Food & Drink

John T. Edge’s Top Ten Dishes of 2013

From boudin that’s gone global to a Caesar that’s all Florida to smoke-kissed chicken with an Alabama shimmer, these 2013 favorites from the hungriest man in the South are a serious helping of Dixie flavor––classic and contemporary

I recently received an invitation to serve as a celebrity judge at the World Food Championships in Las Vegas. “It will be like the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show of food,” said the gentleman on the other end of the line. I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. So he repeated the description. And I throttled a laugh, spit coffee across the room, and politely declined.

For the list that follows, I conjured a different approach. Not a preen-and-prance show, with prizes for best in breed, but a roster of where and what I would tell a friend to eat if he called me on my cell and asked me to declare my favorites, right now. When I sat down to compile that roster, these dishes floated up through the flotsam of stolen menus and crumpled credit card receipts. These tastes resonated, long after I put away my scribbles.

Look closely and you’ll note that three of my favorites hail from San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.—cities that don’t traditionally earn plot points on the Southern map. By including those dishes, I’m not suggesting that the South lacks compelling choices. Instead, I’m declaring that Southern pantries and palates now serve as our nation’s culinary lodestars, inspiring contemporary chefs, inside and outside the region, to take welcome liberties with everything from hush puppies to boudin. gg0713_topten_10

As you travel across the nation, allow me to be your culinary interlocutor. From cazuelas of butter beans and pork, dished at brunch in San Francisco, to chicken-fried rabbit, peddled from a drive-through in Mississippi, there’s not a dog in the bunch. My hope is that these will prove to be the best dishes you eat in 2014.

In no particular order

Whole Roasted Fish with Salsa Verde
Pêche Seafood Grill
New Orleans, LA

Whole hog was last year. Or maybe the year before. Thanks to Pêche, the seafood restaurant that Ryan Prewitt and the crew from Donald Link’s restaurant group recently opened in New Orleans, 2014 will be the year of whole fish. At Pêche, it’s the entrée that elicits head swivels when a waiter parades it through the room.

And who could blame the oglers? One day it’s lane snapper, the next it’s mangrove snapper. Cooked over a wood-fired grill built to recall the style Link and Prewitt glimpsed on research trips to Uruguay and Spain, those snappers get doused in a vinaigrette, made with a mustard-blushed, house-fermented hot sauce. If redfish are running, they get the wood-fired treatment, too, followed by a slosh of salsa verde. No matter what fish hits the grill, it begs your attention when it hits the table. Faced with a whole fish, you make a quick study of its anatomy. You learn to scrape meat from the rib bones in big chunks. You pry sweet nuggets from beneath collarbones. You wrest control of the snout-to-tail phenomenon from the porcine fabulists and claim supremacy for the fish eaters.

Escargot Hush Puppies
Mintwood Place
Washington, DC

Creamy at their core, with a sandpaper crust, these diminutive auburn-hued orbs would be exemplars of the fried-dough art, worthy of comparison to the best fish-house fritters, even if chef Cedric Maupillier had not studded them with chewy hunks of snail. But he did. Those briny bits of marine goodness add another layer of textural complexity.

They also remind me how difficult it is, when sitting at a French restaurant that serves escargots au beurre, to prize a whole snail out of a whorled shell, even when using a pair of forceps and a teensy fork. Served in a rectangular cast-iron skillet, embedded in a nifty wood plank, with a bowl of tarragon aioli for dunking, these cornmeal batter–mantled escargots at this Adams Morgan neighborhood brasserie make for easy and satisfying eating.

Saag Paneer Omelet
Houston, TX

At this swank Indian bakery and café, kitty-corner from an even swanker department store that always seems to display mink stoles, even in the height of summer, Anita Jaisinghani and her crew reinvent breakfast by filtering Texas ingredients through an Indian prism. Stone-ground yellow grits get a toss of cauliflower, a crumble of peanuts, squiggles of yogurt, and a confetti of cilantro. Breakfast tacos come rolled in roti and garnished with chutney. And fried egg sandwiches get built on biscuits and stacked with pebbled and spiced beef keema.

Most important, call for an omelet and you get a skillet-browned envelope of egg, stuffed with downy house-made paneer cubes and pleasantly bitter mustard greens. Served alongside a round of tandoor-fresh potato-and-carrot paratha, a breakfast like this will remind you that India, where cotton flourishes and okra is deified, is our region’s subcontinental sister.

Cortez Wedge
Village Idiot Pizzeria
Cortez, FL

Take a Caesar salad for a walk down a sandy lane, toward a buttonwood-tree-tangled bay on the Gulf Coast of Florida. By the time you reach the end of the pier, where the mullet are jumping and the codgers are fishing, you’ll have a sense of what this salad tastes like.

In the hands of pizzaiolo Joseph Yost, that salad translates as a pizza-oven-charred head of romaine, draped with slices of smoked mullet roe, drizzled with garlicky dressing, flanked by slender strips of pizza crust croutons, served on a tin pizza plate. If you are a fan of the umami funk that anchovies bring to a traditional Caesar, please know that mullet roe, smoked over buttonwood or hickory, gets you all that anchovies deliver, with a lingering taste that recalls a really good smoked Gouda.

White Barbecue Sauce Chicken
Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
Nolensville, TN

All the kids are doing it. At Animal in Los Angeles, Florida natives Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook gild sous-vide-cooked turkey legs with white barbecue sauce. At Underbelly in Houston, Chris Shepherd fries sweetbreads and serves them with a skid mark of white barbecue sauce. Jeremiah Bacon, of the Macintosh in Charleston, South Carolina, pairs his salt cod fritters with a dip-suitable crock of white barbecue sauce.

Born of Decatur, Alabama, where Big Bob Gibson’s has been dunking and swabbing a mayonnaise-based and vinegar-brightened sauce on barbecued chickens since the 1920s, white barbecue sauce looks, at first glance, like ranch dressing. But the stuff that pit master Pat Martin swabs on his chickens—the same stuff now inspiring today’s generation of chefs—is far more assertive. With a heat that catches in the back of your throat, and a thickness that clings to the bird, even as it caramelizes on the grill, it’s the new sauce you need to add to your eating (and cooking) repertoire. Luckily, Martin was willing to share his recipe.

Boudin with Pork and Shrimp
New York, NY

Have you read Robert Olen Butler’s novel A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain? If not, start today. If you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say this dish tastes like that novel reads, which is to say it tastes like what happens when men and women from Vietnam resettle along the Gulf Coast and begin raising pigs, harvesting shrimp, and tending trellised gardens, honing a creolized culture that owes equal debts to Southeast Asia and the southeastern United States.

You already know boudin, that sausage of rice, pork, and spices, beloved in southwestern Louisiana. Rob Newton, the Arkansas-born chef at this bare-bones storefront restaurant in Brooklyn, knows it, too. A veteran traveler to Vietnam, Newton came home from a recent trip convinced that what boudin really needed was an infusion of ground Gulf shrimp, a splash of fish sauce, and a dusting of toasted rice powder. This kind of cooking gives fusion a good name. And a good sausage.

Collards, Bacon, and Edna Lewis Cornbread
The Shed at Glenwood
Atlanta, GA

It has long been vogue to name dishes for celebrities. Peach Melba, which I’m pretty sure no one eats anymore, was named for Australian opera singer Nellie Melba, whom I’m pretty sure no one listens to anymore. On the other hand, Edna Lewis—the Freetown, Virginia, granddaughter of a freed slave, arguably the most influential black chef and food writer to emerge from the South—has not, until now, been properly celebrated with a signature dish.

That’s where Todd Richards, chef at the Shed at Glenwood, comes in. Of late, he’s been baking thin tiles of cornbread that pay homage to Lewis’s 1976 book, The Taste of Country Cooking. And he’s been simmering pots of greens that are ropy with bacon and onions, and topped with slices of vinegar-marinated hard-boiled eggs. As those yolks dissolve into that deep and brothy bowl, and that cornbread crumbles, Lewis’s legacy of farm-focused cookery blossoms for a new generation.

Cazuela of Butter Beans with Chorizo, Bacon, and Eggs
San Francisco, CA

Butter beans are pillows posing as vegetables. Poofy, luxurious things, they gain porcine depth from bacon and sweetness from onions. These idealized versions of the Southern form, served by chef Gonzalo Guzman at this showcase of traditional Mexican cookery, are fat and beige, cooked until they threaten but don’t succumb to implosion. Topped with a crumble of queso fresco and a poached egg, they form the base for the best brunch dish I’ve eaten in years.

When I asked the waitress where those butter beans come from, I expected her to tell me South Georgia. Or the Black Belt of Alabama. Or the North Carolina coastal plain. Instead, she said they source them from a grower who tends a patch between two landing strips at the airport in Monterrey, Mexico. I’m not sure whether she was toying with me or not. But I desperately want to believe her.

Fried Rabbit Plate
Southern Fried Rabbit
Columbia, MS

In white-tablecloth restaurants across the region, I’ve eaten bacon-wrapped saddles of rabbit, pepper-jelly-glazed rabbit livers, and Easter specials of jelly-bean-garnished rabbit thighs. All have been good. But none have been better than the eight-dollar plates of fried rabbit sold from the drive-through at this former dairy bar across from Cheepo Depot Mattress and Furniture.

The owner, Stacey Morgan, began frying rabbits not long after her husband took a job as a meat inspector and came home one day to report that Rabbit-man Farms, down the road in Sandy Hook, Mississippi, was doing a brisk business. “If they’re processing that many rabbits,” Eddie Morgan told her, “somebody must be eating a lot of rabbits.” Besides plate lunches of delicately crusted bunny, ham-flecked butter beans, and mounds of white rice drenched in brown gravy, Southern Fried Rabbit serves fried rabbit po’boys, and you can also snag a foam bowl of gumbo, rich with chicken, sausage, and shrimp bobbing in a roux-thickened, chocolate-colored broth.

Beauregarde Blueberry Pie
Hog & Hominy
Memphis, TN

The curd is dense. And dark. So purple it’s almost black. Made from pounded hazelnuts and pulverized graham crackers, the crust, on the other hand, is loose, seemingly held together by softened butter and the will of Alex Willis, the sous chef at Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer’s playful Italian-Southern hybrid. Faced with a surfeit of blueberries, he conceived this celebration of summer fruit.

Loops of candied orange peel, scattered across the surface, bestow a welcome brightness. Piled high, they call to mind a free-form sculptural tribute to a ruined Slinky, but taste a far sight better. Asked to explain the name, Willis will tell you the story of Violet Beauregarde, the Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory character who chewed a defective piece of bubble gum, swelled into a purple blueberry, and got rolled away to be juiced by a band of Oompa Loompas.

The Perennial
Popeyes Fried Chicken
Fast food chicken worth slowing down for


Look in the kitchen trash can of that woman or man you know to be a great fried chicken cook. Dig deep. Under those cabbage leaves she peeled away before hand-chopping the head for coleslaw. Beneath that bag of flour he mixed with buttermilk before baking a batch of cat-head biscuits. That flash of orange you spy is a Popeyes box. Let’s face it: Everybody in the South cheats. And when they cheat, they cheat with Popeyes, the Louisiana-born chain that does right by legs and thighs, cooks red beans down to a righteous legume lava flow, and employs drive-through clerks who know how to keep secrets.