Dining review: Larkin's in Eagle Rock has a southern soul

Tucked on a corner in Eagle Rock, across a side street from a pink diner with its own towering billboard, the brown bungalow doesn't look like much. Its roof is beginning to tatter, there's nearly no parking, and the few tables outside are made from old doors painted and put on their sides in one last stop before the scrap yard. (Actually a nice, colorful touch.)

Larkin's, which bills itself as “a contemporary soul food joint,” is like visiting Grandma's house, with its scuffed wood floors and cozy rooms and big windows, and its smells of cornbread and frying chicken. (OK, my Southern grandma's house was small and made of concrete block, but the smells were the same.) But the menu is way more inventive than Granny's pan-fried chicken and potatoes.

A fried okra and heirloom tomato salad mixes baby greens, warmed slabs of red tomatoes and rounds of fried okra with balsamic vinaigrette. The breading on the okra was crisp, nicely done — so much so that I ordered the fried okra as a side on a subsequent visit. The Jambalaya was full of rich, tomatoey flavor, its spice pouring over perfectly cooked rice. At home, we fought over the leftovers.

The fried chicken — two drumsticks and a small thigh — was inconsistent. On our first try, it needed a little more coating and a little less time in the pan. The second time, the two drumsticks and one thigh were crispier and more flavorful. They wouldn't fare well in a matchup with Roscoe's in Altadena, but I'd put the sweet little disk of cornbread that came with the chicken against anybody's.

The catfish on the po-boy sandwich tasted fresh, moist, perfectly breaded and fried. This was a nice revelation because the first time we tried the Larkin's catfish, it came as curled, flavorless nuggets, from the freezer. The fixings on the po-boy wouldn't be scoffed at in Louisiana's bayous. Thin slices of barbecued brisket came slathered in a sweet yet tangy sauce.

Mashed potatoes were bacon-y, with just enough chunks to feel authentic, and a dollop of white gravy, a nice surprise. Macaroni and cheese came in a to-go tin, creamy, covered with grated cheddar and with bits of bacon mixed in. Pure comfort-food heaven.

Collard greens had the right mixture of spice and sweetness. Corn wasn't the garlic-roasted cobs on the menu; it's not quite corn season. But the creamy, peppery bowl of kernels got snatched up and devoured by a young tablemate. Children of the Corn, indeed. The red beans and rice tasted a bit of molasses; a few splashes of hot sauce fixed them right up. The most interesting side was the portobello fries, slabs of the meaty mushrooms breaded and deep fried and served with a spicy remoulade dipping sauce.

Our first visit to Larkin's wasn't so promising. Lunch on a Wednesday (the first day of the week the restaurant opens) started out like a Monty Python skit, the one where John Cleese walks into a cheese shop, which, after an arduous conversation, is revealed to be devoid of cheese.

Our very friendly but clearly overwhelmed waitress brought menus and explained she was the only server on duty; there was a party of 15 outside; and one of the chefs had run to get more ingredients. She then proceeded to list everything the restaurant was out of: burgers, ribs, collard greens and punch. She then disappeared, returning eventually to take our order. Corn? Out of corn. Grits? No can do. Sweet tea? Nope. Mashed potatoes? Yes, but there's no gravy. Catfish? Only nuggets, and they're frozen. Forty-five minutes after we'd seated ourselves, I went inside to inquire about drinks, offering to carry them to the table myself if she would please just pour them. It was clearly an off day for the restaurant. On our next visit, two waitresses were working, service was efficient, and the only thing they were out of was one type of drink.

I'm glad we gave Larkin's another chance. The homey interior and the mix of clientele — a mom and her kids, actors complaining about lost opportunities, a quartet of golden-years ladies, couples, guys out for ribs and beer — offer a nice backdrop to an interesting menu. Drinks include lemonade, sweet tea that starts drilling holes in your molars the second you take a sip, unsweetened tea (it's just wrong to serve unsweetened tea in a Mason jar), and a few types of beer. Desserts vary. We tried the peach cobbler, a syrupy, bready soup that couldn't have been more perfect. For that and the sweet tea, Larkin's, our dentist thanks you.

REBECCA BRYANT is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications.

Larkin's, 1496 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock; open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; (323) 254-0934 and larkinsjoint.com.

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