Those in Southwest Florida are lucky to be close enough to the resort town of Sarasota. Known for the shopping along St. Armands Circle and a string of beach islands along its coast, Sarasota's hidden gem is its Amish-Mennonite community and Yoder's Restaurant. Day in and day out, Yoder's Restaurant welcomes Sarasota locals and visitors who come from all over the place to get a taste of all that Amish home-cooked goodness. And in particular, Yoder's is best known for its pies. A few years ago, my younger sister moved to nearby Bradenton and converted me into a frequent Sarasota visitor. Yet, in all that time, I had not yet made my way to Yoder's. So that the opportunity would not pass me by again, I used this rare husband-free weekend to bring my kids to Bradenton so that they could guilt their aunt into taking them to Yoder's.
Before I dine away from my own town, I do a little reconnaissance and seek out reviews and recommendations. Yoder's has been featured on the Travel Channel and other popular food shows so I didn't have to do quite as much research to know that I wanted to put it on my dining list. But I did go online to their website (yes, these Amish use the Internet) to learn a little more about the restaurant and its menu. I was pleased to learn that Yoder's (named after the owner-family) has been in business since 1975 and that the family still actively participates in its management. The location boasts not only the restaurant, but also a deli, produce market and gift shop where gems of Amish goodness are available for you to purchase. But before you go, there are a few things to keep in mind. It's a popular dining spot, so expect to stand in line the closer you arrive to traditional dining hours. There isn't much of a line at 11:30 a.m., but by noon you can expect to wait at least 20 minutes. And don't try to make reservations or send a friend to hold your place. Your party won't be seated until your entire party has navigated the line.
Even with the inconvenience of the line, a trip to Yoder's is worth the experience. The dining room is decorated like a country kitchen and dining there feels a lot like eating around a kitchen table. So, dining there with my kids, my sister and her family was definitely apropos. And there is something especially comforting about having lunch in a place that looks like it could be a part of someone's home.
Now, I will confess that I made the errant assumption that Amish-style food would be a lot like Southern-style food. I should have known that home-style cooking isn't one size fits all. Amish and Southern-style dishes may look the same but I think that is where the similarity ends. After all, I don't think the Amish use Crisco. It just wouldn't be very Amish to do so. For lunch, I ordered fried chicken. Being in the South, I expected to sink my teeth into the same crispy, crunchy, seasoning crusted chicken with which I've become familiar. The Amish version looks deceptively similar but is not at all. My first surprise? This Amish fried chicken was neither greasy or oily. I know it sounds oxymoronic, but every piece on my plate (including the dark meat pieces) had been rendered of its fat. (I admit, I liked that my chicken was a little less fatty.) And my second surprise? The light amount of seasoning. The Southern-style dishes I've eaten have been very liberally seasoned. Not so with this dish. Clearly, the Amish season their dishes with a much lighter hand. I don't mean to say that the dishes were bland, but they were certainly more subtle in flavor than I had expected. That's just a nice way of saying that they were rather under-seasoned. But ultimately it's much easier to cope with an under-seasoned dish than one that is over-seasoned. You just need to reach for the salt or for Yoder's house "dressing" which many use as a dipping sauce for the chicken. So, when you take a trip to Yoder's, keep this in mind.
What I loved: The only exception to my mildly seasoned plate? Fried okra. If you love this veggie like I do, then you must make it a point to try Yoder's fried okra. Now, that is some good stuff. Unlike the chicken, these are perfectly seasoned with right amount of salt and fried to a golden brown. The crust on these little nuggets isn't thick but is definitely crisp. And just like the chicken, these aren't greasy. Better yet, these okra aren't stringy or mushy (which are the two most common objections I hear about okra). I suppose that is the benefit of growing and cooking your own food. The farm fresh taste of these okra is apparent in the crispness of the vegetable's flesh and seeds. Too bad it's just a side, because I could've eaten a whole plate of these ... but for the fact that I needed to leave room for pie.
In fact, next time I've gotta leave room for a whole lot of pie. That's because the pies at Yoder's are AMAZING. Yoder's pies are pretty famous so I expected to like the pies. I even made a plan to order three separate slices to taste for this blog: dutch apple, peanut butter cream and fresh peach. I don't think I could have prepared myself enough for how much I would LOVE these pies. If I could marry one, I would. If I didn't have to share with my kids, I could have easily inhaled these pies. Yes, they are that good. The fruit and cream filings are sweet but not sickeningly sweet, which means that I can eat more than one bite of these pies without wanting to push them away. The crusts and toppings are flaky, buttery and light. But the best part of these pies is their freshness. I could swear that they cut the fruit for my fresh peach pie minutes before it landed on my plate. Each slice was still cool and crisp. And even though it was tossed in a light peach glaze, the flavor of this pie came mostly from the natural sweetness of the fresh peach. Fresh peaches are one of my favorite fruits to eat so this pie became my fast favorite of the three. The fresh peach pie isn't a regular on the menu so I'm going to have to remember to make my next trip to Yoder's before the peach season ends.
|Back to front: Egg custard pie, peanut butter cream pie and fresh peach pie|
What I didn't love: Since you already know how lightly seasoned the food is, I won't mention it again. But that didn't bother me as much as the Yoder's menu. As I expected, Yoder's serves a lot of traditional comfort foods, such as meatloaf, fried chicken, liver and onions, and turkey and stuffing. I was, however, quite disappointed to see the influence of "modern" fare on the menu in offerings like asian chicken salad, quesadillas and taco salad. I've seen "Breaking Amish" and "Amish Mafia" so I know the modern-day Amish are not exactly like the caricatures of the past. But Amish cooking ought to be treated as sacred, so I admit that I made a conscious choice to ignore these "other" menu options entirely. If I'm going to go to the Amish, I'm going to eat Amish and that's that.
How much I spent: ($$) I spent $51 plus tip for lunch for myself and my two children. This included a cheeseburger and fries for my son, a half order of fried chicken (and two sides) shared with my daughter, soft drinks, an obligatory sweet tea and desserts. Now, I did order three slices of pie which I would not have normally ordered. (Each is $4.50.) On any other day, I would have ordered just one slice to share with my kids. But now that I've been to Yoder's I know that sharing is simply out of the question. I suppose one could order - and spend less - at Yoder's but that would be a shame, at least where pie is concerned.
My overall rating: The pies alone deserve a 5 spoon rating, but Yoder's isn't a dessert-only establishment. I suppose I have to rate Yoder's on their overall menu. So for those who are looking to have the full Yoder's experience, I give Yoder's 3 1/4 spoons. This is good, clean-eating home-cooked food, even with the light-handed seasoning. You certainly won't feel like you've done your body any disservice by dining there. Just make sure you don't leave without a pie!