The shrimp and grits in front of me at Creolina's Dixie Takeout in Davie fill the entire white, oval plate. Almost two dozen plump shrimp are bathing in a pool of pink tasso cream sauce so abundant that it's managed to spread underneath the dish of collard greens on the side. At its center is a "cake" of fried grits that looks like a massive cut of filet mignon, three inches wide and nearly that tall.
I crack open the crusted tower like a crème brûlée, and gobs of Monterey jack cheese and buttered grits ooze onto the plate. Despite my best efforts to sop up the cayenne-speckled cream sauce with the crunchy/gooey grits and bites of plush shrimp, I can get through only half of it. The sweet young waitress sees me struggling from across the small, yellow dining room lined with ragtime posters and New Orleans memorabilia and offers to box the rest up. When she comes back, she suggests I try a piece of Creolina's famous bread pudding. But I'm way too full to give it an honest attempt.
"Next time you come in, you'll have to try the bread pudding," she says to me assuredly. "It's worth it."
I tell her that with portions this big — and this rich — I don't think I could manage. Still, she flashes a cherub-like smile and persists. "Well, I'll just have to share a piece with you, then."
How could I resist that offer?
It's precisely that kind of friendly, honest interaction that's made Creolina's such a long-lasting presence in Fort Lauderdale. Chef/owner Mark Sulzinski's Cajun and Creole restaurant has managed to survive hurricanes, recession, and three separate locations since it first opened in 1991, all while continuing to serve down-home Louisiana cookery with a Southern twist. Its current home in the western stretches of Davie may be the most challenging place it has occupied yet, hidden behind a Dunkin' Donuts on a barren stretch of State Road 84 that butts up to a time-lost trailer park. But Creolina's best feature — the ability to transport diners to a place at a bountiful, Southern table — remains intact, whether the method of transport is a slice of bourbon-soaked bread pudding or the playful affectations of one of the most talked-about wait staffs in South Florida.
At the center of that dialogue is Rosemary "Rosie" O'Neal, the waitress whose affable charm drew crowds to the original Creolina's on Seventh Avenue. As much as people filtered in for Sulzinski's habanero jam and daily chalkboard specials, they came for O'Neal's quick wit, her way of throwing shade and wooing you all at once. As Creolina's grew into its longtime Himmarshee location, so did the Cult of Rosie. When the landlord for Creolina's decided not to renew the lease last August after 12 years of spooning up gumbo and jambalaya to the downtown crowd, the most audible outcry from South Florida's diners wasn't just "What about Creolina's?" but an emphatic "What about Rosie?!"
Those diners will be happy to know that their favorite waitress is still chugging along at the new Creolina's location, even if she is steadily approaching 70 and semiretired. Sulzinski says customers are constantly poking their head inside the door at his strip-mall storefront to inquire as to the whereabouts of O'Neal, who works the lunchtime shift on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. "Oftentimes, customers end up leaving if Rosie isn't here," says Sulzinski. "So she wrote a note we keep up now telling them to come in and eat anyway. I end up pointing to that a lot and saying 'She left you a note!' "
Rosie's decreased presence isn't the only thing that changed with the new digs. With the move out west, Sulzinski saw an opportunity to shift his focus toward lower-priced, Southern cuisine available to go. He renamed the restaurant Creolina's Dixie Takeout and added dishes like chicken and dumplings and country-fried steak to his already-deep menu of crawfish bisque, étouffée, blackened dolphin, and shrimp piquant. The most expensive item available, Dolphin Monica served with more of that tasso-infused cream sauce, is just $11.95, and the portions are big enough for two full meals.
For my second visit, I decided to see how Creolina's Dixie-fied food would hold up as takeout, so I called ahead and placed a big order for myself and my soon-to-be in-laws: a feast of pulled pork, country ribs, jambalaya, a few bowls of gumbo, and plenty of creamy mac and cheese. When I walked up to the countertop by the front door just 20 minutes later, the entire order was bagged and ready to go. "You sure you don't want some bread pudding with that?" a blond waitress asked as I lugged the three large bags out the door.
When we got everything home, we spread the styrofoam containers out across our dining room table and dug in family-style. I immediately went for the bowl of gumbo ($4.50), a dark roux-thickened stew as smooth and nutty as chocolate ganache. My future father-in-law dug pieces of snappish kielbasa out of the soup and gobbled them down. "That's nice — it's not too spicy," he said as he spooned up some bright-red tails of crawfish and pink shrimp we had added for just a dollar more. I agreed, though I like a little more heat than the mild gumbo provided, so I dabbed some Louisiana hot sauce into my bowl.
No amount of doctoring could save the pulled pork ($9.95), however. When I opened the to-go container, the grayish mounds of stringy meat were still in the shape of the styrofoam bowls used to scoop it out of its holding cell; it looked and smelled like wet cardboard. My fiancée's mother commented on barbecue sometimes being more about the sauce you flavor it with, but neither of the two varieties provided — a vinegary Carolina sauce and a sweet and spicy tomato one — could help me stomach the sad swine. A container of four country pork ribs smothered in barbecue sauce were better; they reminded me of the meaty spears that toppled Fred's car in the opening of The Flintstones — excessively big but delicious.
Speaking of excess, much of the Southern-style cooking at Creolina's veers toward that mark. Mac and cheese ($2 per half pint) is not baked; rather, the wad of pasta and custard-thick cheese is broiled with a layer of more melted cheddar. I wanted to like the fried gator tail ($7.95), but like most of the fried foods Creolina's produces, the cornmeal-crusted bites are overly coated and rather chewy. Accompanying each dinner plate is a brick of corn bread Sulzinski says took "18 years to perfect." Is it perfect? No. It was moist and sweet but too earthy for me.
Although the restaurant serves a lot of its orders to-go, there's also a modest dining room that houses 11 vinyl-covered tables sporting paper menus and plastic flower arrangements. I wanted to give Creolina's one more visit, so I returned to eat dinner there on a weekday. Lisa, the blond waitress from the pickup counter, met us at the door with a big ol' smile that never diminished through our meal, even when she had to peek outside to shoo away loitering kids from the nearby trailer park. Everything inside is aged and worn, from the press clippings to the nostalgic advertisements pinned to the walls. It feels like visiting a relative's house for dinner. We chatted with her about her own kids as we crunched through too-thin fried green tomatoes ($5.95) and overdone hush puppies ($2; Sulzinski has since told me that he's switched to a smaller scoop size to make sure the hush puppies fry more evenly). She packed half of the sad puppies up as I poked at my stomach to try to make more room for a big plate of dolphin piquant ($11.95) crowned with two glistening fillets of mahi-mahi, each lavished in garlicky tomato sauce. Again, I was thwarted by the size of my meal. But when Lisa emerged from the nearby kitchen to refill my house-made lemonade, I resolved to push myself for the win. I asked her if bread pudding ($4.95) was the only dessert they served.
"You bet," she replied assuredly. "We only need the one."
She was completely right. The warm slice was full of cinnamon, chocolate chips, and walnuts, like a more supple version of a cinnamon bun. We hummed along as we scooped up the whipped mound of vanilla and bourbon sauce with each bite, managing to eat almost the whole thing. Lisa even offered to help us polish off the last bit.
"I get a piece of my own, though, because I've been here a year," she bragged jokingly. Turns out, she started around the same time Creolina's moved into its new spot.
With staff like Rosie and Lisa, who are as delightful as the food, Creolina's should have a lot more anniversaries in its future.