Southern food has never been better. Here's where Travel & Features Editor Jennifer V. Cole says you should eat your next unforgettable meal.
Over the past decade I've taken chances on dodgy food stalls in southeast Asia (that were totally worth it) and made pilgrimages to Michelin three-star shrines across Europe (that didn't always merit a mortgage payment-size tab). This year alone, I've logged roughly 31,000 miles—from Charleston to Miami to Houston—all in the name of sussing out the best food. (Trust me when I tell you that the South has never been hotter.)
until you're asked to narrow down—and rank!—your top five favorites. I spent the last few months obsessing over the restaurants listed on these pages. The modern landscape of Southern food is varied and wildly diverse like never before. And in this inaugural celebration of restaurants across the region, I've chosen to salute a crop of newcomers that collectively reflects what Southern food is today and where it's going. From seafood palaces that champion the bounty of our waters (mark my word: fishermen will be the culinary rock stars of 2014) to simple neighborhood joints and kitchens run by first-generation Southerners who are introducing kimchi to our collards and curry leaves to our fried chicken, these picks reveal the patchwork quilt of modern Southern food. And they demonstrate why now is the best time to dine out down South.
Because the bounty of our waters is the next big thing
For chef Mike Lata, the term "merroir" is as much a part of his lexicon as "knife." He uses it to refer to the impact that waters of a specific place have on the taste of seafood, much like the word "terroir" is used to describe variances in winemakers' harvests. And at The Ordinary, Mike's high temple of Neptune's bounty on Upper King Street, "merroir" rules the menu. As he bounces around the see-and-be-seen two-story dining room, always the welcoming host, an earnestness befalls his twinkling smile when he describes the Capers Blade oysters harvested by "Clammer Dave" Belanger that day. Or the triggerfish, cooked schnitzel-style with a fine-crumb coating, caught by fisherman Mark Marhefka.
When Mike first opened Charleston's FIG with partner Adam Nemirow 10 years ago, his vegetable plate unwittingly overshadowed everything else on the menu. He made veggies with pedigree chic. Now you see farmers' names sprinkled across menus throughout the country, and Mike has turned his attention to the fruits of the sea. I'm convinced his efforts will inspire kitchens well beyond the Lowcountry. You're destined to know your crabber by name in the coming years.
The perfect spicy-sweet, crispy, tender combo: Fried oysters are tucked inside Hawaiian rolls and topped with cabbage, pickled carrots, homemade Sriracha hot sauce, cilantro, and jalapeños ($5).
At The Optimist (pictured here), Ford Fry's greatest culinary contribution to Atlanta, it's a fish lover's smorgasbord. Get the Georgia white shrimp a la plancha with arbol chile and lime. In New Orleans, Donald Link, Ryan Prewitt, and Stephen Stryjewski recently revealed Pêche Seafood Grill, an open-fire emporium inspired by a trip to Uruguay. Don't miss the smothered cast-iron catfish, a riff on a Cajun classic.
Because never before have a city's flavors come through so clearly
Without a doubt, Houston is the most interesting, far-ranging, delightful food city in the South—strike that, in America—right now. There's a confluence of a post-Katrina Creole population, traditional Southern staples (biscuits, barbecue, pimiento cheese), multinationals (Vietnamese, Korean, Pakistani, Mexican), fertile farmland, easy access to the Gulf, and a general yearning to make a culinary mark. And chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly might as well be the town's pied piper, leading diners deeper into the flavors of the city. He so strongly supports the evolving nature of food in Houston that he sends out the dinner bill wrapped in a trifold of recommendations of other restaurants and producers in town (50 to be exact) with the request to "visit at least one of these folks first" before returning for another meal.
It sounds like a nice marketing trick. Except there's no trickery. This man is Houston proud. I recommend going in a group because you'll want to graze the menu. I dined alone, and paid my penance by schlepping a shopping bag worth of leftovers back to my hotel room. But it was worth it for the decadent biscuits and chicken gravy, a cast-iron-skillet deconstruction of pot pie piled high with silken chunks of chicken, broccoli, carrots, and translucent onion. The fried whole vermilion snapper (topped with green chili-cilantro chutney, served over garam masala-scented green beans and okra) responsibly—and deliciously—makes use of Gulf bycatch (often called "trash fish"). This is the fish caught when you're actually going after something else, say, shrimp. With Chris' ever-evolving menu, he delivers Houston on plates: traditional, international, inspirational. It's a sense of place in a bite.
Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings
This global nod pairs tender braised goat with dense rice-flour dumplings, fiery with gochujang (red chili paste) and flecked with toasted benne seeds ($12).
Spin-offs don't usually merit the fanfare of new restaurants, but Sean Brock has successfully taken his hyper-local Charleston concept and applied it to Tennessee with Husk Nashville (pictured here). Pokeweed fritters accompany the pimiento cheese, and they're just barrelling through gallons of Knoxville's Cruze Farm buttermilk. In Roanoke, Virginia, Aaron Deal channels Appalachia at The River and Rail: fried livermush, sorghum-glazed lamb ribs, rillettes (similar to pâte) of smoked mountain trout. And Restaurant Michael Schwartz at The Raleigh delivers everything you want Miami to be: al fresco elegance, a hint of the tropics, and confidence without too much swagger. The almond gazpacho alone merits a visit.
Because first-generation Southerners are changing our notions of "Southern" food
The first time I ate at Asha Gomez's Kerala-style Indian restaurant, I didn't know what to expect. My experience with cuisine from the subcontinent comes from a slew of middling buffets, swank pan-national spots in New York and London, and late-night curry take-out. Cardamom Hill is none of that. Asha has taken the flavors she found in her mother's southern Indian kitchen as a child (okra, green beans, pork, curry leaves) and applied it to her current home in the American South. Ironically, she's found a natural synergy. Take her pork vindaloo, a traditional Keralan dish dating back a couple hundred years. When she began exploring recipes for her menu, it was barbecue that made her think of the vindaloo: tangy, sweet, bitter, with a hint of spice.
Those sorts of revelations have led her to adapt her recipes to gently embrace elements of her new home. In developing her Country Captain, a classic curried chicken and rice dish from Savannah, she tried 25 different recipes before settling on a version that uses cane syrup, her substitution for a condensed sugar product called jagery. She strives to add her influence without tainting the integrity of the original dish, deftly balancing nuanced flavors and only changing one or two spices from a flavor profile so the food is still recognizable. But please don't call her cooking fusion. "It's evolution," she urges. "I didn't grow up with peaches in India. But it would be a shame not to use a peach that's right here in my backyard." As a result, her personal evolution is stretching our understanding of the many flavors Southern ingredients can possess.
Kerala Railways Beef Curry
This banana leaf-wrapped parcel—beef curry perfumed with cinnamon bark atop yogurt rice—imparts a seesaw of flavor, alternating between deep spice and a cooling tartness ($27).
Edward Lee is known for his antics—off-pitch, late-night karaoke springs to mind. But he checks the nonsense at the door when it comes to his restaurants. And while it would be wrong to say that MilkWood, his newest spot in Louisville, Kentucky's Actors Theatre, plays with a straight face, his approach to layering in the Korean flavors of his Brooklyn, New York, childhood with his reverence for Southern food is no joke. For proof, try his miso-smothered chicken with buttery Carolina rice or the four-napkin pork burger piled with kimchi and cracklins.
Because casual fare can be as creative as white-tablecloth dining
Though their first restaurant, Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, has certainly upped the fine-dining game in Memphis, lifelong friends Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman aren't fancy. Consider their de facto off-duty uniforms: Alabama Shakes T-shirts and Southern Foodways Alliance trucker hats. The fact that some menu items are named for other Southern food personalities—often their way of settling a loss on the golf course; sometimes just because they like the guy—underscores Andy and Michael's roll-with-it spirit. Their stripped-down new venture, Hog & Hominy, better matches their personalities: It's airy and modern, like Ikea with country-boy swagger.
Understatement is the point. Dishes such as wood-fired pizzas, drippingly messy neckbone-gravy poutine (fries studded with cheese curd), and earthy cauliflower roasted with brown butter demonstrate their low-key prowess of merging classic technique and pitch-perfect ingredients. Even a simple romaine salad feels like an indulgence with its rich pecorino vinaigrette and generous scattering of fried chicken skins instead of croutons. This unlikely East Memphis spot, surrounded by office buildings, strip malls, and chain restaurants, simply turns out soulful food. And these boys have proved that a glorious meal has nothing to do with a tufted dining room and hefty tab.
Red Eye Pizza
Simple yet decadent, this pizza arrives piled with chunks of pork belly around a soft-cooked egg on sugo (tomato-pork sauce) and Taleggio cheese with celery leaves scattered like confetti ($16).
Throughout the region, the stripping down of pretense prevails. The General Muir (pictured here) renews Atlanta's delicatessen cravings for real-deal bagels, house-cured lox, and truly memorable chopped chicken liver. Meanwhile, Houston's Oxheart has guests retrieving their own silverware and cooks doubling as waitstaff. But there, chef Justin Yu has elicited tears of rapture with his deceptively simple beet salad dressed with lemon blossom vinegar, quinoa, and almonds. In Durham, Pizzeria Toro perches seasonal highlights (Brussels sprouts, fiddlehead ferns, rapini) atop pizzas. And Xiao Bao Biscuit, tucked in an old gas station in Charleston, has given the Peninsula a new take on the lunch counter with its Asian comfort foods, such as ramen with stewed greens and a farm egg.
Because community-anchored dining is making a comeback
Throughout Southern cities, there's a migration back downtown. Forward-thinking restaurateurs, shop owners, and developers are snapping up once-defunct properties and fueling revitalization. In Durham, where residents are fiercely loyal to local enterprise, Mateo Tapas sits at the heart of that revival. Consider Matt Kelly's Spanish-inspired joint a cantina where, day or night, meetings occur, friends reunite, and the Triangle's food lovers explore his genius blending of the South and Spain. Walking distance from the Performing Arts Center, the baseball stadium, and the American Tobacco Historic District, Mateo doesn't lack for foot traffic. But it's not just location that's driving the clubhouse effect—Matt's food is mind-blowingly good.
Fittingly, his tapas-style menu encourages sharing. Bowls of Manila clams and boiled peanuts surrender to a sherry-laced, garlicky broth. Meaty pork ribs, lacquered in Espellette pepper jelly, seem just the thing you'd eat at a 'cue joint in Basque Country. Matt is also no stranger to playing host. At Vin Rouge, the bistro he's co-owned for 10 years, the food industry crowd regularly hunkers down on nights off. But at Mateo, you don't need to know a toque from a tournedo to feel at home.
Matt Kelly's deviled eggs arrive wrapped in chorizo and piled high with a satiny egg filling, the culinary offspring of a demure Southern mama and a swarthy Spanish father ($4 for two eggs).
Nashville's Lockeland Table and Rolf & Daughters (pictured here), opened within four months of each other, must be tired of being mentioned in the same breath. It's not that they serve similar food: Lockeland is more eclectic (from roasted bone marrow to bourbon-glazed trout); Rolf & Daughters is more refined, with pasta extruded to order. It's that both places are already anchors in their 'hoods (East Nashville and Germantown). The "just pop in for a bite at the bar" mentality is so pervasive that people have become regulars without even trying.