Editor’s Note: After this review was published, we learned that Just Cookin’ has closed. Efforts to reach the owners have been unsuccessful. A sign on the restaurant window Friday says, “I am sorry to inform you we are closed! I want to thank everyone for your support. It has meant a great deal to me that you enjoyed the restaurant. Thank you again. Chris Fountain.”
Here’s a riddle for you: What do you get when you cross a restaurant owned by a guy from upstate New York with a restaurant whose chef grew up on a farm in North Carolina?
Need a hint? Owner Chris Fountain’s first job as 16-year-old was in a bagel shop. He went on to work as a pastry chef in three states, and says opening his first restaurant last September was the realization of a lifelong dream.
Need another? Chef Terry Moody attended Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School and worked in Washington, D.C., where he won plaudits from Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman. He returned home to Dunn to take over the family farm that he’d inherited. When Fountain approached him with an offer to take over the kitchen at his new restaurant, Moody couldn’t resist.
Give up? The answer is a deceptively modest eatery called Just Cookin’, and it’s not surprising if you’ve never heard of the place. The location, in a strip mall in Garner, is hardly high-profile. But believe me, it’s worth seeking out.
The restaurant’s folksy name sets the right tone for its unpretentious atmosphere, small-town-friendly wait staff and menu, whose pedigree is part Northern deli, part Southern diner.
But it doesn’t do justice to the level of execution in the kitchen.
It certainly doesn’t prepare you for the behemoth of a signature sandwich, the Benny Bumper. The name is an homage to Fountain’s grandfather, Fran “Benny” Bennett, who once owned a deli in upstate New York and created the sandwich. The first time Bennett’s wife saw it — a towering stack of turkey, brisket, ham, melted provolone, lettuce, tomato and “secret sauce” on a Kaiser roll — she said it was big as the bumper on a car.
Even so, the Benny Bumper’s size is not its most special attribute. That honor goes in a tie vote to the house-roasted turkey and house-smoked brisket, either of which in its own right makes a sandwich worth driving to Garner for.
I’d gladly rack up miles on the odometer for the Italian sausage, too. The sausage (your choice, spicy or sweet) is made by McLamb’s Abattoir in Johnston County (operated by family friends dating back to Moody’s childhood days on the farm) and smoked in-house, served on a toasted hoagie roll with grilled peppers and onions.
If you’re in a Southern frame of mind, the fried center cut pork chop sandwich will do you right. Or grilled Texas Pete-spiked pimento cheese. Or the Carolina burger with mustard, chili, onions and slaw.
Whichever direction your sandwich yearning takes you, the fare includes your choice of chips or fries — both house-made, and both excellent. Then again, nobody is going to fault you if you substitute panko-crusted onion rings.
For that matter, even the side salad is a decided cut above the norm. An artfully arranged kaleidoscope of cherry tomato halves, cucumber slices, julienne carrot and red onion on a bed of mixed greens, it’s typical of the kitchen’s attention to detail (and at this point you probably don’t even have to ask if the dressings are homemade).
True to diner tradition, Just Cookin’ serves breakfast all day. And true to the pedigrees of the owner and chef, an extensive menu offers a tour of American diner classics and regional favorites.
Head North for homemade corned beef hash, which you can get as a Benedict or buried under a blanket of melted cheese, served with two eggs your way, toast, and choice of home fries or grits. Or set your compass for South, where you’ll find big, fluffy biscuits that you can slather with butter and jam, smother with sausage gravy, or turn into a sandwich with your choice of breakfast meat, from thick cut bacon to some of the best locally made sausage around.
Feeling nostalgic? The PB&J French toast (made with challah, naturally) will delight the kid in you. Decadent? The Wicked Waffle lives up to its name with a chocolate Belgian waffle, topped with big dollop of fresh whipped cream and, as the menu aptly puts it, “a sinful amount of chocolate shavings.”
You can always atone for your sin the next time you visit (and you surely will be back) with the “Bless Your Heart” egg white omelet, filled with baby spinach, feta, sauteed mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and fresh basil, served with a slice of toasted multi-grain baguette.
After such a virtuous meal, you can justify dessert when you come back for lunch or an early dinner (Just Cookin’ closes at 8 p.m. most nights, and 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). The selection — usually two or three options that you’ll find listed on a board just inside the entrance — changes daily.
A moist, raisin-spangled pineapple bread pudding hit the sweet tooth spot recently. I’ve also seen banana pudding and New York-style cheesecake on the board, though I haven’t yet tried either. It’s a good bet, though, that regardless of which direction you choose, Just Cookin’ will get you there in style.
231 Timber Drive, Garner
Atmosphere: suburban diner
Noise level: moderate
Service: diner-fast and small-town-friendly
Recommended: Benny Bumper, Italian sausage sandwich, grilled pimento cheese, corned beef hash, biscuits, breakfast sausage, desserts.
Open: Monday-Thursday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday-Saturday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking in lot.