I first met Betty Taylor after enjoying a downright tasty breakfast at her restaurant one weekend morning. She was a petite and, I soon learned, painfully shy woman, bustling between the kitchen and the register but not exuding a lick of stress. "Are you Betty?" I asked while paying my bill. "Yes, I am," she politely responded with a grin.
It was only after four failed attempts to keep her on the phone for longer than 30 seconds that I realized the degree of her timidity. Even though she's run her restaurant for 30 years and has plaques on the walls from state representatives for a lifetime achievement award, she's not one to brag. "She's shy," explained a coworker to whom Betty once handed the phone out of nervousness.
After the coworker answered a few questions and finally coaxed Betty into speaking with me (albeit briefly), the restaurateur told me that she was born in Mississippi. It was there as a little girl that she learned about soul food by observing her family kill and butcher their own pig. They also used greens from their gardens. "Soul food is from my country days; it's back-home, country-style cooking," she said. She moved to Fort Lauderdale when she was 11 years old with her mother and grandmother and, judging by her looks (she can't be a day over 50!), opened her restaurant when she was still quite young.
Two of my black girlfriends, Shonna and Chauntrell, always gush about Betty's and have wanted to take me there for a long time. I'm a white girl from Victoria Park, but I can eat. Shonna and Chauntrell said it's no big deal for outsiders to eat at Betty's, which is located in Sistrunk, a primarily African-American neighborhood. "It might be hard if someone can't step out of their comfort zone, or for someone who's been in a bourgeoise part of town their entire life," they laughed. And with that, we were off for some of the famous fried chicken I'd heard so much about.
Now, creating a delicious piece of fried chicken is a particular culinary feat. Success requires many trials and, often, age-old family recipes. Prepared just right, fried chicken will be golden-brown in color with well-seasoned, crispy skin and supple meat underneath. It's easy to mess up — people either sear it on the outside and leave it raw in the middle, or they're so nervous about it being raw that they overcook it until it's bone-dry. At home, I fry mine so the outside gets crispy and then cheat by putting it in the oven to bake so the center gets cooked enough. But Betty? She fries hers to order.
My first visit was as part of a party of five on a quiet Monday evening. We were greeted by a young waitress from behind a counter lined with vinyl barstools. The small dining room (about 13 tables) exudes a mom-'n'-pop feel. Walls are decorated with pictures of MLK and Obama alongside Miami Dolphins knickknacks.
The menu includes some mouth-watering soul-food standards, from chicken livers ($5.50) to ham hocks ($9.99), oxtail (market price), and smothered pork chops ($9.99). Come on the right day and you might get neck bones (Mondays and Wednesdays, $7.99) or chitterlings (weekends, $12.99). More conservative eaters can choose from 11 seafood options ($9.25 to $18.99) or sandwiches ($3.50 to $8).
We started with two orders of fried jumbo shrimp ($11.99), and when I say jumbo, I mean you need a spotter as you squat-thrust the mammoth shrimp from the plate to your mouth. The batter was so perfectly salty yet sweet that our whole party loved it, especially Chauntrell, who fantasized of it at her desk the following day. "I can't get over that shrimp!" she lamented like a girl whose crush had just kissed her and run away.
The fried chicken was my favorite of the entrées, but the large BBQ beef ribs ($11.99) certainly were a close contender. The generous portion of beef ribs was fall-off-the-bone tender with sweet and smoky mustard-based BBQ sauce. "This is enough to feed me and my three kids," Shonna laughed as she licked the sauce off her fingers. I don't know if Shonna shared the leftovers with her children, but I wouldn't judge her for a second if she decided against it. Our only qualm with the entrées was a meat loaf that was somewhat dry and crumbly.
At Betty's, every entrée is accompanied by two side dishes and squares of sweet corn bread. Betty's sides are enchanting enough to erase a scowl off even an ex-American Idol judge. I swear I became disoriented as I enjoyed mouthfuls of baked pasta shells saturated with silky-smooth cheddar cheese sauce. Some call this dish macaroni and cheese; I suggest we call it America's Prozac. Chauntrell chuckled to herself as she watched me use a piece of corn bread to clean the cheese remnants from the bowl. "I gotta give it to ya, that right there is 'black'," she joked.
The service was lovely: When Shonna carefully selected R&B tracks from the jukebox located in the corner of the dining room, a cook offered his assistance. Our waitress joyfully refilled our glasses of iced tea (which, by the way, was sweet enough to induce a diabetic coma) at least five times. Leftovers were automatically boxed up, bagged, and packaged with to-go cups of more sweet tea. We received everything we needed without ever asking for it.
I couldn't wait to return for Betty's breakfast (served all day long, seven days a week). This time, four of us walked into a crowded restaurant midmorning on a Saturday (we were the only white folks in the joint). Although the service wasn't as warm as it had been at dinner, several patrons greeted us with a pleasant "good morning" as we seated ourselves and ordered drinks. Specifically, Kool-Aid.
Now, the flavored drink mix has been quenching sugar cravings of Americans for more than 50 years, but Betty's mixture deserves a special accolade. You order by announcing which color you'd like. My dining companions Mike and Justin ordered a glass of "red" (cherry-flavored) served over ice. Their tongues smacked against the roof of their mouths after each sip. "Damn, this is sweet!" said Justin. Mike swears he experienced significant sleep disturbance as a result of consuming two glasses.
I ordered the country ham. Where I come from in the South, the country folk pour coffee directly onto country ham to soften the bold flavor of its almost unbearable saltiness. Me, I relish in its salty glory. Besides, I rounded it out with stolen bites of sweet buttermilk pancake soaked with warm maple syrup from Justin's $5 blue-plate special (which also came with two servings of eggs, bacon, and sausage links). If that hadn't worked, I'm sure I could have downed a Pedialyte to replenish any lost electrolytes and save me from dehydration.
Unfortunately, I wasn't the one who ordered the breaded pork chop — which forced me to barter for tastings. The tender chop was barely breaded before being fried to a light golden color, then deliciously smothered with luscious brown gravy that paired gloriously with the sweet homemade biscuits. Choosing between bites of country ham or that pork chop was like deciding who to put the emergency oxygen mask on first — yourself or your best friend?
My daydream took me from my oxygen-mask dilemma to memories of eating grits most mornings during my childhood in North Carolina. I had stopped ordering grits at restaurants after being disappointed too many times — they were never prepared quite right. I like mine Southern-style: lots of butter and salt with a smooth texture. Forget gimmicks like cheesy-style grits or bacon bits; all you need is the right combination of butter and salt.
Mike interrupted my fantasy when he picked up some thick-cut country bacon, scooped up some grits, and declared, "These grits make you wanna slap yo' mamma!" I give that an "amen."
It's possible that I was overcome by nostalgia or still high from the mac-n-cheese, but I think Betty's self-proclaimed "back-home, country-style" soul food is enough to have anyone "drinking the Kool-Aid." If you think I'm wrong, feel free to slap me.