Down Home Eatin'

If you've never ventured to eastern Hillsborough County for a day of relaxation in the country, take an afternoon and meander through the verdant farmland near Plant City. This time of year, strawberries grow in bountiful fields as far as the eye can see, and roadside stands sell big flats of the freshest, most delectable berries.

When you get tired of exploring, stop at the Branch Ranch Dining Room, just west of Plant City, where you can eat Southern fare just like a farm hand. The restaurant, founded by the late Mary Branch, has been a popular fixture for decades among the locals, who know where to find a good meal. It represents a dying breed of regional Southern restaurant: Its food is mostly handmade from traditional recipes, and takes its cue from the tables of the farm families who live nearby.

The Branch Ranch offers simple, straightforward fare, fresh from the farms that lie all around it, and a trek back in time to the way rural Southerners ate before fast food and California fusion cuisine.

Unlike many country-style restaurants, the Branch Ranch really is in the country. Take I-4 to exit 10, and follow the signs, which lead to an oak-shaded lane. It's easy to miss the parking lot because it resides amid a working orange grove. In the spring, the place is perfumed with the scent of orange blossoms; and in the fall and winter, visitors park beneath trees burgeoned with the bright fruit that has become so much a part of the Florida state of mind.

The original house that Mary Branch and her husband Wade resided in is still there, but dining rooms have been added along one side. The business began when Mary Branch, who was a fabulous cook, invited some neighbors over for Sunday dinner; the neighbors enjoyed it so much, they wanted to invite their friends and families. Being obliging people, the Branches began cooking Sunday dinner in the family kitchen and serving burgeoning numbers of guests in a converted TV room.

At the time, Mrs. Branch was a grade school teacher, but during the summer she'd open her home to guests on weeknights as well as weekends. As business increased, new dining rooms were added along with a larger kitchen, and in 1956, the restaurant formally opened with the nickname "Grandma's Groaning Board." Note to the wise: Fast a couple of days before setting foot inside.

Mrs. Branch ran the restaurant for decades, and from the taste of the food I'd say she was a hopeless perfectionist. She ran the place like an extension of her own home, with a menu of predictably fresh, delightful Southern dishes, served family-style in generous portions. When she retired, her grandson Michael Trauner took over management, and he has continued his family's traditions now for 18 years.

But this is no restaurant stuck in a bygone time. It recently underwent some serious renovation, and now sports bright, clean tiled floors. Its big, sunny main dining room, with a massive fireplace as its focal point, still hosts all manner of civic and church groups, and also seats overflow diners when the restaurant is really busy.

Every Branch Ranch dinner order automatically arrives with a bevy of "family-style" dishes. First, a salad tray comes out with crisp veggies; it's followed by Mrs. Branch's famous buttermilk biscuits, served with the restaurant's own, homemade strawberry preserves and pineapple-orange marmalade. You're not going to find much better biscuits — buttery, soft and with a distinctly Southern pedigree.

Then the waitress brings a selection of sweet cucumber pickles and pickled beets. The pickles are fantastic, they crunch in your mouth with a sweet syrupy surrender, just like homemade. Your entree, maybe baked ham or prime rib, arrives with a standard set of vegetable accompaniments, including pole beans, candied yams, eggplant casserole, chicken pot pie and one more, depending on what's in season: Corn on the cob, sweet-and-sour red cabbage or summer squash.

We happened to have lunch this time. Two vegetables joined each entree, along with a bunch of other stuff like biscuits and pickles and salad. But for those who haven't ever tried the Branch Ranch, dinner is the way to go.

We made a special point to sample the restaurant's fried green tomatoes ($3.50), a Southern standard, just to see if the chef did them justice. They arrived on a big plate, a halo of steam emanating from the perfect, crispy breading outside. Inside, the tomato's delicate bite and wonderful smell sure hit the spot. No wonder it's a dish the South has made famous.

One feature of the menu I was happy to see is the "menu for smaller appetites," which transforms big entree dishes into smaller portions for those who like to eat well but not necessarily pig out. One of our party ordered the sirloin steak ($12.95), a dainty 8 ounces carefully pan-fried to a medium-rare. Another diner ordered the vegetable plate ($8.95), a choice of four vegetables cooked Southern-style, which means they boil for hours with ham or bacon or potatoes used as flavoring. Being a native Floridian who grew up near Plant City, it was exactly what he expected, and he enjoyed every bite.

The baby back ribs ($12.95) were the only disappointment. They were hopelessly bland, undersauced, and they needed heat. The dish requires garlic and heavy spice, and in all the years I've spent in various Southern kitchens, I've never seen a bulb of garlic anywhere. Southern-style tends to be bland compared to other cuisines. You'll have better luck with the ham, chicken or freshwater catfish ($11.50) — it was perfect, fried to the color of golden wheat on the outside, and so tender and moist inside, it fell charmingly apart in your mouth.

Still, the best was yet to come. The Branch Ranch strawberry shortcake ($3.95) arrived in a huge bowl, with a buttermilk biscuit used as its base, a lovely pile of glazed strawberries resting atop it, and capped like Mount Everest with a thick glacier of whipped cream.

All told, folks, this is tasty fare for the down-home in all of us.


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