** THIS RESTAURANT IS PERMANENTLY CLOSED **
While scouting the population of excellent soul food restaurants in and around Orlando, Jane and I spent some time in Zora Neal Hurston’s home town of Eatonville, Florida (the first municipality in the U.S. to be incorporated by families of emancipated slaves). Our visit was in January, timed to coincide with Eatonville’s yearly Zora! festival, which pretty much takes over the main street (Kennedy Boulevard) to celebrate the life and works of the seminal 20th century African-American writer. Of course, there is plenty to eat. An open-air food court offers such local faves as collard greens, candied yams, and oxtails along with more typical fair-food such as funnel cakes, gyros, and Polish sausages. The most memorable thing we found at the festival came from a humble tent where a woman was selling six-foot-long sugar cane stalks as well as her baked specialties, which included slices from a splendid 7-Up cake. Made in a bundt pan, the cake was a velvety pound cake with citrus tingle in its icing.
Just beyond the fair, at the town line with the municipality of Maitland, we hit Roadfood paydirt in the form of Gordon’s Be Back Fish House. What curious eater could resist visiting a place with a hand-written sign outside boasting “YES WE HAVE MULLET” and a somewhat more formal sign, planted in the lawn, advertising “Hot Fish and Grits”? This corner cafe, the name of which was devised to suggest that if you eat here once, you will be back for more, is presided over by Abraham Gordon, Jr., who came to Eatonville over a half century ago and spent some time as its mayor and as a school teacher before opening his restaurant. Mr. Gordon, who told us that he first worked as a short order cook in a diner at the age of 12, sits at the cash register taking orders, holding forth for all in the restaurant to hear (it’s that small), and giving advice about whether he thinks you are a mullet person or a catfish person. “We like anything where we don’t have to battle with the bones,” we tell him.
“That’s the irony,” he replies with glee. “I eat all the bones and give you all the meat.” Crisp-fried catfish is indeed boneless and meaty, clean and mild. It’s good, but we prefer the character of Gordon’s mullet, which is ineluctably unctuous, its succulent flesh fairly wallowing in a golden envelope of vividly-seasoned crust. Bones may be present, but they simply are not an issue. We also love the flounder, which is moist and cream-soft, breaded only enough to envelop the pure white meat. “Butter and cheese?” Gordon asks, regarding grits that are fish’s de rigueur partner in this place. They are stout grits, especially indulgent when sopped with butter and crowned with molten yellow cheese. Fried okra has a thick, crunchy coat but is intensely green-tasting once bitten – a serious vegetable presence. Naturally, hushpuppies are included in every Styrofoam dinner tray (all dishware is disposable). They are crunchy and sweet, and oily enough to make fingertips glisten.
Mr. Gordon does not make the cakes, but he gets them from local bakers. A lady in Winter Park makes the bright green and brightly flavored Key lime layer cake. Red velvet cake, pound cake, and sweet potato pie are made by a gentleman up in Altamonte Springs.