner served as a kitchen and a town hall of sorts to area residents, many of whom often rubbed shoulders with business and community leaders, politicians and celebrities inside the tiny eight-table joint. If you never had the pleasure of eating there, picture this scene:

Congresswoman Corrine Brown: 'Matters of obscenity should not be left up to judges.â?�

2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell: 'Hmm mmm, keep licking those fingers girl.â?�

Shaquille O'Neal: 'Luther, you still nasty!â?�

Carrot Top: 'I'll have what she's having.â?�

Yes, social discourse was very much a part of the original Johnson's Diner, and continues to be so at the relocated and significantly expanded Johnson's, situated on the ground floor of City View, a fancy apartment complex on the rapidly gentrifying strip of West Church Street. And though Lillie has long since retired, her daughter Earlean Taylor has taken over the responsibility of ensuring her mother's restaurant retains its street cred as the best soul food in town.

A $36,700 grant from the city of Orlando's Destination Activity Catalyst Program helped to offset relocation and startup costs, though it seems very little of that money went into redecorating the place, to wit: fake red and black roses, red and beige vinyl tablecloths and similarly colored walls. Not that it matters in a place like this, as comfort flows from simple surroundings, no-nonsense food and the kind of camaraderie you'll never find at Emeril's.

I have to admit, it's been a while since I've sunk my teeth into the crispy, cholesterol-charging flesh of fried chicken ($5.95), but after just one bite, the reverie of days spent in an unctuous haze at Popeye's overcame me, an oily tear forming in my eye, the pitter-patter of my pulse becoming increasingly irregular. This was everything fried chicken should be, and with your choice of three sides ' mashed potatoes with gravy is a must ' it's hard to imagine a more comforting meal. JFC is only served on Friday as part of a revolving daily menu that dishes out meatloaf ($5.85) on Monday, grilled liver ($5.85) on Wednesday and barbecued ribs ($7.15) on Saturday.

Given that chewing the fat is part of the experience here, an order of stew beef ($6.75) couldn't be more appropriate. Fatty chunks of fall-off-the-bone-tender beef smothered with a thick gravy is just the thing to rave about to your neighbor. Enjoy it with sweet and buttery corn casserole and peppery collard greens boiled with salt pork.

The whiting ($6.15), dusted with a cornmeal mix, then deep-fried until the fillet curls, is subtly crisp, the flaky meat begging for a dousing of hot sauce for that right bite. The accompanying corn bread, surprisingly, was a huge disappointment. The cornmeal is baked in a shallow pan, yielding thin squares of flavorless sponge. Southerners are always quick to proclaim that their moms could make a better corn bread, and in this case, they'd be right.

The sweet potato pie ($1.95) has become a legendary capper in these parts, its perfectly textured crust cradling a warm and pappy filling. And if you're lucky enough to dine here on Wednesday, the banana pudding ($1.50), baked with vanilla wafers, is another toothsome option.

Countless times I've witnessed the disenchanted look on the faces of dining companions when a waitress says only unsweetened iced tea is available. No chance here. The sugary beverage ($1.25) is like liquid candy.

It's welcoming to see Johnson's iconic stature being recognized by city leaders, and their efforts to stave off the diner's lurking demise at the hands of speculators. But as longtime Parramore residents and businesses are displaced in the name of 'rejuvenation,â?� the risk of abandoning their primary customer base becomes increasingly likely. Only time will tell, I suppose, but for diversity's sake, let's hope we continue to see the heads of famished patrons bent over those 'meat and threeâ?� plates, raising them only when the need to voice an opinion arises. And at Johnson's Diner, you can count on that happening.

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