Blink and you’ll miss Larkin’s, a converted house in a newly refurbished corner of Eagle Rock, just a few yards from where you rush down the enormous slope heading off the Foothill Freeway, at the back of a corner lot where you would expect to see hollyhocks and primroses instead of parked cars, marked only by a faint chalkboard sign. Larkin’s accepts no reservations for parties smaller than six, so at the height of dinnertime, there is usually a crowd milling about the broad covered porch, both genteel and extravagantly tattooed Eagle Rockistas sipping sweet tea and gossiping about the neighborhood, hoping that the waitress will save them a piece of the sweet-potato pie.
Chef Larkin Mackey, a reclusive, slender African-American man who rarely leaves the kitchen, sometimes calls his restaurant a modern juke joint. There is Fats Waller on the stereo and faded Southern commercial art on the walls, tables made out of old doors in the dining room and picnic benches in the garden out back. When you bring a bottle of wine — the alcohol license is forthcoming — the waiters cheerfully pour your Alsatian Riesling into jelly jars. The Sunday brunch offers a choice of bacon, hot links or vegetarian sausage patties with your grits and eggs. For a “soul food” restaurant, it is almost vegan-friendly, and the spicy collard greens sautéed with tomatoes and plenty of cayenne may be the best food in the restaurant, if you don’t count the delicious little corn muffins that sometimes show up at the table.
If you have spent much time in the sort of towns that invariably make the roster of Best Places to Live in magazines like Men’s Journal, you will recognize Larkin’s provenance: It is a college-town restaurant, opened by a second-career chef, tucked into a lovingly restored bungalow, serving elegant, unmannered cooking to an educated, well-traveled clientele, moderately priced enough for the occasional undergraduate splurge but aimed at the parents and the professors, imaginative but not overly so, and grounded in dinner-party cuisine — a slightly overdressed salad of fried okra and heirloom tomatoes, a wedge of iceberg lettuce frosted with blue cheese and fried onions, crisp little salmon cakes that are as good as anybody’s croquettes.
Every dish on the menu is probably somebody’s best recipe: The tart, creamy potato salad is credited to Aunt Carolyn; the ground-beef-intensive chile verde to chef Mackey’s grandpa; the caramelly-tasting banana pudding to Mama. The black-eyed-pea salad that appears with the menu, served with slivers of toasted pita for dipping, is seasoned with a fearsome dose of raw garlic. The macaroni and cheese is from the stretchy-ooze school, capped with a crunchy mantle of bread crumbs — a mac ’n’ cheese that could make someone’s reputation at church potlucks. The barbecued spare ribs, when they appear as an occasional special, tend to be sweet and tender, a Sunday-dinner style of ribs that owes nothing to the uncouth smack of the barbecue pit.
Still, Larkin’s is a controversial place, distrusted by both people expecting a cheap, unreconstructed soul-food restaurant and snobs looking for refined haute cuisine, both hungry boys upset that the portions are less gargantuan than Roscoe’s and Southerners skeptical of the trace of fresh mint in the jelly jars of sweet tea. Larkin’s demands to be taken on its own terms, and while the cooking has improved dramatically in the few months it has been open — the cornmeal-crusted fried catfish gone from sodden to stellar — it is not, to quote the menu, food that “will make you slap yo’ momma.”
But though purists might point out that Larkin’s jambalaya resembles nothing ever served by that name in Louisiana — it may be closer to a gumbo than to the Creole rice dish — it is delicious anyway, a liquid stew of chicken and hot sausage and large, firm shrimp simmered with vegetables, tarted up with peppers and ladled over a mound of rice. The barbecued tiger prawns share only a hint of the peppery flavoring of the famous New Orleans barbecued shrimp, but the sweet, blackened spices encrusted on the shellfish are pleasant. The smothered pork chops — thick, juicy things blanketed in garlicky brown gravy — are unlike anything you will find at M&M.
There are as many opinions about fried chicken as there are people in the South, and you could argue for hours about the nuances: dredge or batter, marinate or no, deep-fry or pan-fry. I’ve had those arguments myself, although my allegiance to lard as a frying medium doesn’t generally win converts over to my side. But it is beyond argument: Larkin’s fried chicken, tender-crusted and juicy, golden and singing with the taste of clean oil, is about as good as it gets in Los Angeles restaurants, and the place is already attracting regulars from the Westside eager for a hit.
Larkin’s, 1496 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 254-0934 or larkinsjoint.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 5:30-9:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. AE, MC, V. No alcohol. Limited lot parking. Dinner for two, food only, $50-$66. Recommended dishes: salmon cakes, fried chicken, smothered pork chops.