It’s a scary and stressful time to be alive. Just leaving the house comes with its own set of dangers during a pandemic, and following the news is depressing and draining. But it’s our responsibility to stay informed and learn about how we can repair the world, or at least make it a better place for everybody. I know this food blog is strictly small-time and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m doing anything grand and important, but I really do hope to boost the signal for local restaurants I love, establishments that everyone should know about, ideally sending more business their way with these reviews.
That’s why I was so psyched about trying Nikki’s Place (https://www.nikkisplace.net/) for the first time yesterday. It’s a soul food restaurant in the historic Parramore neighborhood near downtown Orlando, and it has been open for business since 1949, originally as Roser’s Restaurant. It’s rare for any restaurants in a young city like Orlando to have lasted that many decades, and it feels like an incredible legacy because Chef Nick Aiken Jr. worked there as a child in 1952. Chef Aiken and his wife Elaine took over his Aunt Roser’s restaurant in 1999 and renamed it Nikki’s Place, after their daughter Shannea “Nikki” Akins. An Orlando Sentinel review from 2013 and additional articles from 2015 and 2017 tell more of this story, with the later article detailing how the landmark restaurant rebuilt and reopened in 2017 after a fire forced it closed two years earlier.
So on top of wanting to shine a supporting spotlight on one of Orlando’s Black-owned restaurants, soul food is comfort food, and this is a time we all need some comfort. I know I do. Nikki’s Place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily, except for Tuesdays, when it is closed. When I arrived at 11:15 on a Saturday, several customers were picking up breakfast takeout orders, but I came with lunch on my mind. Luckily, they start serving lunch at 11 AM on Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays. (On Sunday you can just order breakfast and then dinner, but not the cheaper lunch specials.)
As of this writing (June 6, 2020), Nikki’s Place has not yet reopened for dine-in service. When you get there, they have laminated menus near the front entrance. (It is double-sided, so don’t miss all the options on the back!) They prefer you hang out in the front and let them know when you’re ready to order, and then they’ll join you to take your order and bring it over to you when it’s ready. I placed a pretty large order that seemed like it was ready in ten minutes, but it would have been worth it even if I had to wait an hour. This was some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, and I felt so welcome just waiting there, near that doorway. Everyone was so friendly and warm, the staff and fellow customers alike. I spoke to one lady picking up some smoked sausage, the only other customer waiting inside when I arrived. This was her second visit, and I told her it was my first. We were excited for each other and chatted about food while we waited.
Longtime readers know there are some dishes I can’t refuse when I see them on a menu, and oxtails are one of them. I’ve had Jamaican oxtails (at Golden Krust and Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill, among others) as well as Cuban-style rabo encendido, but never the soul food version. Much to my wife’s amusement back at home, these oxtails ($10.50) made my eyes roll back in my head upon my first bite. They were so tender and juicy, served in a savory stew with soft carrots and potatoes. They weren’t as strongly seasoned as the Jamaican oxtails I’ve had many times before, but that gave the rich flavor of the meat more opportunity to stand out.
All lunches come with two sides, so as you can see above, I chose macaroni and cheese and collard greens with my oxtails, two longtime favorites when I’m eating barbecue or Southern food. The creamy macaroni and cheese has to be in the top five in Orlando, and the greens (stewed with pork or turkey?), were easily the best collards I’ve ever had before. I could have eaten a whole pot of those greens and slurped down the “pot likker” that remained.
My wife loves fried catfish, so that’s what she had asked me to bring home ($8.25). I like catfish too, but that’s not a dish I tend to think of ordering, even when I see it on menus. Of course, when I got the food home and removed it from the styrofoam box to plate it for her, I had to try a tiny taste, for the sake of journalism. Yeah, that’s the ticket. And no joke, folks, this was the best catfish I’ve ever had. As in, even though I couldn’t decide between six dishes on the menu today (catfish not being among them), I’d probably order that catfish for myself next time. Some restaurants serve it with a bland and gritty cornmeal breading that I could take or leave, but this golden-brown batter had a better flavor and consistency than the usual fried catfish I’ve had elsewhere. It was a nice-sized fillet, too.My wife had asked for candied yams and rutabaga as her two sides. I cook rutabaga for her at home once in a while, and I’ve boiled and mashed it and served it like mashed potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream to offset the slight sour taste, and also cubed and roasted it with butter or EVOO and a sprinkling of brown sugar to caramelize on top. It’s a versatile vegetable that never gets its due, but I strongly recommend experimenting with it. The rutabaga from Nikki’s Place (mostly covered by the catfish in the photo above) was cubed, but that’s where the similarities with my recipes ended. It was maybe the most strongly seasoned item I brought home, like no vegetable I’ve ever had before. I think I detected cumin in the thick, sticky sauce, and I’m not sure what else, but I liked it because it was so unexpected.
Anyway, I told you I had a hard time deciding on my food, so I made the very easy decision to order a second meal for myself for later. As excited as I was to try turkey necks, pork neck bones, pig tails, and the legendary fried chicken, I had it narrowed down to smothered rib tips (because how can you go wrong with ribs?) and chitterlings. Of course, being a dorky white guy in a soul food place, the very patient waitress asked me if I’ve ever had chitterlings before, and I admitted I hadn’t, but I was excited to try them. She disappeared for a brief moment and returned from the kitchen with a spork and a little plastic condiment cup full of chitterlings for me to sample! I love small acts of generosity like this from restaurants, especially because I love trying new things, but just like any adventurers, I don’t always love everything once I try it.
As if I wasn’t already feeling the positive, welcoming vibe at Nikki’s Place, I was ready to unmask in public for the first time since this pandemic started and try my first chitterlings… and of course eating them standing up, with that tiny cup and awkward spork, I dribbled the brown gravy all over my lowered mask like it was amateur hour. Sorry I didn’t get a picture, but there’s a picture of them in local food writer Heather McPherson’s Orlando Sentinel review from 2013. They weren’t at all what I expected. They were chewy, but tender… kind of like the consistency of very tender calamari? And the sauce was thinner than most gravy you would think of, very savory but not spicy at all. I liked it and would totally order it in the future!
But since I got an unexpected taste of the chitterlings, I opted for the rib tips ($7.99) as my additional takeout order, figuring my wife would be more likely to want to share them with me. They were even more tender than the oxtails, completely falling off the bone. They were smothered in another rich gravy rather than barbecue sauce, and they weren’t smoked like typical barbecue ribs.
I chose two more sides to go with this third order, so I ended up trying six of the sides today! I love a good potato salad, and this version was fantastic. Tinted yellow from mustard, it was a Southern-style potato salad similar to one you may have tried from the Publix deli. I actually attempted making Southern-style potato salad at home early in the quarantine, and mine was awful. This was even better than Publix, which I always considered the gold standard of potato salad. It was cool and tangy, and I would get it again in a minute. It would go great with deli sandwiches, fried chicken, barbecue, seafood, scooped into the middle of an otherwise-healthy green salad, you name it.
My final side was boiled, seasoned cabbage, one of my favorite vegetables. It was so soft and tender. Once again, I’d make cabbage like this at home all the time if I could. It had to be seasoned with some pork or turkey too, it was so rich, but I could be wrong there.
You’ve probably noticed the small corn muffins in these photos. All the lunches come with a corn muffin in addition to the two sides, and they were awesome. Sometimes cornbread is too dry and crumbly for me, but these were very soft and fresh, with the sweetness you expect in Southern-style cornbread. I don’t consider myself a cultural Southerner at all, despite being a lifelong Floridian, but I surely prefer my cornbread sweet. On the subject of sweetness, another thing I can’t turn down is fresh lemonade, so I ordered one ($2.75) and guzzled it on the drive home. It was super-sweet and tart the way only fresh-squeezed lemonade can be, easily one of the better lemonades I’ve had in this city.
But wait, there’s more! Nikki’s Place offers several desserts, and I knew I couldn’t come home without dessert. A friend with great taste told me the sweet potato pies were not to be missed, and I also saw peach cobbler, so I had to get one of each!Despite pie usually being my favorite dessert, I can take or leave sweet potato pie. This is one I’m so glad I took ($3.50 for a small “personal” pie). It had a very firm flaky crust and a nice creamy texture with spices that make me think of Thanksgiving every time.
As a pie guy, I also gravitate toward fruity cobblers, crumbles, and buckles, and I love peaches, so I was expecting this peach cobbler ($4) to be the favorite. It was very good, don’t get me wrong, but my wife surprised me by liking it even more than I did, so it was a big hit! Between the two of us, the cobbler didn’t last very long, whereas we were both restrained enough to divide the small, rich sweet potato pie into quarters, and we have half the pie left going into tomorrow.
You’re probably hungry now. I hope so. That’s the whole point of The Saboscrivner! But take a moment and think about all the lives that were enriched by a restaurant like this lasting 71 years, first as Roser’s and then as Nikki’s Place for the past 21 years. Think about those tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners served, the thousands of families and friends who talked and laughed and cried and caught up over the decades, the hundreds of meals they cooked for the local homeless population in Parramore. Restaurants come and go. It’s a tough business. The ones that stay are either good, lucky, or occasionally both. I don’t know how much luck had to do with Nikki’s Place becoming a center of its community and a historic dining destination in Orlando, but just upon entering, I knew it was going to be GOOD. After my first visit, I felt warmth, joy, and love from the people I chatted with and the wonderful food I brought home to my wife.
That’s the beauty of soul food — it makes you happy. It nourishes the body, mind, and soul. It makes everything temporarily better in the present and gives you hope for a better future. I’ve been feeling kind of hopeless about things recently, but this lunch made me feel a little more positive about everything. It was probably the most pleasant experience I’ve had in weeks, and it helped me shake off this spiraling dread and depression and think about how I can do more for my community, like Nikki’s Place does. Imagine making that much of a positive impact on that many people over that many decades. It’s rare when you get a lunch that’s also an inspiration, but that’s what I brought home today. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to make a pilgrimage to Parramore for some Southern soul food. Tell them I sent you and they’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but go anyway!