The Heart and Soul (Food) of Orlando
When you’ve exhausted Disneyland, it’s time to taste Orlando's other passion: soul food. The best place may not be the oldest, but it has plenty of finger-lickin' heart.
Orlando, Florida, is best known as the epicenter of fabricated family fun. It also happens to be a gold mine of soul food restaurants that are anything but corporate in character. For adventurous eaters, the Theme Park Capital of the World offers an alternative magic kingdom of personality-driven kitchens where menus run from turkey necks to pig tails and from chicken and waffles to shrimp and grits. Meals always include constellations of brilliant vegetables—including, of course, that beloved southern vegetable, macaroni and cheese. While some of the best such dining spots in the area have been around for decades—the estimable Nikki’s since 1949—we especially love the relatively new P&D Soul Food Kitchen.
It’s a little place with a big promise: “If you try our cooking you will be a life-long customer!” No doubt about it, if we lived in Orlando, we’d be regulars, and not just because of the great bargain: a full, hot lunch every weekday costs all of $5. P&D meals are out of this world, like home cooking if you happened to grow up in a home with an African-American mom who was a masterful chef.
“We use no cans,” Dennis Cox, who runs the place with his wife, Paula, explains. “We snap our own string beans; we’re getting our collard greens now from Valdosta, Georgia, but the main thing is that we cut them right. If you cut them with too much stem, they have a bitter flavor. You want mostly leaves, and you want them young.” He and Paula tell us that the recipes they use are mostly their parents’, but with a healthful twist: smoked turkey necks are used instead of ham hocks to add meaty savor to greens and cabbage.
Open Tuesday through Sunday, P&D offers a roster of everyday entrees such as fried chicken, pork chops, turkey wings that deliver incredible amounts of good dark meat, and chicken wings that are fried crisp and a joy to worry down to the bare bone. Regular customers count on daily specials: Tuesday’s stewed gizzards, Wednesday’s beef stew, Thursday’s liver and onions, Friday’s pig feet, and Saturday’s ox tails. On Sunday, the roast pork is as sweet as cream and the baked half chicken is divine—butter-rich, drenched in natural juices, and so tender that applying knife and fork seems sadistic.
We love the chicken on a pallet of herby, slightly sweet cornbread dressing, which imbibes all the seeping juices. Essential side dishes beyond the full-flavored collard greens include extraordinarily dark glazed beets and peppery rutabaga served in big, velvety hunks. The stewed cabbage is insanely tender, vegetable-sweet, and more luxurious than cabbage has a right to be. And no matter what else a person eats, it is de rigueur to get an order of baked macaroni and cheese on the side. Dennis makes his using four different cheeses and—although he is mum on the specifics of the recipe—we suspect a measure of sour cream.
“Our cakes come from the finest baker in Orlando,” Dennis brags, turning with a grin to a soft-spoken lady sitting on a stool near the door where people enter. Strangers aren’t sure if she is a customer waiting in line or a staff member. She is Ann Fisher, who brings her handsome triple-layer cakes to the Soul Kitchen twice a week. “She does not go into the box,” Dennis says, “Everything is from scratch.” Ann, who says she learned to bake by helping her grandmother, makes red velvet cake that is moist, tender, and extremely chocolaty, its generous cream cheese frosting spangled with bits of pecan. As Dennis cuts us a couple of slices of Ann’s Key lime cake, he says, “This one is a monster! People are taking it home and hiding it under the bed so they can eat it all after everyone else goes to sleep.”
If you are planning to visit, we must warn you that P&D Soul Food Kitchen looks very boring. No personal photos or memorabilia cover the walls, as is true of the other worthy soul food places around town. It is a minuscule carry out-only storefront in a newish but somewhat forlorn commercial building known as The Village Square—home also to the Have Faith Hair Salon, the Central Florida Urban League, a chiropractor, and a gospel music radio station. The little shop scarcely has room for half a dozen people to stand at the counter and tell Dennis what they want to eat. There is no table service and virtually no dining-in. All meals are packed (abundantly) into Styrofoam containers and bagged with plastic utensils. While most people take their food elsewhere, P&D does offer three tiny tables in the hallway just outside the door for those who crave immediate satisfaction. On Sundays, Dennis adds a couple of party-size round tops in the larger hall around the corner, so big families have a place to dine together after church and strangers can join others for a meal that is a consummate celebration of America’s most venerable cuisine.
P&D Soul Food Kitchen: 927 S. Goldwyn Ave., Ste. 120, Orlando. 407-730-3486.