For writer Shaun Chavis, Alabama chefs Tim and Peter Hontzas, and Georgia restaurant owner Alfreda Lockett, the meat 'n' three isn't just comfort food; it's an edible family history.
Johnny's in Birmingham
Credit: Melina Hammer

For those of us who live down South, we know Southern food is so much more than fried chicken and biscuits. Within the whole of our region there are distinct cooking cultures influenced by generations of people from all backgrounds and access to different resources. We asked five writers to team up with their favorite chefs to pick one dish that represents the culinary traditions in their corner of the South. From Texas to Virginia, we are exploring five plates with a sense of place like Louisiana's gumbo and the Low Country's Shrimp and Grits. Each team delves into the history, the nostalgia, the complexities, and the beauty of each plate, and asks you to share in their traditions with recipes that honor the old and introduce new interpretations.

In this edition, writer Shaun Chavis explores how African American soul food and Greek cuisine live in perfect harmony on one plate with "Greek and Three" chefs Tim and Peter Hontzas and Alfreda Lockette of Meemaw's in Macon, Georgia.

Next time you're in a meat-and-three, step back for a moment and think of the Plexiglas over the buffet as a window into the culture of the modern American South. You'll see generations of families: share-cropping great-grandparents and immigrant papous. You'll see the world's influence. You might even get a hard-working restaurateur's glimpse into a future that's as clear as the rings of smoke around his head after a double shift: assuring, puzzling, disappointing, and brow-raising all at once

Tim and Peter Hontzas are cousins—their grandfathers were brothers—and they each own meat-and-three restaurants in greater Birmingham, Alabama. Peter co-owns Niki's West, a nearly 60-year-old Southern food lover's destination with a legend-level vegetable plate. Between a dining room that seats 450 and take-out business that's brisk enough to warrant a separate line with a ticketing system, Niki's West feeds thousands every day.

Tim owns Johnny's in Homewood, a few miles away. He opened Johnny's in 2012, a revival of the restaurant his grandfather, Johnny Hontzopolous, started in 1956 and ran for 38 years. The restaurant's name, logo, and many of the menu items—including fried frog's legs—are the same, although his come with Mississippi-inspired comeback sauce.

Both Niki's West and Johnny's reflect the heritage of their Greek immigrant grandparents in their menus. Niki's West features baked Greek chicken and Greek fish regularly. At Johnny's, Tim taps his heritage more deeply from keftedes. Greek-style meatballs served with tzatziki, to souvlaki, chicken marinated in red wine vinegar and herbs and served with lemon-tahini butter.

Neither of them see the role of keftedes in the meat-and-three tradition as unusual. "Southern food's always been more creative," Peter said. "You have the French, you have the Native American influence, you have black, white, you have country folks. Country folks cook better than anyone."

Sure enough, there's French in the mac and cheese that's on every meat-and-three menu. Succotash, the combination of beans, corn, and squash, is Native American. The menu at Niki's West includes Creole-style shrimp and fish fillets. Tim remembers a time when Niki's West featured enchiladas and tamales.

You'll taste Caribbean and African-American influences at MeeMaw's, a meat-and-three in Macon, Georgia. Alfreda Lockett cooks from family recipes that are over 100 years old, used by her great-grandfather who had a community store and restaurant in Forsyth, Georgia, and her grandparents, sharecroppers who sold tea cakes and cookies from a community store. Her menu includes beef tips with rice, oxtails, blackened fish and shrimp, and Caribbean-inspired chicken fricassee.

Like the Greek immigrant Hontzopolous family two generations earlier, Lockett is using her heritage—and everything she knows—to build a business, involving her entire family in it, and weaving her influence into the fabric of Southern cuisine via meat-and-three. Her husband Richard smokes the meats for MeeMaw's, and her daughters help when the tiny mom-and-pop gets packed. She put chitterlings and oxtails on the menu when she first opened two years ago—and now, she can't take them off. "Younger people have a craze over the oxtails. Ages 20 on up. I'm just surprised at how many young people eat them," she said. "Chitterlings, the same. They eat it, they love it. I go through seventy pounds of chitterlings a week, at least." Lockett works in variety based on the seasons and the produce she gets from her cousins' farms.

Tim also sources ingredients from a nearby farmer, Dwight Hamm, who will sometimes show up in front of the restaurant with a flat bed truck full of collard greens nestled under an old comforter. "My farmer dictates our vegetables, which is the beauty of that chalkboard," said he says. "It's seasonal, so at certain times a year we don't have certain things. We don't have squash in January. My customers get a little upset sometimes when we don't have something, but I'm also very loyal to a specific farmer."

While the menu board at Johnny's is intentionally an easy-to-change chalkboard, at Niki's West, the menu board is the kind you see in some old Southern churches—a black background with grooves that hold white plastic letters, and a clear glass door on the front of the case. It's fitting as people come to Niki's West just as faithfully as they do Sunday service.

"If I take one vegetable off the menu, and say ‘I just wanted to try something different,' people would look at me like I'm crazy!' so I just leave it the same," Peter said. He once experimented with a catch-of-the-day. "Matter of fact, two years ago I got some fresh mackerel, which, people don't eat that anymore! They eat catfish. ‘What happened to the catfish?' They wanted to know what happened to the catfish. ‘It'll be back tomorrow, don't worry!' They just get used to certain things and they expect it to be here. That's my crowd."

The menu at Niki's West seems to change a decade at a time, and not because Peter's indulging culinary creativity or a farmer's crop yield. "You know it's interesting, old Southern cooking is somehow different, and it's somehow the same. Frog legs, having breakfast during the night time, that was big back in those days," he says. "America's gone from steak and lobster to chicken fingers. Used to be you got steak and lobster in those days, you felt like you were something. Now, even adults want chicken fingers. What happened? They want chicken without the bone! They want fish fillet instead of whole fish. That was real popular back in those days, a whole meat, a whole fish, a whole snapper. Greek kabobs! No one wants to eat Greek kabobs anymore. Kabobs used to be a big thing. It used to be grandeur, you know, back in the days. And now, nobody wants that. People eat different now. So you have to kinda go with the times."

The other kind of change that Peter and Tim see is perhaps more of a concern than lament for the future of meat-and-threes: Weeknight dining-in is dropping, Peter suspects, due to weeknight activities with kids and fast food. During summer months, Peter says, families come mostly on Saturday nights, where they used to dine in two or three nights a week.

That is what Alfreda Lockett sees happening in Macon, Georgia, with customers at MeeMaw's. "I find parents that, even though they don't have time to cook, come in to get vegetable plates, and they take them home and feed their families with them through the week."

Is takeout the future of meat-and-three? Maybe. A meal with collards will keep in the sauce on the way home, Tim pointed out. The cousins joked about the future of meat-and-three going into meal delivery kits—which isn't far flung. Atlanta-based PeachDish, which offers meal delivery kits with Southern recipes and fresh ingredients sourced from Southern farms, collaborated with Home Grown, a meat-and-three in Atlanta, to create a meal for its subscribers.

For now, though, restaurateurs do see a future. Meat-and-threes, as much as they may change in the 21st century, still offer choice and home cooking. "The reason these restaurants go on is because it gives people another option," Lockett said. "I'm not knocking the burger and fast food. Sometimes you want that. But it leaves you hungry in a few hours. I can see them venturing back to wholesome, healthier food. I hear my customers say, ‘I can't finish my plate. I'll take it home and finish it.' It's because real food is satisfying and filling. When you eat a roundabout meal, it stays with you because it's wholesome."

For a true Greek and Three plate, we asked Tim Hontzas at Johnny's to share his favorite recipes from his collection. Written in his style, these recipes may not be like the ones you see in traditional cookbooks or magazines, but, remember, this food is about cooking with your soul and intuition, not just instructions.

Johnny's Meatloaf
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup minced onion
½ cup diced celery
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
4 lbs. ground chuck beef
¼ cup Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons hot sauce (We use Crystal.)
2 tablespoons chili powder
½ cup apple sauce
4 cups buttery round crackers, crushed
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 ¼ cup Worcestershire
1 (15 ounce) can tomato soup

Melt Butter in a skillet. Carmelize the onions for around 10 minutes. Add garlic, cook for 5 minutes, add celery and cook another 10 minutes. Be very careful not to burn the garlic. Water will come from the celery after about 5 minutes, which will help. Now make a kit. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for the egg and crushed crackers, then cool completely. In a mixer beat the meat and the kit. Incorporate well then gradually add the whole eggs one by one. Once incorporated add crushed crackers. We like to let ours sit overnight to "set up." Scoop into 6oz muffin tins, Bake in a pre-heated oven at 325° for 30 minutes. Serve with Johnny's Ancho Chile BBQ Sauce.

Johnny's Ancho Chile BBQ Sauce
2 cups ketchup
1 cup water
½ cup white vinegar
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup corn syrup
½ cup honey
¼ cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dry mustard

Add all ingredients to sauce pot bring to a simmer for 10 minutes.

Spanakopita - The Hontzas family recipe for a layered Greek-style spinach casserole
2 large yellow onions, fine diced
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
10 lbs. spinach
6 eggs
1 quart crumbled feta cheese
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1lb. Athens Brand phyllo dough
Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Kosher Salt
1 lb. unsalted butter melted

Preheat oven to 325°. Caramelize onions in a skillet with olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste, then cool. Wilt spinach in ¼ cup melted butter, rough chop and press out excess water. Whisk eggs and mix together with feta cheese. Mix feta cheese mixture with spinach and onions. Season to taste. Butter the bottom of a 17x12 sheet pan. Add 1 phyllo sheet, repeat process 12 times, buttering each sheet as you go. Add spinach mixture. Add remaining phyllo, buttering each sheet as you go. Chill for 45 minutes. Cut into 2x2 squares before you bake. Bake squares for 1 Hour or till golden brown.

  • Collard Greens
  • 2lbs. chopped collard greens (Do not de-stem.)
  • 2 cups diced yellow onion
  • ¼ lb. unsalted butter
  • 1 gallon chicken or vegetable Stock
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce
  • 2 tablespoons garlic puree
  • 1 tablespoon toasted and ground fennel seed

Caramelize onions in butter. Add garlic and cook for 5 minutes. Add stock and seasonings stirring well. Add collards, simmer until stems are tender, about 1 hour.

Cinnamon-Maple Sweet Potato Puree
5 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled, small dice
1 cup whole milk
¼ lb. unsalted butter
3 cups pure maple syrup
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon white pepper

Steam or boil sweet potatoes. Add all other ingredients. Mix well.