The American South is its own country in so many ways, and most of all in its culinary heritage. This list could’ve been 500 things, given all the innovative chefs and hybrid food cultures in the diverse states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Go South with an appetite….
Each Southern state has its own unique style of barbecue, which is most commonly associated with a particular region: Carolina, Kansas City, Texas, and Memphis. It’s serious business in the South, and often used as a societal weed-out cue. “Wait, Kansas City? Bless your heart, Darlin’. You must be a Yankee, with all that sauce.” Memphis-style ribs are blessed with a dry-rub that’s the equivalent of savory glitter. If you’re into vinegar, Carolina is the pork shoulder for you. Texas is sweet, smoky beef, and while most Southerners aren’t exactly sure if it technically counts as barbecue, we’re afraid to mess with Texas so it gets a pass.
There is no gospel for “Must Eat Barbecue Restaurants,” but as a general rule, you should ask yourself, “Is this place sterile?” If the answer is, “Yes! Look at the stainless steel tabletops,” you need to turn around and walk straight out that door. The dingier and sketchier the joint, the better the food. Bonus points if the whole building looks like a sneeze would take it down.
A few things y’all must try when you’re down here:
Jack’s Bar-B-Que, Downtown Nashville Tennessee Pork Shoulder Sandwich
Jack’s has been feeding hungry tourists, athletes, rock legends and country music superstars since opening its doors in 1989. On any given day, a line forms down Broadway and folks happily wait outside in the Hades that is a Southern summer just for a sandwich. Perhaps the best part about Jack’s is the wide range of authentic sauces — Tennessee, Kansas City, Texas Sweet Hot, Carolina, and Music City White Sauce (which is mayonnaise and horseradish based).
The Bar-B-Q Shop, Memphis: Bar-B-Q Spaghetti
This dish is so uniquely Memphis, we’re not even sure it should be attempted anywhere else. It’s exactly as it sounds — a barbecue-based sauce, with smoked pork and spaghetti noodles. Railroad cook Brady Vincent gets the credit for inventing this hot magic, and his secret was sold to The Bar-B-Q Shop’s owners in 1980 when he retired.
Coletta’s Restaurant, Memphis: The Original Barbecue Pizza
Coletta’s is an Italian restaurant in Memphis that’s been serving up authentic fare since 1923, so why the mention here? Horest Coletta was determined to introduce pizza to Memphis in the 1950s, but no dice. It was a foreign concept to Memphians at the time — what is this saucy cheese bread? Coletta didn’t give up though — he installed a pit in the basement of his restaurant to smoke pork shoulder and birthed the Italian/Southern mashup that is barbecue pizza. Elvis was in love; the Memphis Mafia and squealing women soon followed suit.
Dreamland Bar-B-Que, Tuscaloosa: Dreamland BBQ Ribs
John “Big Daddy” Bishop’s career as a brick mason wasn’t cutting it. He was restless and wanted to find another way to support his family, either by opening a restaurant or a mortuary. God intervened, and Big Daddy started smoking his famous ribs for the masses in 1958 at a restaurant he built next to his home in Tuscaloosa. The ribs gained such a following, that ten Dreamlands are now open in Alabama, Georgia and Florida. You can also have those ribs shipped to your home.
If mayonnaise is a Southerner’s best friend, then comeback sauce is Mississippi’s excuse for obesity. Fried green tomatoes? Drizzle a little on top. Fried shrimp? Dunk that bad boy head-first into a ramekin (a small condiment bowl, for the uninitiated) and pretend he’s swimming. Salad? We’re not sure what you mean by that, but here’s some orange mayonnaise that’s ripe for globbing on top. While its exact origins are a hotly debated topic, the general consensus is that it was created in the 1930s by Greek immigrants who settled in Jackson, MS as a poor man’s version of remoulade. (Let’s be honest, remoulade is hard for us to pronounce.) Basic ingredients include our buddy mayonnaise as a base, paprika, garlic, hot sauce, Worcestershire, and whatever pepper is hiding in your spice cabinet.
Put on your fat pants and head to downtown Jackson’s Mayflower Cafe, one of Mississippi’s oldest restaurants. Their seafood is phenomenal and you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but do yourself a solid and get an order of onion rings, with a side of comeback sauce.
There are things you shouldn’t explain, and chicken-on-a-stick is at the top of that list. If you have a weak stomach, skip ahead. If you’re in Oxford, Mississippi and find yourself with a case of the fun drunks (shame on you for being drunk in public), ask anyone you see — and that means literally anyone — “Chicken on a stick?” They’ll point you to a Chevron gas station, where you’ll find this life-changing culinary gut-bomb. The batter-to-chicken ratio levels out the overindulgence of bourbon you’ve likely experienced, and since it’s on a stick, it’s easy for your drunk ass to hold onto when you can’t seem to remember why you’re even in Mississippi.
Nothing will start an argument between deeply Southern-steeped women quite like their recipe for the Caviar of the South. They’re highly guarded secrets, even though they’re basically all the same: mayonnaise base (told y’all it’s our best friend), sharp cheddar cheese, and pimentos. Some of us rebels add red pepper, jalapenos, or cream cheese. It’s best served on a cracker for the full experience, but is also found in the form of a tea sandwich, or spread on a burger. There’s a certain orange brand available in markets that is highly frowned upon (and those who know the story of how it came to be mass produced know that it used to be made in an actual bathtub), but Pawleys Island South Carolina’s Palmetto Cheese has changed everything. It’s currently available in 7,500 locations in 38 states and Washington D.C.
Thank you, Louisiana, for bringing us po’ boys. The basic concept is simple — crusty French bread, meat, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and mayonnaise. The variations of meat are what makes the po’ boy such a specialty. Traditionally, you’ll find roast beef, fried shrimp, or fried oysters, but there are no rules. Alligator po’ boys are a real thing, as are soft shell crab, crawfish, and Louisiana sausage.
Mother’s Restaurant, New Orleans Famous Ferdi Special
Mother’s has the “World’s Best Baked Ham” (that’s true, and they serve over 175,000 pounds of it per year), and the Famous Ferdi Special comes with a heaping portion of ham, roast beef, and debris with au jus gravy. What’s debris? Glad you asked — it’s the roast beef that falls into the gravy while baking in the oven. You’ll wait in a long line, but gravy is at the end of it, so life could be worse.
Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, New Orleans Felix Special
Felix’s is world famous for their char-grilled oysters, which involve butter and a lot of fire, but their Special po’boy is perfect for those who can’t decide between fried shrimp or fried oyster. It’s one of each! Order it with a side of coleslaw, and you’re in business.