With one bite, Southern food has the magical ability to raise spirits and to transport you back home around a table with family. It has its own distinct personality — soothing yet sassy, homey yet foreign. Don’t underestimate it — Southern comfort food is a powerful thing, satiating us viscerally.
Open a little more than a year, Southern Kitchen “The Mouth of the South” is located in the heart of Shockoe Bottom, along bustling East Main Street. Table linens and elevated decor make this not your typical finger-licking, casual Southern joint. While the restaurant serves classic soul food, the kitchen takes liberties with a handful of original Southern fusion dishes as well.
There are $11 burgers and $12 baked chicken dinners, and then pricier dishes, such as the $27 seafood platter, $18 fried shrimp and a $17 oyster po’ boy.
Although the restaurant has some culinary kinks to work out with transforming soul food from casual to elevated fare, the hospitality and genuineness of staff is spot on.
On a Wednesday evening at 7, my companion and I were greeted with a smile and a cheerful “Hello!” hollered from behind the bar.
Seated at our white-clothed table, we started with two of our server’s recommendations — the Southern Rolls ($8) and Mouth of the South Shrimp ($10). Other starters include fried veggies (okra or pickles) for $6, and fried oysters (which they were out of) for $15, along with chicken wings ($10).
Egg roll meets soul food in the Southern Rolls. Three thick, crispy fried rolls are stuffed with cooked greens, cabbage shavings and chunks of chicken. Other than the bitter collards, most of the flavor came from the delectable sweet-and-sour dipping sauce that is peppered with hot chili flakes.
The Mouth of the South Shrimp are six crispy fried prawns tossed in a sweet-yet-spicy chili glaze. Fresh and juicy, the shrimp delivered.
Entrées, big servings of meat or seafood accompanied by two side dishes, include a fried pork chop ($16), meatloaf ($13), turkey wings ($14), and country-fried chicken in white pepper gravy ($13).
Sides are my favorite part of home-cooked meals. And, at Southern Kitchen, they have more side dishes than you can shake a drumstick at. There are collard greens, baked sweet potato, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac and cheese, fried cabbage, coleslaw, fried okra, french fries, black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes, rice and gravy. And, if you’re in the mood for fresh, uncooked greens, there’s a side salad.
I decided on the North Carolina pulled pork ($14) with black-eyed peas and coleslaw. Vinegar-based fork-tender pork was heaped on crisp, browned Texas toast and served with a fried pickle spear.
The pork, although juicy, had a mushy texture and lacked a smoke-infused flavor. A side of black-eyed peas topped with a few sweet stewed tomatoes was delicious and smoky, but a side of coleslaw was dry, calling for a tangy dressing.
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Big Mama’s Chicken ($16), succulent batter-fried white meat dipped in honey, didn’t quite achieve a sweet-and-salty balance, with more sweetness coming from the honey and not enough savory, salty flavor in the crispy chicken skin. The sweet potatoes were overly cloying with brown sugar that masked the naturally sweet flavor of the potatoes, while the mac and cheese delivered with its classic, unyielding gooeyness.
My heart (and stomach) yearn for a good home-cooked Southern meal. At Southern Kitchen, there are all the right ingredients — juicy meat, crispy breading, Southern love, and sides galore. After a few culinary fixes, Southern Kitchen will be on its way to soul-pleasing status.