"Sometimes I wake up with a taste in my mouth, then spend the day finding exactly the foods and spices to make that taste," says Judy Thompson, cook and co-owner of Aunt Judy's. The restaurant's concise menu includes southern staples like fried chicken, catfish, and greens, but Thompson's interest in food is deep and consuming.
Judy and husband Tracy met in 1989, and married in '93. By 1994, Tracy had a dream of owning a restaurant. Initially, Judy thought it was crazy, but eventually took a business course through the Urban League. In January, Tracy's dream came to fruition.
"Southern cooking" is the term Judy prefers to the more confining "soul food." Broadly speaking, Aunt Judy's is similar to the Genesee Family Restaurant. You get your choice of a main dish, then add a couple of sides from a long list. There are also sandwiches that don't come with sides.
On a City Newspaper Hit Squad lunch, Frank De Blase had fried chicken ($8.50 for a half-chicken with two sides, $5 for a breast and wing, $4.50 for a leg and thigh). I asked, "How's the chicken, Frank?" To which Frank replied, "It's good. You know, it's fried chicken." But it does take touch to get it right, with a crisp, spicy coating that doesn't overwhelm, and moist meat. Judy scored there.
Chad Oliveiri's decadent smothered pork chops could have fed two, with thick gravy covering two large chops ($8.75 with two sides). Chris Busby paid $5 for a gargantuan fried haddock sandwich (slightly larger, even, than Captain Jim's). The spiced, corn-flour coating is outstanding --- tasty, crisp, and light. The fish was very good, if not quite the Captain's.
When I see collards and candied yams, I hardly notice the main courses, but settled on catfish ($8.50 with two sides). It has the same coating as the haddock, and the catfish was sweet and tender. The collards, cooked with smoked ham hocks (or smoked turkey), were chopped small and were tender without being overcooked. The yams were a highlight, just bursting with nutmeg, clove, brown sugar, lemon, and butter. A side of black-eyed peas with okra was fine, though it made me pine for my mom's fried okra.
On a second trip, I brought my rib-expert daughters, Lila and Iris. Lila proclaimed them "the best ever." Judy gives them two days in her spice rub, then Tracy slow-cooks them over charcoal and wood, and Judy finishes them with her "million-dollar sauce." They're tender, extremely flavorful, and huge ($9.50 with sides).
Judy's macaroni and cheese is also outstanding. Tracy says that at family gatherings, nieces and nephews want to know that it's Aunt Judy's before eating. That's understandable; when done properly, mac-and-cheese bears no resemblance to the sticky, salty Kraft variety. It can, on occasion, approach the subtlety of a soufflé, and Judy's does.
Finally, Aunt Judy's also has terrific wings. Deep-fried with the fried chicken coating, they're enormous ($5.95 a dozen is a bargain). The coating is crisp and peppery, and the meat is juicy and succulent. Plus, you get Judy's "million-dollar sauce," which is somewhat sweet, a bit sharp, and very complexly spiced. I correctly guessed at clove, nutmeg, cayenne, and honey, but there was more going on (she admitted to hickory and little else). You'll sop up every drop with your bread, guaranteed.
Aunt Judy's is bright, very clean, and inviting. Judy and Tracy are the kind of people with whom you're instantly comfortable. Their joy shows in big, warm smiles. If you come on a busy night and want to sit, you might be disappointed. There are only three tables, and takeout makes up the majority of the business. Judy says getting bigger is "phase two" of the plan.
The location is a bit out of the way if you live south or east, but nothing in this city is far from anything else. "Southern cooking" isn't for vegetarians, but the irony there is that the sides, which are the main attraction, are largely vegetarian. Aunt Judy's joins a growing list of small, interesting, family-run spots in town that deserve more general attention than they get.
Aunt Judy's, 478 Portland Avenue, 454-6006. Hours: Thursday through Friday, noon to 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 to 8 p.m.
One of my favorite food events of the year starts this Friday at Hurd Orchards on Rt. 104, just west of Brockport. From November 8 to 16, Hurd Orchards serves over 24 dishes at its annual Thanksgiving Tasting, set in a barn built in 1802. Seatings are at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. each night. Regulars often bring their own wine and glasses. At $35 plus tax, it's a bargain. 638-8838.
Michael Warren Thomas
Tune in Michael on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel (9 a.m. to noon), and on Sundays for antiques and wine (10 a.m. to noon) on WYSL 1040 AM. Michael@SavorLife.com.