Although vegetables are big at Niki’s, a quaint country greenmarket it is not. All around it, trucks rumble past serving warehouses where produce is loaded and shipped. The truckers eat at Niki’s, but it’s no typical truck stop diner. In fact, Niki’s does not quite fit any genre of restaurant. It is a low-slung banquet hall with signs in its vestibule warning customers: “No Tank Tops, No Bare Feet, No Rollers on Head.” If you can live with the rules, you enter a cool, commodious space with a nautical/Aegean theme (fish nets, scenic pictures, mounted fish) and a cafeteria line where servers sell the food with the speed and enthusiasm of an auctioneer: “Have yourself a nice little seeded roll! … Look at these smooth mashed potatoes … Don’t those beef ribs look big and fine?”
Families, blue-collar and white-collar workers, bargain-hunters, and big eaters wind through the fast-moving line piling trays with plates and bowls of food. Seafood abounds – baked fish Creole, broiled mackerel, grilled amberjack – and there is always delicious baked Greek chicken; but it’s vegetables that set appetite awhirl. We counted more than three dozen vegetables in the cornucopic array, including yellow squash casserole, fried green tomatoes, black-eyed peas, and three different kinds of seasoned greens (turnip, collard, and spinach), all guaranteed by one impassioned server to be “ninety-eight percent fresh, except for some dried peas we use.”
Some lovely items from the market are austere enough to please any fatphobe, such as sliced tomatoes, raw vegetable vinaigrette, and baby lima beans, but most of Niki’s produce is prepared according to the more voluptuous southern-café tradition. Broccoli is mixed with cheese and rice in a crazy-rich melange; tomatoes are stewed with sugar and shreds of torn white bread until they become as sweet as cobbler; bright orange yams are infused with sugar; crunchy-fresh okra is sheathed in a deep-fried crust.