Central Florida is home to many mom and pop restaurants, but it's often difficult to find a place that specializes in Southern-inspired homestyle food. There are niche Louisiana outposts such as Tibby's New Orleans Kitchen but the buck pretty much stops at the beignets.
It was that void that intrigued John Rivers, founder of 4 Rivers Smokehouse. He set out to develop a restaurant that reminded him of the food he grew up eating, with Southern influences from the Carolina low country along the Atlantic Ocean to where Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana meet the Gulf of Mexico.
In April Rivers realized his dream with the opening of The Coop in Winter Park.
Guests line up to order, hovering near an ice chest filled with bottles of soda such as Cheerwine and peach Nehi. The menu is on boards behind the counter. Once up front, it's hello Sweetie Pie, the in-house bakery case offering an array of homemade treats such as lemon icebox, Ritz cracker, chocolate, and pecan pies. There are three-bite turns on Moon Pies, red velvet cake and banana pudding as well.
At the counter, it's a Southern smorgasbord of choices: fried chicken, shrimp and grits, buttermilk biscuits, oxtail beef stew and more. Order up, select your sides and move on down the line to pay. Soft drinks are self-serve in the dining room.
You can make a meal on the "Nibbles" portion of the menu. The pimento cheese ($4.99) with buttery baguette crisps is ethereal, and the four deviled eggs ($3.99) were church-social good.
Onward to the two-piece fried-chicken plate ($7.99) with broccoli salad and fried okra. The chicken was good, but the crisp coating didn't have the same snap or subtle herbal flavor I had encountered at two media events. But the fried okra had that homemade crunch that is so hard to get in restaurants.
Mom's meatloaf ($10.99) with maple-glazed carrots and mashed potatoes rocked. The thick slab of beef was lightly seasoned and the meat had not been overworked, leaving it tender and juicy. The glazed carrots had a thin sheen of syrup, letting the natural sweetness of the vegetables shine through.
On a second visit, I sampled the fried catfish and grits ($9.99) with creamed corn and hush puppies. The battered fish had a clean flavor and nice texture. The pups were okay, but lacked any wow factor. The corn, made with cream cheese, was an over-the-top delight.
My guest ordered the fried green tomato BLT ($8.99) with fries. The sandwich was a wonderful layering of crisp, meaty bacon and tomato with a thin smear of house-made pimento cheese. The fresh, hot fries were near-perfection.
I took two boxes of desserts back to the office: Ritz cracker, peanut butter and pecan pies. The peanut butter was the standout, but the Ritz cracker pie brought back fond memories of buttermilk pies.
The Coop is a crowd pleaser that will suit many budgets.
email@example.com or 407-420-5498. Follow her on Twitter: @OS_thedish
The Coop — A Southern Affair
** (out of four)
Where: 610 W. Morse Blvd. in Winter Park (parking-lot entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue)
When: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
How much: $6.99-$14.99, plus chicken buckets and family dinners from $13.49-$49.99
Beverages: Beer and soft drinks
Extras: Catering, good for groups, family friendly, takeout, outdoor seating
Wheelchair access: Easy
Noise level: Quiet to moderate
Credit: American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Online: asouthernaffair.com and The COOP on Facebook