I walked into Dame's Chicken & Waffles (dameschickenwaffles.com) in Durham last week expecting the usual: a gussied-up homemade waffle with a plump piece of fried chicken perched atop. And I got it. The pleasantly unexpected part of the meal, however, came in a typical porcelain side dish as a typical Southern side: Collard greens, kicked up with red pepper flakes and cooked to perfection, the stems still slightly firm and leaves wilted just enough to soothe the palate into a familiar comfort zone. They almost stole the show, free of gimmicks, just tasty as they should be.
The next morning I flew to New York City, where I wouldn't dare order collards, even as Southern gourmet now features prominently in every trendy Brooklyn restaurant scene and hipsters suddenly swoon with new cravings for pie and biscuits. It made me realize that the cuisine we've cultivated here in the South—as buzzworthy as it has become—is truly worth celebrating.
Top mentions in the world of epicures pepper our food culture. Most recently, Bon Appétit magazine featured a spread titled "The Dixie Pantry: Our Favorite Southern Food Products." The shelves in the photographs were stocked with local favorites, including Big Spoon Roasters of Durham (bigspoonroasters.com), pitched for its wildflower honey and local North Carolina peanuts, and Cackalacky spice sauce, the sweet potato-based super sauce (cackalacky.com). The tiny town of Saxapahaw got a nod in The New York Times travel section in an article devoted to the eclectic, local food offerings at Saxapahaw General Store (saxgenstore.com) and the Eddy Pub (theeddypub.com).
Notable restaurants such as Crook's Corner, the Magnolia Grill and Mama Dip's gained fame long ago. Meet-and-Three's, as featured in Emily Wallace's Big Bite blog series for the Indy, are examples of down-home flair we've grown up with. Now chefs running food trucks with Southern food inherent in their blood are making their home-cooked meals mobile.
Will and Pop's, celebrated for their grilled cheese and local, fresh ingredients, has started a Saturday brunch menu featuring Southern bread pudding French toast. (Find them parked outside of Fullsteam Brewery.) Olde North State BBQ hit the road last year with North Carolina pulled pork and a fried pork tenderloin so enormous, you'd have thought it sizzled right off of grandma's storied cast iron pan. Fixings include hushpuppies, fried okra and a vegetable of the day. The Humble Pig, a new barbecue truck out of Raleigh, hopes to be ready by spring.
A true Southern cook bears a competitive streak. Perhaps that's why the Carolina Inn has challenged seven local chefs to a Shrimp-n-Grits Throwdown (carolinainn.com/events-throwdown.php). On Feb. 25, the following chefs will show off their best shrimp and grits: Jimmy Real of Carolina Crossroads Restaurant and Bar, Vimala Rajendran of Vimala's Curryblossom Café, Trey Cleveland of Top of the Hill, Bret Jennings of Elaine's on Franklin, Adam Rose of Il Palio, Adam Cobb of Glasshalfull and Jeremy Blankenship of Tyler's Tap Room. Tickets for the live competition can be purchased online, with a portion of the proceeds going to TABLE, a nonprofit focusing on child hunger in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
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