610 W. Morse Blvd., Winter Park | 407-843-2667 | asouthernaffair.com | $$
Now that the snaking lines have shortened a little bit – courtesy of a waning “first!” frenzy as well as a new pick-up window dedicated to call-ahead orders – paying a visit to the Coop is a far more tempting option. You’ll still wait in line when you enter barbecue king John Rivers’ bright, rustic shrine to Dixie dining, but it sure beats waiting outside in the heat or rain. And as the line inside inches forward, you can squint at the menu board behind the counter or pick up a menu card to peruse the offerings; either way, in a matter of minutes you’ll find yourself face-to-face with a display case teasing you with assorted artery-clogging tarts, pies and sweets.
Now, dessert devotee that I am, I couldn’t resist the alluring sight of coconut cream ($3.50) and pecan pies ($7.50), those naughty little strumpets. I suppose it is uncommon to order dessert first, and more than a few patrons tend to forget about it as their plates are being heaped with meatloaf (10.99), pot pies ($8.99), shrimp and grits ($12.99) and the like. Of course, you can always go back and order dessert, or you can grab an apple, cherry, peach or blueberry hand pie ($3.50), conveniently situated next to the register, when you pay. You’ll probably feel a little less guilty eating it.
When it comes to the Coop’s signature Southern plates, just know that smokers take a back seat to fryers. Fried chicken, be it wedged in wee buttermilk biscuits ($3.99), served atop waffles ($12.99) or plated as is with any number of fixings, rules the Coop. I’ve enjoyed all three preparations, and each time, the crisp, dark batter has impressed me.
My most recent three-piece chicken meal ($12.99) included lardaceous corn bread and three sides: wickedly good stewed okra and tomato, cheesy creamed corn and smashed potatoes. Oh, and an extra side of disapproval from my wife. Other chicken dishes, like the pot pie and the chicken and dumplings ($9.99), were both stellar, particularly the former, with its wondrous crust. Sides of mac & cheese fashioned from Gruyere, Parmesan and cheddar, as well as the candied yams, made both dishes better. Only dry, wrinkly maple-glazed carrots were disappointing.
The plate of meatloaf is a plate of holy friggin’ ridiculous. The wedge of meat comes topped with three thick cuts of bacon, sits atop a heap of smashed potatoes, and is slathered with gravy and doused in barbecue sauce. I’d suggest a side of green beans and potatoes or broccoli salad. If your appetite just isn’t American enough to handle all that, you can easily make a meal from sides alone.
The Lowcountry shrimp and grits ($12.99) with house-cured tasso ham rivals that of Tibby’s Big Easy rendition. Honestly, you won’t go wrong with either one. The menu did once feature other Lowcountry staples like shrimp perloo and chicken bog, but they’ve since been removed. If you want to sample a starter, or can’t contain your gluttony, consider fried green tomatoes ($4.99) or pimento cheese ($4.99).
Warning: For those suffering from OCD, the decor of mismatched chairs and tables can cause high anxiety. Also, for those who like comfort food, but despise a sustained and thundering decibel level, I would suggest sitting outside. If it rains, eat in your car – there’s even additional overflow parking across Pennsylvania Avenue.
It seems like everything John Rivers touches turns to gold. No doubt his uber-successful 4 Rivers Smokehouse will always hold a special place in his heart, but you get the sense that the Coop is his Southern Belle.