Hunting for breakfast in Tallahassee, Florida, we were clued in by a Florida A&M student to a restaurant she described as “motherly and upright.” Olean’s Cafe is located directly across from the FAMU campus in a retrofuturistic, spire-topped structure that was built, originally, as an outpost of Mahalia Jackson’s short-lived fried-chicken franchise. Now, you can drop by for soul food meals starting at 7am, and the hungrier you are, the better: It’s practically impossible to get a meager meal in this one-room eatery.
At Olean’s, the process is simple. Step up to the counter and make your choices either by reading the moveable-letter menu on the wall or by simply taking a look at the options arrayed on the steam table. Whatever you select, it’s put into a Styrofoam clamshell container by servers who rely on their (gloved) hands to select clusters of bacon to push into a little segment of the tray, throw sheaves of sausage patties in with scrambled eggs, and place fried chicken parts atop hot waffles—though they do employ some utensils, reaching for a brush to drip butter onto grits, or a big spoon to separate a serving of the Olean omelet.
About that omelet: The Olean version is less a traditional omelet than it is a casserole, each serving of which is a block of food about the size of a half-brick. It reminds us of a high-rise frittata: eggs baked with sausage, ground beef, potatoes, onions, peppers, and tomatoes, all under a mantle of melted cheese. Every forkful is a different permutation of taste and texture; a single portion is a mighty meal. But you’d be forgiven for skipping the omelet for the fried chicken, available with or without a waffle as its trivet, its flavorful meat hugged by gnarled, breading-crusted skin; it fairly drips with fatty juice with every bite. It is, without a doubt, the most flavorful chicken imaginable.
The menu posted on the wall lists an Obama breakfast, which comprises large portions of grits, eggs, pancakes, bacon, and sausage, all impossibly stuffed into a single takeaway container. Proprietor Olean McCaskill explained that the concept dates back to the Presidential election of 2008, when the lavish bargain meal (today $6) competed with what was dubbed the McCain breakfast—the comparatively modest combination of grits, eggs, and toast. The latter is gone from the menu, and the 44th President remains, unabashedly, a house hero. The morning we stopped in, one server wore a t-shirt from the 2012 campaign that said, “Congratulations Team Obama. The 47% Have Spoken.”
Besides Barack Obama, the other beloved icon in this restaurant is Jesus Christ, testaments to whom cover the walls in the form of bumper stickers (“Get Out of Hell Free — John 3:16” and “Try Jesus: If You Don’t Like Him, The Devil Will Always Take You Back”), posters for church events and gospel sings, plaques with religious homilies, and bas-relief praying hands. If you don’t drink ice tea with your meal, an equally sweet alternative is Hawaiian Punch-colored “Jesus Passion Juice,” the secret ingredient for which, Olean confided, is love.
For lunch, Olean’s menu lists a full repertoire of classic southern side dishes such as collard greens, mac ‘n’ cheese, fried okra, braised cabbage, blackeyed peas, and candied yams. Everyday entrees include catfish, smothered pork chops, baked or fried chicken, and chitlin’s. Ribs are featured Thursday, mullet Friday and Saturday. And of course, Olean’s is closed Sunday.
1605 S. Adams St., Tallahassee, FL
This article was originally published on our sister site Saveur.com on October 25, 2013.