When Nikki’s opened, as Roser’s, in 1949, Orlando was best known as a Naval Training Center and Disneyworld wasn’t even a gleam in Walt Disney’s eye. At the time, it was the one and only local eatery that specialized in soul food. Today’s chef, Nick Aiken Jr., apprenticed with Roser Mae Jones, and still uses her recipe to make wonderful single-serving size sweet potato pies with savory crust and deep orange, earthy filling.
Chef Nick’s shrimp and grits is one of great bargain meals of all time — on a par with anything we’ve eaten in the Lowcountry. Our waitress, Joyce, boasts that Nick sauteés the shrimp and makes its sauce for each order, a claim one taste confirms. The shrimp are big ones, firm and ocean-sweet with just enough tail to hold onto when you drag them through the plush grits, making sure to get plenty of the sauce that smothers the dish. It is spectacular sauce, its precise ingredients known only to the chef. Bits of red and green pepper and onion are full flavored and still barely al dente; butter makes it rich; an unfathomable kaleidoscope of herbs gives it Cajun complexity and a fair measure of heat. Glory be, the meal comes with a whole separate ramekin of this sauce. We dip everything into it: bits of biscuit and waffle, chicken wings, forkfuls of fried fish, even clumps of collard greens.
Nikki’s is a tiny place with a 5-seat counter and 6 oilcloth-covered tables, and on Sunday when people come from church, it overflows with extraordinarily well-dressed customers – ladies in effulgent hats, gents with spats, boys in suits and ties, girls in tulle and organza pastels. Joyce tells us that it is common for regulars to sneak away from pews during services and bring their phone into a stall in the church bathroom. “They call to place an order before they come here. They get ahead of the game, so when they walk in the door, their dinner is ready. I always know where they are calling from because I can tell by the echo, and I ask them, ‘Why are you whispering? The pastor can’t hear you.'”