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Southern Cooking Rises Again At Johnny Rebs'

August 28, 1987|CHARLES PERRY

Flags cover the walls, peanut hulls litter the plywood floor. Those are just theme restaurant trappings, though. Johnny Rebs' isn't only for unreconstructed Southerners, as the oldies-heavy jukebox shows. In fact, when the jukebox isn't playing the sound track comes from the radio, and you might find yourself ordering ribs and greens to mellow Californian sounds.

But the food sure is Southern. In fact, this is more or less the Southern restaurant I've been waiting for, one that serves not just Cajun or fried chicken or great barbecue, but a whole range of dishes from that fingerlickin' part of the world.

The barbecue--pardon me, I'd best spell that barbeque with a "q"--is done on a pit designed in Atlanta that they keep fired up with mesquite and oak nearly around the clock. The usual ribs, chicken, sausage and sliced meats automatically come with a medium-sweet sauce of the catsup-like persuasion that is perfectly all right. However, the owners are from North Carolina and also offer their own native sauce, which is definitely from another school. Said to be vinegar and red pepper, it has a mellower taste to me, more like--dare I say it?--rum.

The meats are as moist and flavorful as any around, but barbecue is not the beginning and end of this menu. An equal proportion of the menu is "Southern favorites," which fall into two categories: Cajun and Southern fried.

To take the Cajun first, the seafood gumbo is an extremely thick model, full of okra, shrimp and fish. There are those who hold with a soupier style of gumbo, but I'm convinced. It's is rich and aromatic, pretty close to the best in Orange County. The blackened red snapper is perfectly delicious too, though it isn't at all Paul Prudhomme's original idea of searing a thin coating of spices into a fish under extreme heat. This fish is coated with a hash of middling hot ground pepper a good one-sixteenth of an inch thick. I'd call it more or less reddened fish.

In the Southern Fried department, anything breaded, such as the catfish or the chicken, tends to be fried to a very deep brown indeed. It's rather thick breading, crunchier than the Colonel's and maybe too dark for some people's taste, but my Southern grandmother would have approved its sweet, crustiness. The catfish comes with hush puppies, Ping-Pong ball-size spheres of white cornmeal flavored with onions, cooked to the exact same shade of dark brown (they've always struck me as a somewhat peculiar idea, cornbread with the texture of a bagel). One problem with the chicken: It's right out of the pan and too hot to handle for a good 10 minutes after it's served.

The chicken comes with gravy, but only if you ask for it. So do the pork chops, which are fried in plain Southern style with nothing but salt and pepper. There's also a steak marinated in bourbon, an idea that may take getting used to.

OK, so much for the entrees. Equally important in Southern cooking are the side dishes. The pinto beans may not sound (or look) like much, cooked very simply with red pepper and not much else, but they have a very pure and attractive pinto bean flavor. Likewise, the description of Brunswick stew did not originally excite me--chicken and beef stewed with corn and tomatoes--but it turns out to be tangy and rich, and I'd consider ordering by the bowl rather than just as a side dish.

You can also get a tasty "Cajun rice" with sausage meat, red pepper and cumin in it, a daily selection of greens (for instance, collards with spinach), which they recommend dosing with the juice from a bottle of pickled peppers, and those hush puppies. The biscuits are nice and floury, made from scratch, and the cornbread has some corn kernels in it. The cornbread recipe is revealed on a broadside ("The Rebel Yell") available at the cash register.

The desserts are all Southern and all remarkable. The cobbler of the day is the first I've ever had in a restaurant that tasted like the real thing. A cobbler is basically a homely dish, just cooked fruit with a top crust of plain biscuit dough. Restaurants are always tempted to underplay the dough or enrich it, either way destroying the character of the dish. This, friends and neighbors, is a real cobbler.

There's also a credible Key lime pie with a sort of sour cream topping, a pecan pie very generous with the pecans, and a savagely rich mocha pecan pie. A measure of the class Johnny Rebs' shows is that each of the three pies has a different kind of crust.

Side orders go from 95 cents to $1.95 and entrees $5.50 to $9.95. All desserts are $1.95. Johnny Rebs' also serves the usual American breakfasts (with grits available too) at $2.30 to $8.05.

Johnny Rebs' Southern Smokehouse, 4663 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach. (213) 423-REBS. Also 150 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. (714) 535-REB2. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Beer and wine served. MasterCard and Visa accepted.

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