The Best Eats of the American South

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To say I was looking forward to Southern food would be an understatement. I literally planned the whole #SouthUSA trip around what I would be eating! Southern food is rooted in so much tradition and has so many geographic influences, from Africa to France to the Caribbean to Ireland, and I was so excited to finally try it for myself.

Traditional Southern food also has the reputation of not being so healthy. While you can eat healthy-ish in the South if you’re committed and have iron willpower, traditional food here is very heavy. Lots of butter, lots of cream, lots of fried food. If you’re trying to eat healthy, I recommend that you indulge with one traditional meal per day, ideally at lunch, and make up for it with a salad at dinner.

But if you’re happy to dive into the culinary goodness of the South, your taste buds will thank you. The food here was just as good as I imagined.

Here are my favorite food experiences, from New Orleans to Charleston:

Beignets at Cafe du Monde

Beignets at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, Louisiana

Trust me — this is the ONLY way to begin a perfect day in New Orleans. Cafe du Monde is one of the culinary icons of New Orleans and the menu is so short that it’s printed on the menus. Coffee. Beignets. That’s it.

These aren’t just donuts. They’re more akin to the fried dough you get a theme park — but better. More flavorful. Square. And a single serving includes three beignets! Believe me, you’ll need to stop yourself from going back multiple times each day.

Just know that you will get powdered sugar all over yourself. This might not be the time to eat black.

Serving of three beignets, $4; cafe au lait, $2.

Alligator Cheesecake

Shrimp and Alligator Sausage Cheesecake and Fried Chicken at Jacques-Imo’s in New Orleans

Jacques-Imo’s shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake was by far the most unique dish I tried throughout the South — and one of the most delicious. I was ready to eat another after finishing the first!

Jacques-Imo’s is such a cool, hip restaurant in the Uptown area, far from the French Quarter (take the streetcar, but you’ll need to take a cab during Mardi Gras). It’s colorful and friendly.

Accoutrements include this cute cornbread:

Jacques'Imo's Cornbread

And the salad, which comes with an adorable fried oyster!

Jacques'Imo's Salad

Next came the fried chicken, which was highly recommended by the staff. They think it’s the best fried chicken in the city, the waitress told me.

Jacques'Imo's Fried Chicken

As for that chicken? So much juice. So much flavor. I’ve never had a fried chicken that moist in all my life!

Jacques-Imo’s was my favorite high-end restaurant of the trip, and it’s well worth the journey to Uptown New Orleans. Make sure to head there earlier and check out the cute shops around the restaurant.

Alligator cheesecake, $9; fried chicken, $18.95 including dark or $19.95 for all white meat.

Mother's Ferdi Special

Ferdi Special at Mother’s in New Orleans

What is a Ferdi Special? A baked ham sandwich with roast beef, debris, and gravy. What is debris? Pieces of meat that fall off the roasting meat into the gravy.

If a sandwich is capable of making me cry, this would be it. I never dreamed that this combination of ingredients would work so well together and melt so well together into a pile of delicious glory.

Mother’s Restaurant is a casual restaurant in the central business district, around the corner from the French Quarter. You’ll have to wait in line to order food, sit down, and your food is brought to you. Tipping is strictly forbidden here.

And the Bloody Mary here is one of the best I have EVER had anywhere.

Ferdi Special, $11.75 for a regular or $10.25 for a 2/3 portion. Bloody Mary, $7.

Half Shell Oysters

Broiled Oysters at Half Shell Oyster House in Biloxi, Mississippi

I am an oyster aficionado and considered myself a purist — raw or nothing! — until I had these incredible oysters at Half Shell Oyster House in Biloxi.

I’ve said a lot about them already, so I won’t reiterate it — but these oysters, particularly the signature Half Shell oysters broiled with garlic and parmesan, were the best oysters that I have ever had in my life. What a marvel, and what a find in Half Shell.

12 broiled oysters, $18.

The Shed Pulled Pork

Pulled Pork Sandwich at The Shed in Ocean Springs, Mississippi

It’s rare to find a place that does both food and design SO well. The Shed is one of those examples, and it’s no surprise that there is now a Food Network TV show based around this restaurant!

The pulled pork sandwich is their most famous item on the menu, and it will blow your mind. The pork falls apart so easily and beautifully.

The Shed

The Shed is made from salvaged objects and random objets d’art found in junkyards and at the end of driveways. But you can obviously tell that someone with an eye for design pulled the whole place together. It’s well worth a visit if you’re driving through coastal Mississippi! In fact, I met a man who travels often between Pensacola and New Orleans for work and he told me he always stops at The Shed en route.

Pulled pork sandwich, $7; jumbo pulled pork sandwich, $9.

Throwed Rolls at Lamberts

Throwed Rolls and Fried Frog Legs at Lambert’s Cafe in Foley, Alabama

Throwed rolls! Really, they’re a thing. In this restaurant, if you want a roll, it won’t come on a plate — it will be thrown at you by a designated roll-thrower.

Lambert’s Cafe was first founded in Missouri more than 70 years ago. Today, bizarrely, there are two Missouri restaurants and one here in the small town of Foley, Alabama. Lambert’s features pure Southern home cooking, and a LOT of it.

Servers come around with apple butter for the rolls.

Throwed Rolls

I have to point out that this was an extraordinarily difficult place to shoot photos. It’s dark inside, and the roll-throwing is an action you don’t want to miss. My photos are all so grainy due to the ISO, even with noise reduction; this makes me want to get a camera that can handle low light better!

The roll-thrower threw me a throwed roll of my own.

Throwed Roll

The roll throwers aren’t aggressive at all — they won’t whip it at you or make it difficult for you to catch. It’s just a fun, friendly thing that they do.

As for the main dish, I had the fried frog legs. “If you haven’t had them in a while, you need to try these!” reads the menu. And they were lovely — gently fried with a great seasoning..

Deep Fried Frog Legs

In addition to the entrees, Lambert’s offer “pass-arounds” — servers walk around announcing, “Fried potatoes and onions…fried potatoes and onions…” and serve you a generous portion if you’re interested. They’re free in addition to entrees and are unlimited.

At Lambert’s more than anywhere else, I felt like I was DEEP in the South. Foley isn’t remotely a tourist area, and it took an hour to get there from Pensacola. I was surrounded by locals. (A quick glimpse at the website shows that famous people do drop into Lambert’s every now and then, mostly country singers.) If you want a very local experience in the South, this is where to go.

Frog legs with throwed rolls and pass-arounds, $15.99.

Key Lime Piea

Key Lime Pie at The Shrimp Shack in Seaside, Florida

You can’t go to Florida without trying some key lime pie! And the panhandle is the perfect place to sample it.

The Shrimp Shack has a lighter, creamier pie rather than a dense, tart one. It’s smooth and the perfect dish to eat on the sun in the far-too-picture-perfect village of Seaside.

Key lime pie, about $5.

Mrs. Wilkes

Lunch at Mrs. Wilkes’s Boarding House in Savannah, Georgia

Savannah is a city steeped in ritual and tradition, and no place exemplifies that better than Mrs. Wilkes’s Boarding House, arguably the most famous eatery in town (and definitely the most famous one not owned by Paula Deen).

Mrs. Wilkes

Every weekday, people line up starting at 9:30 AM for the first seating at 11:00 AM. People are welcomed in, sat at large communal tables and fed family-style — after the food is blessed, of course. Afterwards, you clear your plate and pay a flat $18 per person, cash only, at the door.

As for the food, this will be one of the very best home-cooked meals you will have across the South. Some of the standouts include the stuffing, greens, and black-eyed peas — but in my opinion, it’s the best fried chicken that I had across the South.

Family-style lunch, $18.

Jestine's Fried Chicken

Fried Chicken and Coca-Cola Cake at Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina

If you want a hardcore fried chicken, Jestine’s is the place. While I thought Mrs. Wilkes had the best overall chicken and Jacques-Imo’s had the moistest chicken, Jestine’s is for people who love skin. Particularly if you go crazy for Chinese take-out chicken wings. The skin is thick and fried perfectly, a luxurious indulgence on a fried chicken.

You can’t go to Jestine’s without asking if they have Coca-Cola cake for dessert today:

Jestine's Coca-Cola Cake

Extremely sweet, and it makes you wonder why we don’t use Coca-cola instead of water in all of our baked goods. This place is a must for any trip to Charleston and it’s in the heart of the downtown area.

Fried chicken plate, $12.95; desserts, $5.95.

Bites Along the Way

While I wouldn’t put these items in the top tier, here are a few memorable meals I had along the way.

DSC_0501

Gumbo at World Famous N’Awlins Cafe and Spice Emporium in New Orleans. This place is 100% geared toward tourists and in the heart of the French Market, but don’t let that stop you — this place has a more extensive menu of unusual Cajun and Creole dishes than anywhere else I saw.

Gumbo, about $8.

Fried Oyster Po Boy

Fried Oyster Po Boy at Magazine Po Boy Shop in New Orleans. If you’re exploring the Garden District, this is a great place to stop for a bite. I loved my fried oyster po boy, and it definitely needs a bit of hot sauce!

Fried oyster po boy, about $10.

Coop's Redfish

Redfish Meuniere at Coop’s Place in New Orleans. Coop’s is a casual bar and restaurant in the French Quarter that everyone seems to love. It’s a nice place to stop for a not-too-pricey meal, and I loved my Creole redfish topped with shrimp.

You can get a taste plate, which included seafood gumbo, shrimp Creole, Cajun fried chicken, red beans and rice, and rabbit and sausage jambalaya — a great option if you want to get a taste of everything.

Redfish Meuniere, $17.50; Coop’s Taste Plate, $12.95.

Pralines

Pralines at Magnolia Praline Company. You’ll see pralines all over New Orleans — and Savannah, as well — but you can’t beat a fresh, warm praline newly formed after resting on the counter. It will melt in your mouth — and you’ll never be able to have one again!

Fresh praline, about $2.

Pensacola Food Truck

Buffalo Blue Cheese and Tacos at alFRESCO food truck park in Pensacola, Florida.

Don’t think that food trucks are restricted to hipster hangouts. I found alFRESCO in the heart of downtown Pensacola, a short walk from the historic area.

I can’t resist a good collection of food trucks, especially when they’re made from Airstream trailers, and went to the Z Taco truck, while I almost went for grilled cheese at Gouda Stuff.

Tacos

Fun fresh food, and a nice break before hitting up Pensacola Beach.

Blue buffalo grilled cheese sandwich at Gouda Stuff, $5.50; Z Tacos at Z Taco, $3.50 each.

Grouper Chowder Apalachicola

Grouper Chowder at Boss Oyster in Apalachicola, Florida. While I sadly wasn’t impressed with the oysters, I did enjoy the grouper chowder, made in a style similar to New England clam chowder.

And only in America can you have a peanut butter pie for dessert!

Peanut Butter Pie

Totally processed…but sometimes you need a dessert that is essentially candy on a plate.

Grouper chowder, about $6; peanut butter pie, about $5.

Kate at Vinnie Van Go Go's

Pizza at Vinnie Van Go Go’s in Savannah. They are huge, and they are delicious. (Thanks to Kristin for her wonderful Savannah food recommendations — I definitely wouldn’t have found this place without her!)

Believe it or not, we only had two tiny slices left when we were done.

Large pizzas from $12, medium pizzas from $10.

Mrs. Wilkes

And One Major Issue

It really bothered me seeing how much food was wasted in the South. I’m not sure if this is as common throughout America these days or simply amplified in the South, but it’s definitely something that you notice after traveling the world and seeing how little food is wasted elsewhere.

At Mrs. Wilkes’, most of the family-style bowls on the table had only been half-eaten by the time we had left. Add it up and that’s a TON of food that could be donated to a soup kitchen.

But due to health codes, you cannot re-serve or eat anything that has been served to customers. Even if it’s served family-style like this.

But SO MUCH was left over. Maybe our table didn’t eat as much as most, but it seems like there would be no harm done if they served the food in smaller dishes and brought out more when it was needed.

Lambert’s was another place that made me feel uncomfortable. Plates filled with food were left behind by customers. The portions were so enormous, even before adding the pass-arounds, and most of the time people wanted to catch the throwed rolls for fun, not to eat them.

While it seems like the solution would be simply to REDUCE THE AMOUNT OF FOOD SERVED!!, it’s not that easy for restaurant owners who have to contend with keeping their customers pleased. I do hope that places keep this in mind.

The #SouthUSA campaign is brought to you by Country Inns and Suites by Carlson and Holiday Autos. All opinions, as always, are my own.

Have you been to the South? Which of these dishes would you most like to eat?

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