The Southern-food restaurant South identifies itself so closely with fried chicken that its website, weheartfriedchicken.com, opens to a crispy, golden and page-dominating glamour shot of stacked poultry.
Perhaps South, a 5-month-old restaurant in Sacramento’s Southside Park neighborhood, should widen its emphasis.
Its fried chicken, offering a muted crunch and intriguing hints of citrus throughout, is exceptional. But it’s not the best thing on the menu, and on one of my visits, it arrived lukewarm alongside other, piping-hot items, suggesting the chicken had been sitting awhile.
South’s biggest standouts are its burger and hush puppies. The burger starts with expertly seasoned ground chuck, topped with melted havarti cheese and bacon confit and dressed with aioli, leek-shallot jam, house-made pickles and, finally, shredded lettuce that takes a brief tumble in South’s mustard-based barbecue sauce before joining its mates.
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It’s a lot for a soft brioche bun to handle. The bread meets the challenge with the same assurance with which its perfectly proportioned contents hang together flavor-wise. You don’t taste individual ingredients so much as a unified, satisfying blend of smoke and tanginess.
The hush puppies are unforgettable. I will reveal why later, because I like building suspense around fried cornbread balls usually considered culinary afterthoughts.
Forethought clearly went into South, where the food, though inconsistent, shows flashes of brilliance. Married owners N’Gina and Ian Kavookjian are restaurant-service veterans (she was assistant manager at Ella; he ran a Cafe Bernardo) who previously owned the short-lived Eight American Bistro in Granite Bay. They bill their new venture as “tradition reinvented,” emphasizing fresh ingredients within a cuisine historically known for its freewheeling use of lard.
Chef Rachel Kelley, on board for South’s opening in December, since has departed and has not been replaced. But South still delivers on its two promised elements, history (N’Gina’s parents are from Mississippi, and South’s fried chicken and other dishes come from family recipes) and innovation (the burger).
Familiarity and discovery coexist in most aspects of South. Housed in the former Cheung Hing Co. grocery store on 11th Street near T, the restaurant feels like a place you happen upon. Signage is minimal, and a storefront exterior boasts picture windows but otherwise blends in with its mostly residential block.
South’s white-walled interior lacks, on first glance, the comforting quality of its food. But the more time you spend there, the more you appreciate its subtly inviting details. They start with those big windows, through which natural light pours into the restaurant.
A worn American flag hangs sideways over a beat-up servers table holding bottles of fried chicken’s favored companion, Crystal hot sauce. Hanging light fixtures modeled after bare light bulbs, and a high shelf containing pottery and aged hardcover books, evoke a rural South of the past.
One thinks of William Faulkner, Alice Walker, whistle-stop cafes and Sunday dinners at home with a whole mess of food, washed down by sweet tea – which is on South’s menu. So is canned Rainier beer, Southern food’s spiritual if not geographical kin.
Diners order at the counter. South follows the Bernardo service model down to the playing cards that match order to diner. This means that ordering a mess of food entails receiving much of it at once, though South’s friendly servers hold off before bringing dessert and will stagger other courses on request.
One need not order multiple items to fill up at South, where portions are generous and the price point attractive. The $13 fried-chicken plate holds a breast, thigh and leg plus kicky kale greens and airy buttermilk biscuit. White and dark meat are tender and flavorful throughout, thus bucking a belief instilled by a lifetime of chicken eating that the fun ends midway into the breast.
Were it not for the tepid-temperature experience, South’s chicken might reach the fried-chicken-elite status of Mama Kim Eats on Del Paso Boulevard. South’s burger, though, delights without qualifier, and comes, for the same price as the chicken, with a heap of perfectly salted, fresh-tasting shoestring fries.
Sides and starters are substantial as well. The fried-green tomato appetizer consists of four cornmeal-crusted slices. Parsley, diced sweet peppers and Parmesan enhance a Southern staple that usually relies just on salt, pepper and tomato tartness to maintain classic status.
The mac ’n’ cheese delivers appealing hints of sharpness within a creamy, smooth texture, its visible ribbons of cheese thinning but never breaking as they travel, by fork, from bowl to mouth.
Not to sound too cornball, but try the cornball. South’s hush puppy features a crisp-fried outer layer – savory and redolent of onion but also suggestive of caramelized desserts – that immediately wipes one’s memory of the bits of dry kitchen sponge other restaurants pass off as hush puppies. The ball’s lightly salted, cakelike interior enhances a sense of having a treat, of the hush puppy as bon-bon.
The dish comes with a green-tomato jam that is not vital to its enjoyment but is worth a dip, to appreciate how the jam alternately spikes and tempers the ball’s flavor.
Taking a dish over the top via added condiment – or not – is a diner’s prerogative. So it disappoints that South’s under-seasoned gumbo makes awakening by hot sauce mandatory instead of voluntary. The andouille sausage within the gumbo holds plenty of heat and flavor that unfortunately does not transmit to the rest of the dish.
Sausage, this time a crisp-outside, juicy-inside hot link, also highlighted South’s barbecue platter. But the brisket was so overcooked that none of the three tasty sauces served with the platter (mustard-based and “hot Memphis” barbecue sauces, along with jalapeño jam) could rescue it.
The Kavookjians show admirable restraint by keeping Mason jars – over-popularized during the past several years’ speakeasy-artisanal-cocktails-pickled-everything wave – to a minimum. The restaurant uses them mostly for desserts such as its strawberry-shortcake parfait.
South’s dessert winner is a plated pecan pie, the filling of which is more creamy than gelatinous and avoids the cloying sweetness often associated with this dish.
South records enough misses with its hits that it could be Scarlett O’Hara’s love life. Or Scarlett Johansson’s acting career. But the hits’ proximity to best-in-town status sets South apart from other young restaurants still finding their legs. Though a year-end, top-10 hush puppy list seems unlikely, South might inspire one.
The food, warm atmosphere and unusual location at South combine for an experience that feels original. Photos by Paul Kitagaki Jr.Carla Meyer The Sacramento Bee
- 2005 11th St., Sacramento
- (916) 382-9722
- Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday
- Beverage options: A short wine list covers the basics. Beer selections include Rainier in a tall can and rotating New Helvetia beers on tap.
- Vegetarian friendly: Yes
- Gluten-free options: No
- Noise level: Moderate
- Ambiance: Housed in a century-old, tin-roofed building, South exudes a rough-hewn elegance that turns magical in the early evening, when sunlight coming through the restaurant’s big windows creates a glow. Restaurant owners Ian and N’Gina Kavookjian also recently opened a private dining room, within the same complex at 11th and T streets, carrying over the restaurant’s spare, rural-South design scheme.
The restaurant’s food – which at its finest reaches best-in-town contender status – warm atmosphere and unlikely location combine to create a sense of something original.
Though there was a temperature issue on one of our visits, South’s fried chicken is a standout. The burger was divine both times we tried it. The excellent hush puppies defy the fried cornball’s reputation as a mere sidekick. Other dishes were underseasoned (gumbo) or dry (brisket, three-cheese grits).
South’s efficient staff takes food orders only at the counter but follows up with some table service, bringing condiments and extra utensils on request.
Portions are generous, yet every entree but one (the seafood “hot pot”) costs less than $20. Meal-size salads are $13 or less.