The South's Best New Restaurants in 2013
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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).