The door opened and, as if someone gave him a swift kick to the buttocks, Zio stumbled into Margie’s Red Rose Diner. Koko, the restaurant’s proprietor, jumped back in shock as Zio’s rotund frame almost fell on top of her. It took a moment for Zio to right himself from his Kramer-like entrance, but longer for Koko’s heart to stop racing from what could have been a very ugly and most likely painful experience if indeed, the heavy load that is Zio did knock her over.
It was a cold, snowy evening and maybe that was the reason for Zio’s misstep. Or it could be just his over-eagerness to finally eat at Margie’s Red Rose Diner. Either way, no damage had been done and Gerry, Zio and I had our pick of any table or seat at the counter we wanted. The restaurant was empty.
Once Koko’s heart settled, she gracefully assumed her role as both hostess and chef of the family-run Margie’s. The restaurant’s namesake, Margie, was Koko’s mother who ran the restaurant for over thirty years before her passing in 2009. After closing to reassess and remodel, Koko and her husband, known as “Poppa,” now run the small Harlem soul food spot continuing in the same, down home tradition Margie fostered.
Margie back in the day.
We looked at the menu which featured “breakfast all day,” but it was dinner time and though sage sausage, fish and grits, banana pancakes, and salmon croquettes were very tempting, we stuck to the “PM” side of the menu.
When asked what he was going to order, Gerry, who was intently perusing the dinner options, mentioned either the turkey wings or the smothered pork chops.
“I really want those smothered pork chops,” Zio announced, making sure he staked his claim on them. And then feeling somewhat guilty for preempting Gerry, added; “it’s okay if we both get it, isn’t it? There are no rules tonight, are there?”
We weren’t on a Chow City assignment. There were no rules.
But Koko, who stood over us as we were deciding, helped settle any possible conflicts. “It’s all family style here. Everyone shares.”
That made it easy. Gerry went with the turkey wings, Zio the smothered pork chops and now it was up to me to decide between the porgies or whiting.
“It’s really whiting?” Zio inquired suspiciously. “It’s not tilapia posing as whiting?”
Koko glared at him. “No, we don’t do like they do downtown.”
That made it easy. I ordered the fried whiting with collard greens and baked macaroni along with a delicacy for me: toasted, buttered white bread.
“I’m gonna do one dish at a time ‘cause everything here is made to order,” Koko told us. “Since you ordered first,” she said, indicating Zio, “I’ll start with the pork chops. You all right with that?”
Even if we had a choice in the matter, we were more than all right with that.
Red roses were everywhere at Margie’s.
While we waited for the smothered pork chops, to arrive, the television above our table was on to the evening news. The lead story was a report on an epidemic attack of the norovirus, also known as the stomach flu that was sweeping across the United States. While we listened to hysterical warnings of projectile vomiting and extreme diarrhea, as if on cue, the pork chops, fried and then literally smothered in dark brown gravy arrived. Despite the unappetizing news, we vigorously devoured the tender chops.
Smothered pork chops, candied yams, collard greens.
Next to arrive were the turkey wings, the meat falling off the bone, and smothered in the same gravy used for the pork chops. On a cold, snowy night, no one was complaining about too much gravy. The fried whiting completed our family-style trio and received high praise from all for how delicately they were fried. “This is definitely not tilapia,” Zio confirmed rapturously.
Fried whiting, baked macaroni, collard greens and buttered white toast.
“Where you from,” Koko asked as she came over to check on us.
“125th Street,” I told her.
“You come all that way just to eat here,” she said. “That’s sweet of you.”
I thought for a moment. “It’s not like I came from Cleveland.”
“Are you in radio? You have a radio voice,” she asked me.
“I usually mumble,” I told her, “but when I order food I use my deep, clear disc jockey voice to make sure there is no confusion
She laughed and turned to Gerry. “You know, you look like Henry Winkler.”
“The Fonz,” Zio snickered.
“And you…” she stared at me. “Hey, Poppa, remember that show ‘Coach,’ what was the name of the coach?” (Left, Gerry posing as Arthur Fonzarelli)
Poppa came out from the kitchen. Both Koko and her husband were wearing Pittsburgh Steelers’ baseball hats. We knew where their gridiron loyalty lay. He thought for a moment and then said:
“Craig T. Nelson.”
“And your voice is like his too,” Koko said.
“The coach? I always thought I was the quarterback,” I said, disappointment obvious in my now mumbling voice. I knew what Craig T. Nelson looked like. He was balding—with a prominent nose. I didn’t see the resemblance, but if Koko thought I looked like Craig T. Nelson, I wasn’t going to argue.
“And you,” she stared at Zio. “Let me think on it.”
After the dishes were cleared she came back. “I know, the doctor on ‘ M.A.S.H.’”
“Alan Alda?” Zio said.
“Yeah, him,” Koko said.
“How many pounds ago,” Gerry cracked.
We were hoping for dessert, but Margie said she had run out of her homemade lemonade pie. “Lemonade pie? Wasn’t that in a song?” Gerry asked. “Judy in the Skies,” Zio said. (The expert use of the chopsticks is a giveaway that the man at left could not possibly be Zio.)
Gerry quickly googled the song on his phone. A You Tube video from the 60’s came up. We watched it and heard the lyrics mentioning lemonade pie. “John Fred & his Playboys,” Gerry read. “And it’s ‘Judy in Disguise.’”
“I always thought it was Judy in the Skies,” Zio said. “Judy in Disguise, well that’s a-what you are A-lemonade pies, with a brand new car…”
We paid the check and took the allotted ten minutes to get coats, gloves, and hats on. “We’ll be back for lemonade pie,” I said, speaking for all of us.
“You better,” Koko said and then made sure she steered very clear of Zio as he attempted to exit.
Brian Silverman chronicles cheap eats, congee, cachapas, cow foot, cow brains, bizarre foods, baccala, bad verse, fazool, fish stomach, happy hours, hot peppers, hot pots, pupusas and pastas, and rum punch and rotis, among many other things on his site Fried Neck Bones…and Some Home Fries. Follow Brian on Twitter.