Fork in the Road

A Breed Apart

Despite its L.A. Address, Animal does right by the South

Photo: Ryan Robert Miller

Animal chefs Jon Shook (left) and Vinny Dotolo.

All you people eat is fried stuff. Fatty stuff. Porky stuff. Bad-for-you stuff. Over the years, I have often argued against those outlander observations about the foods of my people and place. When it has suited me, I have also embraced them as cultural mantras.

Of late, a number of Southern tribute restaurants have opened beyond the region. Most bore me. Their fried-chicken- and-deviled-egg-studded menus are predictable. Ditto their predilections toward calling sweet tea the “house wine of the South.” A few, however, get it right.

At Hungry Mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chef Barry Maiden interprets the foods of his Appalachian youth, like country ham and sorghum syrup. He also acknowledges his berth by way of dishes like grilled Rhode Island squid tossed with hominy. Instead of operating a theme park homage to the land he left behind, Maiden manages to straddle the South and New England, the past and the present.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I ate dinner at Animal, where the young chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo serve excellent fried, fatty, and porky foods. At this minimalist restaurant—where the tabletops are bare, the wineglasses are stubby, and the speakers boom with the grunge-soul sounds of the Black Keys—they get the South right because they don’t really try.

The foie gras-topped biscuit with sausage gravy.

Photo: Ryan Robert Miller

The foie gras-topped biscuit with sausage gravy.

My friend Rob, who lives in L.A. but has roots in Virginia, described the restaurant as dyspeptic. That word has two definitions. One references indigestion. Based on the relish with which Rob consumed a caramel-toned pork belly sandwich topped with coleslaw, and a jumble of deep-fried, buffalo-sauced coins cut from a pig tail, I believe that he was saying, instead, that Animal is an ill-tempered restaurant.

He was correct, of course. Animal is dyspeptic, in the best sort of way. Like a juke joint where the walls are a patchwork of particleboard and newcomers are welcomed to the dance floor with gratuitous bumps and grinds, the restaurant is at once unwelcoming and deliriously seductive.
So is the food. That night, Shook and Dotolo served a barnyard of offal and offal-derived dishes, including veal brains, veal sweetbreads, lamb necks, beef marrow bones, and Spam. If those various bites of livestock hadn’t been so good—so deftly balanced, so bright with acid, so well bolstered by the judicious use of green vegetables—they would have recalled stunt foods, the sort of dishes I order once, in the name of conquest, but to which I never return.

The food I ate that night wasn’t “Southern.” But the sensibilities that informed my meal were. Whole-hog cookery got its due in a dish of shredded pig ears, crowned with a sunny-side egg. Hunter-inspired creativity yielded a plate of crispy rabbit legs. Meanwhile the calorie-and-cholesterol-obsessed got their comeuppance by way of a biscuit, topped with sausage gravy and a lobe of foie gras.

Upon returning home, I learned that Shook and Dotolo are both natives of Florida. That helped make sense of some of what I tasted and some of what I intuited. And it helped me understand why, when they opened a new restaurant, Son of a Gun, they included a schnitzel of alligator, served with hearts of palm and a spritz of orange.