As a chef and fellow transplant to the South, from Pittsburg, PA to Arkansas, I’ve grown to appreciate the draw of Southern comfort food. I’m often on the hunt for a proper bowl of braised turnip or collard greens and can easily nerd out over how well the breading adheres to fried chicken at restaurants. In my travels as a chef, I’ve had a front row seat watching as Southern cuisine goes beyond the Mason-Dixon Line and into bigger food meccas like NYC, Chicago, and LA. I’ve compiled a few restaurants that are bringing the soul of the South to the North, whether they are reinventing the classics or spinning it with global influence.
First stop on our journey is NYC. It’s no surprise that chefs are bringing Southern foods to such a large food hub. Root & Bone in the East Village elevates Southern fare to pay respect to tradition while adding modern flavors. They’ve taken the classic pimento cheese and turned it into the French croquette that is served alongside seared pickled peaches. They take the extra step with their fried chicken by brining in sweet tea to reveal a hint of sweetness and herbal depth.
Let’s head to the Midwest on our tour & arrive at Juniper in St. Louis, MO, where Chef John Perkins has reinvented Southern cuisine with the melding of global flavors from Korea, Egypt, Middle East, and Japan. The use of trumpet mushrooms for chicken fried mushroom adds a pop of umami alongside funky, fermented kimchi and the black garlic in the aioli brings out sweet, earthy, umami notes.
The use of Dukkah, an Egyptian condiment made from grinding up pistachios, hazelnuts, sesame seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, and sea salt in the roasted sweet potato soup gives a nutty, crunch to the natural sweetness of the sweet potatoes. Even their blackened catfish and dirty rice bring together Cajun and Moroccan styles with the use of chermoula, a relish consisting of parsley, cilantro, coriander, cumin, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil.
On the West Coast, we’ve stopped at Howlin’ Rays Nashville Hot Chicken in L.A. This tiny counter-only restaurant in Chinatown has lines out the door, all waiting for a taste of Nashville Hot Chicken in the Golden State. Like Hattie B’s and Prince’s, Howlin’ Rays offers a range of heat levels from Country (no heat) to Howlin’ (10++), which requires a waiver before you can even order. They also offer the Southern classic sides: collard greens, macaroni salad, and comeback sauce. Comeback sauce is a catchall dipping sauce that formed its roots in Mississippi and consists of ketchup, mayo, Worcestershire sauce, onions, garlic and chili sauce.
Last stop! You’ll find us in the Pacific Northwest in Portland, Oregon at Pine State Biscuits. Here, childhood friends Kevin Atchley, Walt Alexander, and Brian Snyder decided to take their love of biscuits from North Carolina to the PNW. They bring together Southern style biscuits with the extra-ness that is Portland. The Veggie Reggie biscuit is completely vegetarian using vegan sausage patty, tofu bacon, and shitake mushroom gravy. The Regina biscuit goes completely Southern with braised greens “doused” in Texas Pete Hot Sauce and then finished with an over easy egg. Their BBQ Biscuit takes a cue from their home state of North Carolina by teaming up with local BBQ joint Reverends for their pulled pork served with Carolina style BBQ sauce and slaw.
We’ve only just begun to see Southern restaurants opening in other parts of the country. This trend’s longevity will come from its ability to revolve, with global influence, while still paying homage to tradition. In my case, it’s true that you don’t have to be from the South to appreciate the cuisine but I’ll always be on the hunt for the perfect fried chicken breading.
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