Photo by Keith MayWhen I spotted the new Johnny Rebs' Southern Roadhouse in Orange, I laid rubber to get inside and glory in the exquisite Southern food. Fans of the Roadhouse will delight in the fact that they no longer have to drive to Long Beach or Bellflower to get Yankee Cheese Grits and Yankee Spuds. The former, fluffy and light and oozing with cheddar, give the much-maligned grits a good name. The latter—all golden crisp nuggets rife with avocado, tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms and onions, cheese, and sour cream—is a meal in itself. But if you can handle it, try the fat, juicy link of Cajun sausage as big as a Ball Park Frank and the melt-in-your-mouth biscuits and gravy.
Before opening Rebs' for her homesick Southern husband, owner Cheryl Carter, who's from Indiana, spent months traveling through his native North Carolina, Georgia and all points south in order to learn the Gospel of Southern Cooking. She worked alongside the masters of Southern barbecue for nothing but a few nips of white lightning and all the local knowledge she could muster. She named Rebs' after an old comic strip—not for its content, but for its Southern ring.
With the trashy pink-plastic flamingos out front and a stuffed-catfish wall trophy the size of a walrus, you almost expect Granny Clampett to be in the kitchen cooking up a wash pot full of swamp-cabbage stew and possum shank. They serve nothing of the kind. What they do serve are the forgotten fixin's of the rural South—stuff you rarely see in the land of Chinese chicken salads and penne Gorgonzola. Rebs' could make it as a roadside stand serving nothing but the fried green tomatoes: thick slices of tangy, firm fruit, coated in cornmeal and lightly fried, and sprinkled with succulent bits of chopped bacon. If you're any kind of Southerner, you'll follow this up with the North Carolina pork sandwich. Tender, ultralean juicy pork is hacked into bits of mouthwatering goodness glistening with tangy barbecue sauce, topped with creamy Southern slaw, and swaddled in a soft bun.
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A Southern eatery wouldn't be the same without catfish, and Rebs' knows how to fry it. Coated in cornmeal and greaseless, it is delicious in tartar sauce. And the side orders—smoky black-eyed peas and crispy sweet-potato fries—rival the entrées.
It's not just the food that's fabulous; the service is amazing, too, like something you'd find at a cheerful diner in Flea Hop, Alabama. No snobs, no actors, just down-home folks happy to be there and more than willing to get you anything you need. On my first visit, three servers came by within the first three minutes to make sure we had drinks coming.
So far, the restaurants have maintained their folksy roots, but with this spanking-new third location, the question lingers: Is Johnny Rebs' destined to become Johnny Rockets? "It scares me, too, to be quite honest," mused Carter. "I don't know how we do this and keep the flavor of the business that we have so far. That's our challenge."
Johnny Rebs' Southern Roadhouse, located at 2940 E. Chapman Ave., Orange, is open Sun.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 7 a.m.-10 p.m. (714) 633-3369. Dinner for two, $20, food only. Beer and wine. Visa and MC accepted. Other locations in Long Beach, (562) 423-7327, and Bellflower, (562) 866-6455.