By Bob Glaze
I started to visit the South while working in banking at First Chicago many years ago and spent a good amount of time in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. I still remember the tastes of the dishes that I tried for the first time on many business trips to the region. They made a very lasting impression! I have since attended the Southern Food Writing Conference twice in Knoxville, TN and really enjoyed learning about the history of Southern food and traditions of the region.
In the past, I loved trying pimento cheese sandwiches with a thick mix of mayonnaise, sharp cheddar cheese, and pimentos. Even more memorable was trying South Carolina She-Crab Soup, a rich soup, similar to bisque, made of milk or heavy cream, crab or fish stock, Atlantic blue crab meat, and crab roe along with a small amount of dry sherry added as it is plated. There is nothing better! A close second is the classic shrimp and grits from the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. The rich, creamy grits are still one of my favorite tastes. I remember buying my copy of Charleston Receipts, the popular cookbook by the Junior League of Charleston, first published in 1950 and containing over 750 recipes. I still have mine today!
I also love trying soul food from collard greens, tasty fried green tomatoes, and black-eyed peas to a rich mac and cheese. Southern fried chicken is the best as is great barbecue from pulled pork to ribs and brisket. Try to find restaurants that offer meat and three. This tradition gives you a protein along with three sides! Many times, this type of meal also comes with cornbread and sweet tea, which are also Southern food staples.
Spending most of my time in the South in New Orleans, I fell in love with the rich Oysters Rockefeller at Galatoire’s in the French Quarter. This fine-dining, century-old institution serves French-Creole fare in upscale space. It is well worth having to wear a jacket for dinner in the classic downstairs dining room with its mirrored walls and elegant servers! The Oysters Rockefeller consists of baked oysters on the half shell along with butter, golden-brown bread crumbs, and chopped spinach along with several spices. I really prefer oysters cooked this way rather than raw.
I also love Crawfish Étouffée from Antoine’s, a dish found in both Cajun and Creole cuisine. It is a mild, thick stew typically served over rice with the small shellfish on top. I also crave the richness of pecan pie, a thick peach cobbler, creamy banana pudding, and traditional buttermilk biscuits.
You must go to Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter, which has been a local institution since1862. Specialties include their café au laits with chicory coffee and beignets. Beignets are squares of dough that are fried and then covered in powdered sugar. The taste is incredible, but I learned the hard way that you shouldn’t eat them while wearing a navy blue suit and tie as trying to wipe off the powdered sugar can be very challenging and very messy!!
Southern Food in Chicago
While most of us are not traveling these days, there are some great options in Chicago to enjoy some Southern cooking and soul food. My top recommendations include:
Valois is located at 1518 E 53rd St. It is a counter-service/cafeteria-style restaurant featuring comfort food, BBQ, breakfast items, and desserts. It was reportedly President Barack Obama’s go-to place when he was in Hyde Park. They even have a menu on the wall listing his favorite dishes. I loved the casual atmosphere! I popped in for dessert after my brunch down the street and thought the coconut pie and the rice pudding were great.
Virtue Restaurant & Bar is in the former A10 restaurant space at 1462 E. 53rd in Hyde Park. I went for brunch with friends and thought the experience was great. I loved the food and service. We all had the fried green tomatoes and shrimp which came with a remoulade sauce and an egg. The biscuits and the cheese grits were also great. I will definitely go back and thought brunch was the perfect time to go. Esquire Magazine named it one of the Best New Restaurants in America 2019!
I also love Peach’s Restaurant at 4652 S. King Drive, just west of Hyde Park. It features biscuits, pancakes, waffles, omelets, and Southern specialties. It is a great place for breakfast or brunch.
North of Peach’s in Bronzeville is a great recent find Pearl’s Place at 3901 S. Michigan Ave. This is a classic white-tablecloth restaurant serving Southern/soul food classics such as fried chicken & catfish. I went with my assistant who is from Memphis, TN. She loved the fried catfish! I really enjoyed the shrimp and grits along with collard greens. In addition to their menu, they also have a buffet featuring breakfast, lunch, and dinner items. I highly recommend the experience.
Big Jones is known for its Southern specialties for brunch, lunch, and dinner at 5347 N. Clark. On my first visit, I enjoyed their shrimp and grits for Sunday brunch. I went back again and had another good experience enjoying the Simple Southern Breakfast with two eggs, smoked ham, a biscuit and grits. It is very popular, so book your reservation online before you go.
For a fun Chicago experience don’t miss Heaven on Seven located at 111 N. Wabash on the 7th floor. They feature Cajun-Creole cuisine in a fun, casual atmosphere. You can enjoy gumbo, crab cakes, an etouffee of the day, po’boys, fried oysters, catfish, and more. I just went back and loved the shrimp and grits in a tomato gravy. The peach pie was also perfect. It is a hidden gem!
At 1415 N. Wood, just east of N. Milwaukee, is Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods, a funky space featuring New Orleans cuisine. In 2019, Chef Brian Jupiter was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef Great Lakes. I recommend it for Saturday or Sunday brunch, when they have live music. I had the Louisiana Grand Slam, which included scrambled eggs, a choice of meat, a buttered biscuit, fruit of the day, breakfast potatoes, and grits. It was all great! It was topped off with a yummy beignet! My friends loved the biscuit and gravy and the fried chicken and pancakes.
The Delta at 1745 W. North Ave. is a fun, casual spot known for its craft cocktails and Southern cooking including catfish, fried chicken, and other cuisine from the Mississippi Delta region.
Another great recommendation is Luella’s Southern Kitchen at 4609 N. Lincoln. Chef Darnell Reed named the restaurant after his Grandmother Luella. Her influences can be seen in his traditional southern dishes from shrimp to chicken gumbo.
Sorry if you gain some weight based on my recommendations, but you will love the experience!
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