Thursday, January 1, 2015

Nikki's Place/Gordon's Be Back Fish House (Orlando)

When I wasn't baking cookies or sleeping late during my bachelor weekend, I was roadtripping in Orlando to visit some small eateries that wouldn't normally be on my itinerary with the kids in tow on our way to the theme parks. After carefully negotiating the heavy Saturday morning fog on I-4, I pulled up in front of Nikki's Place a little before 10 o'clock with breakfast still on the brain.

Nikki's is located on a quiet side street (724 W. Carter St.) in the neighborhood just west of downtown Orlando, an environment that's a little scruffier than the highly sanitized boulevards of Disney World (most tourists finding themselves here would likely be lost).  The New Jerusalem Church of God is right next door, providing Nikki's with plenty of well-dressed patrons after services on Sundays - fortunately for me, the tables in the cozy dining room were empty (there are only 7 or 8 of them) on a Saturday, save for a couple of customers leisurely enjoying coffee and a newspaper. founders Michael and Jane Stern were just here in October of 2014, so I had their recent writeup to guide me through the menu, which was loaded with soul food favorites like oxtail, chitterlings, turkey necks, and various pig parts.  Rumor has it that Chef Nick Aikens (who's been cooking professionally for Central Floridians since the 1950s) makes the best shrimp and grits this side of the Suwanee (the couple at a nearby table told me as much), but the temptation of the house chicken and waffles proved to be too strong, so I had to order me some (it came with two eggs cooked to order).  As hoped, this plate of food was fantastic, and I managed to eat the entire, um, ample portion before heading towards my next destination (I'd also heard that the individual-sized sweet potato pies at Nikki's, made from a recipe older than Chef Nick, were not to miss, so I grabbed one to go on my way out the door).

During daylong eating junkets past, my modus operandi was almost always to walk/take public transportation between stops so as to work off some of the excess calories; that doesn't really work in sprawling Orlando, where you have to drive to get where you're going.  As a alternative, I headed over to a place where I could do some walking before my next meal, the tony suburb of Winter Park (located north and a little east of downtown), home to some great restaurants (like Prato and Cask and Larder), Rollins College (an upscale liberal arts school), and many high-end residences of wealthy locals.  I spent a good hour and a half ambling among the mansions and getting disoriented on the curving, leafy lanes in an attempt to clear out some stomach space for lunch.  Eventually feeling a little re-energized, I returned to my vehicle and drove a mere 10 minutes back towards the expressway into the much more modest town of Eatonville.

There's a marker at the side of the road in Eatonville (see photo above) indicating that it was the first town in America to be incorporated by families of freed slaves (this was back in 1887). The population has remained largely African-American and is served by another great local soul food joint called Gordon's Be Back Fish House, whose address (558 E. Kennedy Blvd.) is officially listed as being in Maitland, but appears rather to be just over the border into Eatonville.

Gordon's is owned and operated by Abraham Gordon, Jr., another long-time local cook, except with the titles "teacher" and "former Eatonville mayor" also listed on his resume. These days, Abraham takes orders from his perch behind the counter while others do the cooking. As you might guess, fish is the main draw here - through the studious efforts of the Sterns again, I was aware that fried mullet was one of the house specialties, and even though it wasn't on the menu this day, Abraham managed to scrounge some up for me (they also have bass, flounder, tilapia, catfish, trout, and whiting).

I thought I ordered just the mini-combo plate, but I'm pretty sure I ended up with the large combo instead, featuring a whole tender fried mullet (disassembled into 3 sections) with 6 meaty fried jumbo shrimp, a pair of delectable hush puppies, and a whole heap of fried okra that I requested in lieu of fries. At $9.95, this was the best deal I'd seen in a while, with enough food for both this meal and the next. I had to work around a few bones in part of the mullet, however, the inconvenience was quite worth the experience. As a side note, I'd noticed a smoker in the parking lot and assumed it was full of fish - when inquiring about that as I checked out, Abraham told me he was cooking ribs in there instead (another off-menu item) and said "I should know how to smoke ribs pretty well by now", clearly setting me up for a return visit.

Oh, Gordon's also does desserts, or at least works with a local baker to stock dessert. Michael Stern noted the Key Lime cake in his write-up and I had to bring home a slice to accompany my sweet potato pie from Nikki's (see photo above). While the sweet potato pie was indeed rib-sticking, I have to give the edge to the Key Lime cake, which was incredibly moist and rich, with just the right amount of tartness to balance the sweet and a sinful slick of white icing. All told, I'd have to say my first exposure to Orlando soul food was fantastic and I'd encourage those of you planning to visit the amusement parks in Central Florida this year to seek out these off-the-beaten path gems...

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