The South's Best Soul Food

Crispy fried chicken and stewed collard greens remain staples, but the heart of Southern cuisine is more diverse than ever. Here’s the dish on our favorite spots.

Adrian Miller
The South's Best Soul Food
Illustration: Jill DeHaan

Soul food is at a crossroads. On one end, there’s a half-century of cookbooks, restaurants, and television shows honoring the potlikker tradition. On the other hand, more and more down-home joints close their doors every day, while up-and-coming restaurants borrow the soul food label to convey authenticity. It’s a head-scratching mix of adoration and condemnation: Some love it for its greasy deliciousness, and others shun it for its deep-fried ways. But in the South, new life is springing from the barbecue joints, old-school buffets, and fish houses of yore. Chefs are embracing the recipes passed down by their elders while also taking inspiration from global cuisines to create a bountiful spread of healthful, innovative, and—yes—traditional menus. Though the food may look and taste a bit different, these restaurants still set the most welcoming of tables.

Carrot Cake at Asante in Atlanta, GA
Photo: Robbie Caponetto
Asante’s carrot cake with caramel cream sauce

Asante:
Atlanta, GA
Celebrity chef Marvin Woods has traveled around the world to cook in home kitchens of every stripe, from the quaint American kitchenette to the White House. His year-old culinary melting pot in downtown Atlanta traces the African diaspora for a global take on soul cooking. The okra appetizer marries West Africa and Brazil by pairing dehydrated slivers of the crisp, seasoned vegetable with black pepper and a garlicky, lemony mayonnaise with spinach and parsley. The Creole-braised yellowtail snapper, which is served with Carolina Gold speckled rice, fuses the best of South Carolina and the Caribbean. To cap off the meal, try the rich, moist bread pudding topped with caramelized plantains, which links the flavors of New Orleans and West Africa.
250 Park Avenue West NW; asanteatl.com

Bertha’s Kitchen:
Charleston, SC
Albertha “Bertha” Grant would be proud of her three daughters who work tirelessly to preserve the neighborhood institution she built in 1979. Grant set high standards for dishing up seriously good food—and the next generation has kept it up. On an old whiteboard near the ordering counter, you’ll find the usual soul food suspects: baked chicken, fried fish, okra soup, pork chops, and collards. Try the baked chicken; the meat falls right off the bone. On the side, get stewed cabbage salted with bits of ham hock and the buttery-soft lima bean rice.
2332 Meeting Street Road; facebook.com/Berthas-Kitchen

Chicken on a Stick at Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish in Nashville, TN
Juicy hot fried Chicken on a Stick at Bolton’s
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish:
Nashville, TN
While Nashville hot chicken may be all the rage in the press these days, Bolton’s tiny cinder block kitchen offers heat seekers another (slightly tamer) spice ritual known as “hot fish.” Hot chicken is still served, of course. Owner Bolton Matthews learned how to fry from his uncle, who cooked at the famed Prince’s Hot Chicken and opened his own shack in the eighties before passing on the family’s secret sauce to his nephew. The floured fish fillets, served between two slices of white bread, are doused with enough heat to make your eyes water without burning off your taste buds. Go for traditional catfish, tilapia, or whiting—or choose grouper, which offers a flakier and sweeter base.
624 Main Street; boltonsspicy.com

Vegetable Plate at Bully's Restaurant in Jackson, MS
Photo: Chris Granger
Vegetable plate at Bully's

Bully’s Restaurant:
Jackson, MS
There’s no denying the care that pours in from every corner of Bully’s. Owner Tyrone Bully, who is at the restaurant every day from 6 a.m. until closing time, built this brick neighborhood joint from the ground up alongside his father in the eighties. The staff still follow the recipes set by Bully’s first cook, Ma Pearl, more than 30 years ago. And while the fresh veggies are a draw—it’s not unusual to dine next to employees peeling sweet potatoes and stripping greens—it’s the smothered pork necks, turkey necks, and oxtails drenched in peppery gravy that reign supreme. Served on an old-school, red cafeteria tray, the vegetable plate from Bully’s mixes meaty flavors with classic vegetables. For $4.50, take advantage of an entrée that includes fresh collards cooked with onions and spiced with cayenne pepper, a hearty mixture of turnip and mustard greens, and smoked cabbage. Polish off your meal with a melt-in-your-mouth cornbread muffin.
3118 Livingston Road; facebook.com/Bullys-Restaurant

Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta, GA
A meal at Busy Bee Cafe
Photo: Robbie Caponetto

Busy Bee Cafe:
Atlanta, GA
Since 1947, hungry patrons have packed into the Busy Bee Cafe for its world-famous chicken that’s brined, breaded, and then fried—yielding crispy skin and delicious, moist meat. Owner Tracy Gates remembers visiting her grandmother, who would make fried chicken by brining and seasoning it the night before and then frying it to crisp perfection for Sunday dinner. It’s an impressive trick to re-create this recipe day after day. “The secret,” says Gates, “is to create a brine that can season that chicken to the bone.” Pressure-frying the chicken in peanut oil produces meat that’s well seasoned and juicy but with a crispy crust. Gates recommends pairing it with candied sweet potatoes that are made with lemon, vanilla, and orange extracts. “This extra step is worth it for the cleaner flavor,” she says. But save room for the cafe’s real star: the selection of classic desserts—from banana pudding to sweet potato pie—that will leave you with a wonderful sugar rush. Our favorite? The unique Key lime cake with three tasty sweet-and-tart layers topped with white cream cheese icing and dotted with chopped walnuts.
810 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive SW.; thebusybeecafe.com

Carolina Kitchen Bar & Grill:
Hyattsville, MD
Those who say Maryland isn’t the South haven’t been to Carolina Kitchen. It has two locations around the state and one in D.C. serving up country fare with a side of Chesapeake flavors. (Think fried lobster tail and fried green tomatoes.) You’ll be hard-pressed to find better pork chops than the ones here: two juicy chops with a crispy, peppery crust on a bed of white rice and served with your choice of two sides. We recommend the skin-on mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and the simmered collards. To lighten up the side items, most veggies are flavored with smoked turkey instead of fattier meats.
6501 America Blvd.; thecarolinakitchen.com

Country Platter:
Cleveland, MS
This unassuming restaurant off the Blues Highway (U.S. 61) once served as a gathering spot for civil rights activists who needed a safe place to socialize, strategize, and dine in the sixties. The breakfast-and-lunch joint is known for a selection of seasonal vegetables you don’t often see on menus, like purple hull peas, which are creamier and sweeter than their black-eyed pea kin. For any meal and at any time of day, consider adding catfish fillets to your order. Locals love them with buttery grits and scrambled eggs for breakfast. The folks at Country Platter are so hospitable that they often come around offering seconds, free of charge.
700 Ruby Street, facebook.com/Country-Platter-Restaurant

Croaker's Spot:
Richmond, VA
Croaker’s Spot claims to possess the “Soul of Seafood”—and that’s no idle boast. The customers clamor for the Eggleston’s Fried Fish Boat, which comes with several thick strips of fried whiting buried under a layer of sautéed onions and green peppers. The tomatoey sauce ladled over the fish has enough kick to make you skip the customary dashes of hot sauce. The star side dish is the grits, which are cooked with Cheddar cheese and (surprisingly) ranch dressing. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, order the banana pudding cake, which doesn’t have a vanilla wafer in sight and will leave diners satisfied with two layers of cake coated in banana frosting.
1020 Hull Street; croakersspot.com

Eddie’s Restaurant:
Shreveport, LA
Many in Shreveport claim to have written the original recipe for stuffed shrimp, but it’s Mavice Hughes Thigpen who makes the best case. Her father, Eddie Hughes, was the man known for inventing stuffed shrimp; he’s also the one for whom her restaurant is named. The dish is made by filling a butterflied shrimp with a Creole spice-seasoned mixture of crabmeat, mirepoix, and breadcrumbs. After it’s stuffed, the shrimp is rolled in flour, dipped in an egg wash, dredged in flour again, and pan-fried.
1956 Hollywood Avenue; cajunstuffedshrimp.com

Florida Avenue Grill in Washinton, DC
Photo: Robbie Caponetto
The Florida Avenue Grill

Florida Avenue Grill:
Washington, D.C.
“The Grill,” as locals call it, bills itself as the oldest soul food restaurant in the world. Opened in 1944, The Grill survived the 1968 Washington, D.C., riots, and still stands in its original location in the U Street Corridor. The kitchen serves breakfast all day, alongside lunch and dinner items like smothered fried pork chops and baked chicken. These days, the spot serves up even more healthful options, such as turkey bacon and veggie sausage, without missing a beat in the flavor department.
1100 Florida Avenue NW.; floridaavenuegrill.com

Hoover’s Cooking:
Austin, TX
Drawing from his childhood growing up on a family farm in Texas where farm-to-table was standard fare rather than a movement, chef Hoover Alexander blends the soul of home cooking with ripe tomatoes, fresh greens, flavorful okra, and a shot of Tex-Mex at his East Austin diner. Alongside usual items like chicken-fried steak, the menu also includes unique dishes such as chicken and pancakes, Cajun ham breakfast tacos, and peppery smoked wings. For an offbeat happy hour drink, try the Beet-A-Rita—fresh beets steamed, pureed, and blended with a house-made margarita mix.
2002 Manor Road; hooverscooking.com

House of Soul:
Lexington, KY
This soul food joint near the University of Kentucky’s campus in downtown Lexington looks like someone’s house, and good home cooking awaits inside. The Wings & Waffles is one of the most popular choices: Two gargantuan chicken wings are breaded with a peppery—but not overly spicy—coating; fried to a nice crisp without being too greasy; and laid on top of a freshly made, soft-in-the-center, golden-brown waffle. We can’t get enough of the warm, throwback apple cobbler—a dessert not typically found at soul food restaurants. In fact, it’s even an off-the-menu item here, but it certainly proves the value of being in the know. The warm cobbler arrives under a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream and topped with an additional dollop of whipped cream. Underneath all that dairy goodness, cutting through a layer of flaky crust yields a thick, warm slurry of cinnamon and nutmeg mixed with perfectly soft baked apple slices.
207 South Limestone; facebook.com/HouseOfSoulLexington

Lassis Inn:
Little Rock, AR
According to current owner and chief cook Elihue Washington, Jr., the Lassis Inn first opened in the thirties as a sandwich shop operated out of the back of someone’s home, but so many customers requested fish that it quickly became the main menu item. Try the “big-boned buffalo.” The name might evoke visions of a Fred Flintstone-size piece of red meat, but it’s actually a type of bony, white-fleshed, freshwater fish. The buffalo fish’s larger bones are butchered with enough flesh on each side of the bone to resemble spareribs. The rib is then dredged in seasoned cornmeal and fried like a fish fillet. The result is a crunchy, hot, and meaty rib that is complemented on the plate with sides of creamy coleslaw and a slightly sour chopped green tomato relish.
518 East 27th Street; facebook.com/Lassis-Inn

Mama Dip’s Kitchen:
Chapel Hill, NC
In 1976, Mildred “Mama Dip” Council opened her diner with only $40 worth of ingredients to make breakfast. She used the earnings to make lunch and then the lunch proceeds to make dinner. Nearly four decades later, customers return for Mama Dip’s self-described “dump cooking,” relying not on precise recipes or measurements but instead on experience and improvisation. The shoot-from-the-hip simplicity is evident in dishes like her Southern Fried Chicken that’s breaded only with flour, pepper, and salt. Don’t miss the dense sweet potato biscuits served with a side of molasses.
408 West Rosemary Street; mamadips.com

Mr. and Mrs. G’s Home Cooking & Pastries:
San Antonio, TX
It should come as no surprise that soul food often has a high degree of seasoning—which can easily get out of hand. At this San Antonio soul food restaurant, the cooks understand that restraint really does yield beautiful results. The bone-in fried catfish is speckled with black and brown bits that are evidence of time well spent in a cast-iron skillet rather than a deep fryer. And the preparations don’t overshadow the simple yet delicious flavors of the briny black-eyed peas, soft squash, and simmered greens that complete a plate.
2222 South W.W. White Road; 210/359-0002

Niki's West in Birmingham, AL
Photo: Caleb Chancey

Niki’s West:
Birmingham, AL
Since its opening in 1957, Niki’s West has been Alabama’s go-to meat ’n’ three. Along with a long cafeteria line packed with daily specials (such as Fried Chicken Livers and Lemon Pepper Catfish), diners can also choose from the extensive made-to-order steak and seafood menus. You can’t go wrong with any selection, but the broiled fresh snapper is a simple standout: The thick, flaky fish comes on a bed of rice, which captures butter as it drips off the fillet.
233 Finley Avenue West; nikiswest.com

P&D Soul Food Kitchen:
Orlando, FL
Though the restaurant is tucked away inside a business complex, Paula and Dennis Cox serve up great home cooking. Daily specials include the roast pork and dressing: Tender, cumin-spiked pork is shredded into large chunks, doused with its own cooking juices after several hours of roasting, and paired with a pudding-like cornbread dressing dotted with bits of celery. Another must-try dish is the fried pork chop sandwich—a half-inch-thick, bone-in pork chop seasoned simply with just salt and pepper and dusted with flour before being fried to perfection. This sandwich is served between two slices of white bread and with condiments of your choice. Be sure to order some of the piping-hot sweet potato biscuits, which will probably remind you of the fluffy tea cakes Grandma used to make.
927 South Goldwyn Avenue, Suite 120; soulfoodkitchenorlando.com

SALTBOX Seafood Joint in Durham, NC
SALTBOX Seafood Joint in Durham

SALTBOX Seafood Joint:
Durham, NC
With its picnic tables and freshly caught Carolina seafood, this tiny shack in Little Five Points is the closest you’ll get to a beachside fish camp in Durham. From smoked collars to chowders built on a stock of grouper bones and chef Ricky Moore’s anise-inflected “white mirepoix,” no part of the fish at SALTBOX Seafood Joint is wasted. The menu is updated daily according to the supply available at the market; both fresh and seasonal ingredients are something Moore insists upon. Don’t miss his fried grouper bites. Conceived as another way to use the whole fish, the grouper bites take a tumble in a seasoned dredge with toasted coriander, fennel, and Aleppo before they’re fried. We like them either way they’re served—as an appetizer meant for dunking in house-made tartar and cocktail sauces or on a soft, buttery roll slathered with luscious shrimp butter.
608 North Mangum Street; saltboxseafoodjoint.com

Sweet Georgia Brown:
Dallas, TX
This South Dallas meat ’n’ three isn’t much to look at from the outside, but it should be your first stop for a legit soul food experience. Imagine heaping Styrofoam containers filled with piping-hot meat and veggies that no one person should eat on his or her own. Everything is cooked to order, and the meats are smoked daily. We highly recommend the smothered pork chops, which are tender on the inside, lightly fried on the outside, and coated with a nice dose of pepper. Pair them with a side of mac-and-cheese, cheesy rice and broccoli, or cabbage.
2840 East Ledbetter Drive; facebook.com/Sweet-Georgia-Brown-Soul-Food-Eatn

Sweetie Pies:
St. Louis, MO
Long before landing a popular TV show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Robbie Montgomery (a former background singer for Ike and Tina Turner) and the Mississippi-style cooking she serves up at Sweetie Pie’s was a fan favorite. Try the well-seasoned, crispy-on-the-outside-and-juicy-on-the-inside fried chicken; the velvety smooth greens; and the creamy, mildly smoky black-eyed peas. Wash it all down with a tall glass of sweet tea. It hits that perfect balance between lemony tartness, tea leaf bitterness, and sugary sweetness without being so syrupy that your spoon could stand straight up in your glass. Thanks to Sweetie Pie’s marketing effort, you may be drinking their sweet tea at home. It may even be available at a store near you.
3643 Delmar Blvd.; sweetiepieskitchen.com

Sweet Potatoes:
Winston-Salem, NC
Winston-Salem is in the midst of a food boom, but chefs Stephanie Tyson and Vivian Joiner have doled out prime meals in the Downtown Arts District since 2003. Diners go crazy for the sweet potato biscuits and fried chicken that’s marinated overnight in buttermilk and seasoned with a combination of dried mustard, garlic, nutmeg, pepper, smoked paprika, and thyme. For a note of nostalgia, try the BBQ Bologna Burger slathered in barbecue sauce, onions, and Cheddar cheese and served on a kaiser roll.
529 Trade Street NW; sweetpotatoes.ws

The Grey in Savannah, GA
The Grey’s decor is a nod to its past as a bus terminal
Photo: Quentin Bacon

The Grey:
Savannah, GA
Chef Mashama Bailey transformed an old Greyhound station into one of the city’s most popular spots. Mixing influences from her childhood years in Savannah with her experience living in New York, Bailey serves up dishes that are as traditional as they are modern. She’s cooking what she likes, and the town is eating it up. For an entrée, order the Country Pasta with pork belly and Parmesan, and follow it with Leopold’s Snickerdoodle Ice Cream for dessert.
109 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.; thegreyrestaurant.com

The Senator’s Place:
Cleveland, MS
Willie Simmons has served as a Mississippi state senator since 1993, and his lunchtime buffet remains one of the state’s greatest unifiers. Locals show up in droves to dine on the seasonal vegetables, hearty entrées, and, of course, sweet desserts. All would agree there is one dish that can’t be missed—Mr. Simmons’ smoked chicken. The senator makes it himself and serves it only on certain days. You’ll have to call ahead, but after you take one bite you’ll know why it’s worth the additional planning. The chicken is tender and lightly coated with a secret barbecue spice and carries a hint of pecan wood.
1028 South Davis Avenue; facebook.com/senatorsplace

Spare Ribs at The Pig & The Pearl in Atlanta, GA
Photo: Robbie Caponetto
Spare Ribs at The Pig & The Pearl

The Pig & The Pearl:
Atlanta, GA
The Pig & The Pearl raises an interesting question regarding the future of the soul food genre: Can someone who didn’t grow up in an African-American community take the reins at an authentic soul food restaurant? The answer is yes—as long as the cook is true to the traditional techniques and hits the flavor profile with the right amount of seasoning. Chef Todd Richards, an African-American, birthed this restaurant but left it last spring. Chef Brian Carson, a Caucasian chef who has worked the line
in some of Atlanta’s top kitchens, now nurtures this smoked meat-and-raw seafood emporium. Thus far, Carson has maintained the culinary momentum that Richards began with playful, flavorful, and inventive dishes like the coffee-rubbed, chewy lamb ribs covered with a smoky, tongue-warming ancho chile mole served on top of a pile of savory sweet potato mash and the Banana Pudding Tart created with a slightly sweet, crumbly almond pound cake.
1380 Atlantic Drive NW. Suite 14180; thepigandthepearl.com