- Adrian Capulong
3214 Orange Center Blvd.
With the closing of such prominent soul-food joints as Johnson's Diner, Mama Nems', Fish 'N Loaves and Queen Bee's, Orlando has desperately needed a down-home cookery to step up and represent. So when word came that an experienced chef with a soul-food pedigree would be taking over the Washington Shores space once home to Queen Bee's, hope didn't just spring eternal in my human breast, but in my face, mouth and stomach as well.
Pulling up to Chef Eddie's, we beheld a banner above the entrance advertising the restaurant's "Grand Opening" – only later did chef Eddie James tell us that he's been open for business for two and a half years. Before opening his namesake soul kitchen, James worked as a chef at Charley's Steakhouse on Orange Blossom Trail for 17 years. Prior to that, he ran a restaurant called Soul Bay in Parramore and prior to that, he ran a kitchen inside the American Legion off West Colonial Drive. When asked why he chose to open a restaurant during an economic downturn, James said, "It's the only thing I know how to do," and it's that same devil-may-care attitude that he's parlayed into a booming little business.
Another key ingredient to James' success is his wife, Bessie. Having honed her business and managerial acumen at Darden Restaurants, Bessie brings plenty of front-of-the-house experience, and it shows: Bow-tied waitresses, white linens and a menu that veers beyond the typical meat-and-threes serve to set Chef Eddie's apart from the rest. There's even a baby grand piano in the middle of the dining room. The frills and furnishings are a noble stab at creating an upscale atmo, but Chef Eddie's has a ways to go before it can truly call itself a fine dining establishment.
Judged on food alone, however, Eddie James could very well be serving the finest comfort food in town. We made quick work of the complimentary plate of jalapeño crackling muffins (served with pineapple honey butter), after which, downing tart fried green tomatoes ($5.95) drizzled with gravy and served atop smoky, cheesy grits hardly posed a challenge. The quarter-chicken and pecan waffles ($6.95) disappeared just as quickly, but the superlatives really started flying when the mains arrived.
"The best I've ever had," said my uncle, after one bite of the smothered pork chops ($10.95). "The best I've ever had," said my wife, after trying the side of chunky mashed potatoes accompanying an entrée of saucy pliant oxtails ($12.95) slathered over yellow rice. "Best oxtails ever," I added to the effusive conversation, and they were. The collard greens, livened up with a spiced and smoky broth, weren't cooked to death, as some are; the moist, tender barbecued ribs ($10.95) came dressed with a mildly sweet mustardy sauce that had my uncle reminiscing about his Carolina rib forays.
Stuffed as we were, there was no way we were leaving without sweet potato pie ($5.95) and peach cobbler ($5.95). It may have been the burgeoning lethargy occasioned by our earlier gorging, but we all concurred that these sweet indulgences weren't in the same caliber as James' savory ones.
While portions are beyond generous, prices here are slightly steeper than the average neighborhood soul-food diner, but all things considered, it's a small price to pay. When it comes to prepping comfort food for the soul, Eddie's money.