The biscuit gleams. A solid spoonful of butter rests precariously at the edge of a slab of chicken and doughy bread, its artery-coating goodness disintegrating unabashedly onto the plate.
It’s the first bite to go.
Pies ‘n’ Thighs’ chicken biscuit ($5), doused in Frank’s RedHot, honey, and butter, is the value star of the Brooklyn, N.Y., hole-in-the-wall restaurant’s Southern-fried menu. Tucked in a corner amid the happening Williamsburg neighborhood, the cozy diner keeps up a constant stream of business, from 8 a.m. breakfast to midnight snacks.
And business is booming. Wheatgrass smoothies and raw food vegetarians still have their place in the culinary circle, but the rising star in New York City is Southern fare, dished out in all its heart-stopping glory.
Just down the street, Charleston native George Weld’s Egg attracts international acclaim serving South Carolina-ground Anson Mills grits and country ham. Across the bridge, country cuisine toys with upscale at Peels, a newly opened two-story restaurant on the Lower East Side with a menu (and price scale) more fitting for Manhattan. With names like Seersucker and the Commodore, new restaurants continue to jump on the Southern food bandwagon, joining N.Y.C. stalwarts like the two-decade old Brother Jimmy’s BBQ.
“It’s sort of nerve-wracking thinking you’re part of a trend. You hope that you’re a part of something more substantial,” says Egg’s Weld. “I think it’s going to last. Southern food is the only real rooted food culture we have in this country. It seems like a really stable, traditional thing.”
Egg opened in 2005, ahead of the curve, but it’s hardly the first case of Southern cooking in Gotham. Harlem was long a bastion of country fried steak, butter beans, and collard greens, although gentrification is wiping out the former soul food capital of New York. Fortunately, the newcomers offer an array of Deep South specialties, some at prices akin to a pickled pig’s foot in Harlem.
Only the duck hash (braised duck leg with potatoes, green onions, and two eggs) tops the $10 mark on Egg’s breakfast menu. The biscuits and gravy, at $9, is a slathering of pork sausage and mushroom grout over a homemade buttermilk biscuit. The country ham biscuit ($8.50) could quite possibly top anything we’ve tasted south of the Mason-Dixon line. Alongside a dollop of Anson Mills grits, Kentucky’s famous Col. Bill Newsome country ham is generously coated with Grafton cheddar, then smeared with homemade fig jam and lovingly sandwiched between an oh-so-perfectly-moist-and-fluffy biscuit. Heaven couldn’t duplicate the mash-up of sweet and salty between jam and country ham — it’s perfectly serene, and the first of many New York surprises.
Egg’s founder, Weld, moved to Charleston from Virginia in the 10th grade (his brother, Richard, is the driving force behind semi-local band A Decent Animal). Five years ago, he began cooking breakfast at a diner that specialized in hot dogs. Before long, Egg became the main course.
“I moved to New York with no intentions of doing food. I sort of fell into it,” says Weld. “I’d get so homesick when I was at work, when I was cooking this food and listening to music, but at the same time, it kind of let me feel like I was home in a way.”
Pies ‘n’ Thighs’ roots are more unconventional. The three co-owners grew up in Boston, Connecticut, and New Jersey, but started cooking fried chicken and pulled pork in a dingy bar near an overpass, under the tutelage of a Georgia-native cook friend. After the Department of Health shut them down, the trio struck out on their own, establishing their current (A-grade) digs and a menu that ranges from chicken and waffles to the fried catfish box.
For an appetizer, Pies ‘n’ Thighs tart, not-too-sweet mint limeade ($3) mingled oddly but pleasantly with the soft, extra creamy mac and cheese ($4) — no egg and baking pan here. Creamed spinach, collards, and baked beans ($10 for three sides) all stood up well to their Southern contemporaries, but the thick, cold pudding of the banana cream pie ($4.50) with a super-sweet and crunchy crust left an impression second only to the aforementioned chicken biscuit.
“I think it’s kind of a guilty pleasure. This is such a health backlash,” says co-owner Erika Geldzahler, who says customers often try grits for the first time as if it’s a foreign delicacy. “It’s really comfortable food that makes you full and makes you happy.”
Geldzahler admits that she and her partners had never eaten pork barbecue before starting Pies ‘n’ Thighs, but their chef friend helped them perfect a recipe that’s been a challenge to maintain while remaining legal — New York bans outdoor smokers.
That regulation hasn’t stopped Brother Jimmy’s BBQ from shredding mountains of the stuff. Establishing itself as the catch-all bar for A.C.C. basketball fans during the ’90s, the Carolina-themed joint has expanded to seven Manhattan locations. Their pulled pork ($16.95 for a platter) is on par with any Southern-based corporate barbecue chain, served with sauces that includes mustard, ketchup, and vinegar bases.
A subway stop away, Peels ups the ante. Prices are higher and portions are smaller, but the payoff is worth the expense. Founded last year by a husband and wife chef team, the former hailing from Statesboro, Ga., the classy digs sit on a corner officially dubbed Joey Ramone Place by a green street sign. Shrimp and grits ($13) are done in the sparse gravy style of Hominy Grill, save one arguably unnecessary addition: a glaring fried egg atop a pile of house-made tasso bacon, shrimp, and the ever-present Anson Mills grits. A Southerner may choose to mingle their egg yolk with their corn, but they also appreciate the option to decline. Greens & Eggs ($11) takes another creative turn, with two poached eggs slid amongst creamed collards and mushrooms.
Even at a fancy dinner, taking a break from biscuits and meaty greens, the South’s influence can’t be avoided in New York these days. At Vinegar Hill House, an upscale nook in the cobblestoned Brooklyn neighborhood of the same name, bone marrow ravioli, oven-roasted octopus, and chicken liver mousse color the menu. And there it is, refusing to lie quiet: the “Red Wattle Country Chop,” a slab of pork over a bed of Anson Mills cheese grits ($25). It was ordered, of course.
“Brooklyn just really wants to be Southern right now,” says Mark Gravel, a sometimes-Charleston-based freelance chef who hosts impromptu “pop-up restaurant” culinary events in New York and San Francisco. “The most popular places in Brooklyn are the ones serving cheap beer and good Southern food that are fun to hang out in.”
Gravel traces the latest trend to 2005, when Egg opened, barbecue restaurants blossomed, and celebrity chef David Chang first served grits and red eye gravy at his Momofuku noodle bar. Although Gravel frequents Pies ‘n’ Thighs and the Commodore for fried chicken, collards, and black-eyed peas, he says that Charleston’s not in danger of being usurped by New York.
“They have nothing on Robert Stehling or Sean Brock,” he says. “Being in Charleston and having the food produced locally — I’d say it’s definitely better.”
Nevertheless, it’s certainly good for Charleston to be mimicked by New York. Egg’s Weld predicts that with Husk, the McCrady’s spinoff focused completely on local, Southern food, Chef Brock’s star will continue to rise. He believes New Yorkers will tire of fried chicken and grits (“they get sick of everything”), but the overall theme will live on, although with less buzz.
“No one really says anything when somebody opens a new Italian restaurant, in New York or anywhere else,” says Weld. “My hunch is that Southern food is going to be the same way.”