Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

comfort zone

If you’ve known me for a while, you know that I’ve been all over this country. I’ve yet to visit the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and New England, but I’ve been west, north, east, and south, and I’ve fallen in love with every kind of food this country has to offer. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for the deep south.

Maybe it’s my time in New Orleans and my visits to the Carolinas and other parts of the deep south. Something about southern food has always been, well, comforting to me.

My brother and his girlfriend (you may remember them from such meals as our chef’s table evening at Frontier) are in town this weekend, and we wanted to find a good place we’d all enjoy. There’s a place with pretty high ratings just down the street from my favorite barbecue joint in the city, and I’ve heard a lot about it, so we made reservations at The Southern.

The food they serve is exactly what you’d expect from a place with a name like that: Southern classics. Fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, fried chicken, pimento cheese, and pork chops. Some of my favorite things on earth.

We sat at a table in the back of their outdoor patio, and ordered whiskey shots. My brother and I ordered a beer (I don’t know why he felt compelled to have a Mexican beer, but I ordered a Louisiana classic–Abita Restoration Pale Ale, which was Abita’s first new beer after Katrina swept through the region), and Michonne and Veronica ordered what M called “Manna from heaven:” A maple bacon manhattan. With a full slice of bacon in it. Spectacular.

We ordered about half the menu. Two sides and an appetizer: Skillet cornbread. Southern cooked greens. Fried green tomatoes.

The tomatoes were awesome. Hot and sweet, with a perfect breading. The goat cheese, greens, and strawberries added a subtle savoriness that made it the perfect starter.

My brother ordered one of my favorite things in the world: Andouille gumbo. This was the best gumbo I’ve had since visiting Dooky Chase in New Orleans. Spicy, thick, perfectly salty, and thickened with okra. I’m a file’ guy, but this was perfect.

Veronica ordered the swordfish and grits. While I never had her fish, the grits were some of the best I’ve ever had. Only Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston, SC, have made better.

Michonne ordered what the menu dubbed “The Piggly Wiggly.” A thick-cut pork chop with a spicy barbecue sauce. It was amazing. Tender, juicy, and awesome.

We all have a food item that eludes us. Mine is a stew that I had once in Kentucky called Burgoo. I’ve been looking for it for a decade, and when I saw that The Southern served it, I knew I had to have it. Normally, Burgoo is made with canned vegetables and squirrel meat, and it isn’t usually on menus. It’s usually made for community events like elections and fairs. Since there isn’t much demand for squirrel in this town, the Southern makes it with pork shoulder and beef shank, as well as sweet corn, okra, a couple confit cherry tomatoes, and lima beans. And an au jus that was poured tableside.

This was far superior to the Burgoo I had at that street fair in Lexington. The meat was falling apart and the vegetables added to the smooth texture and perfect flavor. I’ll be getting this again.

I love southern cooked greens, and these may have been the best I’ve had. The presence of cayenne gave it a swift kick, and the bacon balanced the spice. As for the cornbread, it came with butter and honey, but needed neither. I could have eaten this all night.

We decided to end the night with dessert. Ty and V ordered the cheese plate, which included one of the best blue cheeses I’ve ever had (it was a Louisiana blue cheese), and we ordered the blackberry cobbler. It was not overly sweet and the crust was perfect.

The Southern is also involved in a pair of other ventures: A food truck that serves their awesome macaroni and cheese, as well as a brick-and-mortar offshoot of the food truck, which I’ve visited several times. They serve literally a dozen variations of macaroni and cheese, from New Mexico green chile to pulled chicken with blue cheese and buffalo sauce.

The atmosphere, we remarked several times, was very comfortable. We felt like we were in a backyard somewhere in the south, surrounded by a wood fence. Our service was excellent, and we never once felt rushed or impatient.

Georgia-born chef Cary Taylor has a big winner here, and there’s no sign of him losing momentum. Everything he’s done in Chicago has been successful. Between the dinner menu, the awesome brunch menu, other special events The Southern has every week, and the food truck and mac and cheese store, we will make several more trips to our little piece of the deep south.

Rating: Food Porn

The Southern is at 1840 W. North Avenue in Bucktown, and The Southern Mac and Cheese Store is at 60 E. Lake Street in the Loop.

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