All Things Southern Fried

Fred's Market Restaurant serves Southern-style food and charm

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click to enlarge JOHNSON & JOHNSONS: Fred Johnson, center, - shares some of the familys trademark fried chicken - with (from left) his son Owen, wife Tammy Johnson, - and Elton and Evelyn Johnson. - Elton,Evelyn Johnson and LISA MAURIELLO
Elton,Evelyn Johnson and LISA MAURIELLO
JOHNSON & JOHNSONS: Fred Johnson, center, shares some of the familys trademark fried chicken with (from left) his son Owen, wife Tammy Johnson, and Elton and Evelyn Johnson.

Using sturdy rocking chairs that grace the front porch at Fred's Market Restaurant, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Tommy G. Foster Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4590 raise money for cancer research during "rock-a-thons"; in the modest dining rooms, Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd (R-Plant City) blasts legislative tax hike proposals; and most days you can almost bet at least one cop will be cruising the old-fashioned, Southern-style buffet.

It's fun to find a restaurant with truly excellent homemade, classic Southern fare and a loyal local following, but when you consider who the owner is — Fred Johnson — the fabulous fried chicken and flaky, killer biscuits are not much of a surprise. The Johnson family has run restaurants in Plant City for decades.

"It's just down home," explains Johnson, 49, who with his brother, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, created and then sold what would later become a chain of country-style restaurants called BuddyFreddy's. When their partnership ended, Fred launched his current restaurant in 1998. "It's more of a place to meet and visit — in addition to the food. That's what we shoot for."

He could have chosen menu items like burgers, salads or steaks, but chose instead the hot buffet, the dining rooms' focal point in tidy metallic splendor. It carried a colorful patchwork of 37 hot items and desserts — everything from tender black-eyed peas and lipstick-red stewed tomatoes to crunchy fried catfish, hearty clam chowder and a tart lemon meringue pie.

Nearby, a salad buffet groaned with 17 different dishes, five homemade dressings, top-quality Italian balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and two puddings. The fare on both buffets was expertly made and fresh, fresh — what farmers might enjoy after a long day in the fields of eastern Hillsborough County.

The interior is clean and pretty, but outside, you face an ugly, bare parking lot. It would be much nicer if cars were relegated to the back, and the front planted with grass and shrubs.

Still, our meal was memorable and cheap, too: The lunch tab for one extremely well fed adult was a reasonable $7.29; at dinner, the buffet for one costs $8.99. The restaurant even offers a full breakfast buffet, beginning at 6 a.m., six days a week.

"We make everything here," explained Johnson. "Of course, not every vegetable is fresh, but if you use good ingredients, and take no shortcuts, it's all about good eating."

The Johnson brothers learned plenty from their parents, Evelyn and Elton Johnson, who started out in the 1950s with a gas station near Plant City, 25 miles east of Tampa. Once they began to sell cold sandwiches to their customers, the food claimed more and more business, and finally they closed the gas station and opened what eventually became the 350-seat Johnson's Restaurant.

Fred Johnson, 49, remembers a number of relatives, like his aunts, Pearlie and Evie, helping to run his parents' restaurant. It was there he learned the fine points of careful kitchen management so eloquently illustrated by his accomplished restaurants. And the tradition of family members working together continues as well: His wife, Tammy, does the books for the restaurant and a busy catering business, his Aunt Vivian is restaurant manager, and two of his sons work next door at another one of his enterprises called Grampa's, a barbecue restaurant.

My favorite dish at Fred's was the perfect fried chicken. It's hard to find decent fried chicken these days, even though Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets dot the Bay area. Fred's chicken was much tastier than KFC's because, while its skin was crackly and crisp, it did not carry a thick, greasy layer of breading. Inside, its meat remained juicy because it was not overcooked or oversalted; and since the buffet was frequently replenished, the chicken didn't sit too long before it was eaten.

There's almost nothing better than a simple piece of steamy fried chicken, set alongside homely, lumpy mashed potatoes, the whole mess crowned with a hot, dark gravy. But the kicker was that I still had 34 other dishes to taste, most of them paragons of their ilk — tender pole beans, okra, stewed chicken with cornbread stuffing and light gravy, candied sweet potatoes and a buttery carrot soufflé that a French chef might envy.

Though the salad bar's offerings were predictable, they were cold, fresh and generous: A mix of iceberg and romaine lettuce, jalapenos, sunflower seeds, coleslaw, crunchy cucumber slices, real bacon bits, beets, cut apples, cheese, carrot-raisin salad, tuna salad, and even a real throwback — pineapple gelatin salad made with cottage cheese.

A couple of dishes I didn't like: Chicken-fried steak overwhelmed by too much oily brown gravy, and timid pumpkin pie and peach cobbler, both of which needed more cinnamon and nutmeg. It would also have been nice if the restaurant would offer a handmade, low-calorie salad dressing.

The service was just barely acceptable. The waitress was just politely friendly, erred on drinks, failed to replace my silverware when I returned to the buffet line, and left us sitting too long. And when I tried to buy some of Fred's own mango butter at the counter after paying the check, I waited five minutes, jars in hand, while the staff argued the fine points of some esoteric tipping question. Still, I tried to keep in mind that in Plant City, as in many rural areas, people seem to sense time differently; country dwellers are inclined to stay a little longer, talk a little more, and complain a little less than hurried city dwellers.

That's part of Plant City's gracious charm. It almost forces you to slow down and chat awhile, to mosey instead of march. Why not take some time out from your frenetic life, dine slowly on Southern fare, and amble along the pretty, restored streets of downtown, which is lively with shops and offices? It's a nice change of pace.

Food critic Sara Kennedy dines anonymously and the Planet pays for her meals. Contact her at 813-248-8888, ext. 116, or [email protected].

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