If you’re looking to pass some time in Southern climes, you’re going to require sustenance. With that in mind I offer the following off-the-beaten-path possibilities, which I discovered for myself while touring the region with my live stage show. Flip the the gallery above and read below. In no particular order …
Three f(x) Ice Cream and Waffles (Jacksonville, Fla.): Sometimes you walk into an establishment and you spend the first 10 minutes confused. And then you spend the next 24 hours wishing you were back there. Welcome to Three f(x), a Korean ice cream parlor providing some of the most-innovative desserts in the country. This includes waffles called Taiyaki (I filled mine with a walnut and red bean mixture), ice cream made-to-order in a recessed, refrigerated pan (watch video) and Patbingsu (a Korean shaved ice concoction the size of my head filled with very fruits and red bean paste).
East End Market (Orlando, Fla.): Far from the madding crowd of rat land is Orlando’s East End Market, a kind of hipster hanger packed with stalls offering everything from local beers and coffee to Sushi bowls, freshly baked breads and really good juices. There’s even a funky flower shop where I picked up a succulent in a bottle with a miniature gnome in it for my tour bus. I had no idea such a food scene could flourishing so far from the coast but now that I know, I’ll be back.
Frenchy’s Cafe (Clearwater, Fla.): This Clearwater classic serves up a dish I would have patented if I’d invented it: french fries tossed in garlic sauce and smothered in snow crab. Just think about that for a minute. Now pair it with one of the best bloody Marys in a state full of bloody Marys. One down side? You’re gonna smell like garlic all … day … long.
Ben’s Chili Bowl (Washington, D.C.): As a Southerner I’m ashamed to admit this was my first visit to D.C.’s hot dog institution. I ordered the half smoke (half pork and half beef) with mustard, onions and Ben’s chili, which bares no resemblance to the stuff they serve in Texas. The problem? I only ordered one. Oh, and don’t miss the jukebox … righteous.
Proper Pie Co. (Richmond, Va.): The logo has a Kiwi bird on it so you know going in that the savory pies will have a British/New Zealand bent to them. I sampled several (go with the vegetable curry if they’ve got them), but what bowled me over were the dessert pies, which included the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had in my life. Of course it was also the first pumpkin pie I’d ever had topped with salted caramel. If you’re visiting from out of town you should probably go ahead and have the coconut cream pie too … just to be on the safe side.
Gus’s Famous Fried Chicken (Memphis, Tenn.): This joint’s got all the visual charm of a prison block, but the fried chicken is crispy, juicy, spicy, in that order. How good is it? I ate the thighs and then finished off the breasts, and if you know me, well … ‘nough said.
The National (Athens, Ga.): Hugh Acheson may be a Canadian, but he’s also one of the most Southern chef’s I know. His 5 & 10 turned Athens into a food destination, but it’s the smaller National that floats my boat. The Warm Okra and Chickpea Salad unites two of my favorite ingredients in a way that is both exotic and homey at the exact same time.
1000 Faces Coffee (Athens, Ga.): Worth taking a drive off the beaten path, this no-frills shop with its grate-style front door and vintage factory tables specializes in forming the kinds of relationships that makes it possible to source the best free trade beans money alone cannot buy. They roast thoughtfully and brew skillfully. I wish I owned it.
Hot Joy (San Antonio, Texas): Everything that is good and holy in the culinary firmament in one mouthful: their migas fried rice. I had to fight off some of my Edible Inevitable Tour crew to actually share this with me. Next time I’m ordering my own.
Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room (Savannah, Ga.): This is everything I love about food in the South. Big platters of Southern classics served family-style. Fried chicken, barbecued pork, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, biscuits, sweet potatoes, creamed corn, peach cobbler and banana pudding. And they’ll keep refilling the bowls until you’re stuffed. If you’re lucky you’ll sit with total strangers, but therein lies the true charm of Southern hospitality. If you come here, don’t plan on eating for hours before or after.
Beefy King (Orlando, Fla.): When I asked locals for recommendations while I was in town, they said a trip to Orlando wouldn’t be complete without Beefy King. They’ve been serving roast beef sandwiches for over 40 years and I agree with the locals. It’s a simple sandwich done right … get the tots too.
Sally Bell’s Kitchen (Richmond, Va.): A friend of mine said I couldn’t leave Richmond without trying Sally Bell’s. This eatery has been serving patrons for almost nine decades, and while you might think the small, boxed lunches that are their trademark are jewel boxes of simplicity … a Southern bento box. I ordered three different boxes (because how could I try just one) — ham, turkey and chicken salad — and enjoyed them all. My personal favorite is the homemade potato salad. The ladies are a riot.
Gibson’s Donuts (Memphis, Tenn.): I’ve been around and I’ve eaten my share of doughnuts … and probably your share and your mom’s share, too, and I am fully prepared to pronounce the Gibson’s glazed doughnut to be the finest doughnut in the South. The best part? If you’re new, they throw a doughnut at you the second you walk in the door. (Heaven, are you listening?)
Parkway Bakery and Tavern (New Orleans, La.): This might be the king of po’ boys and it’s no hidden secret. Everyone knows about Parkway but it’s still on my list. I’ve had every po’ boy they offer and I’m convinced the shrimp version is the ultimate Southern sandwich … and gosh, do I hate that word [ultimate].
Steel City Pops (Birmingham, Ala.): Getting my hands on these (dare I say, “artisanal”) pops was a surprise and I couldn’t be more grateful. These guys are coming up with flavors way beyond chocolate, cherry and orange. Try, instead, Arnold Palmer, Sweet Potato Pecan, Buttermilk, Pineapple Jalapeno and Cherry Sour Cream. On a hot summer day … perfect.