Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Y'all Come Back Now

Many of the foods that we hold dear as "American" foods, are in fact Southern foods.   From fried chicken to barbecue to country fried steak, the South has made quite the culinary contribution to our country's heritage.   While they've had their share of social problems, primarily racial tensions, the famed Southern hospitality and culture is very much genuine, and somewhat akin to the aloha spirit.  Although they are still working on the racial harmony that we pride ourselves on, their cuisine is still a mixture of the various ethnic groups that populate the area, albeit a completely different racial mix than our own  (although it may surprise you to know that Georgia has one of the largest Korean populations outside of Korea).    It is very hard to imagine a major American holiday, like Thanksgiving, without having some influence on the table from the South.

Although we are all the way on the other end of the country from the South, we still have our share of Southern style food.   The main reason for its popularity is, of course, the major military influence that we've got here.   Very often, our military personnel are either from the South or have had some connection to the South.   My father-in-law, for example, spent a good deal of time in Buloxi, Mississippi, and consequently developed a taste for Southern food.  The few Southern restaurants that we do have, especially the fast food ones, are always flooded with military personnel in uniform. 

Fried Chicken at Popeye's
Fast food chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen, are perhaps the easiest places to get a fix of Southern cuisine.   We don't generally tend to think of KFC as Southern food, but the "K" does stand for a major Southern state, and the iconic Col. Harland Sanders is famous for his gentlemanly Southern attire.   However, the seasonings at Popeyes were always a little truer to the flavors that you would get in the deep South.  Their spicer, crunchier batter along with their more distinctly Southern sides (like thier tasty green beans) give them a little more uniqueness than the international fast food that KFC has become.  Popeye's was always a favorite of my wife's Goong Goong, again probably due to his military connections, and visiting there always reminds her of him.   Even while maintaining their Southern roots however, both restaurants have naturally adopted to local tastes as well.   Visiting Popeye's on Dillingham, you can get your fix of chicken livers & gizzards, as well as chicken curry, both done to Filipino tastes.   KFC offers May's teriyaki chicken besides their standard snackers.  More importantly, every KFC restaurant in Hawaii is adorned with old photos of Col. Sanders wearing a lei during his visit to the islands.  The image of him wearing a lei over his old Southern suit, is the perfect symbol of adopting Southern cuisine into our local melange.

Besides the fast food restaurants, you can visit sit down restaurants like Bubba Gump's Shrimp Company.   Despite the many years since the popularity of Forrest Gump, the themed restaurant that bears his name is still going strong.   Frankly, I was always suprised that they would even make a restaurant based upon a one time movie that isn't even a major tentpole property (like Star Wars or Harry Potter).   But I can't complain, seeing as how I really do enjoy eating there.   I'm particularly fond of their "Bucket o' Boat Trash", with little bits of lobster, fish, and shrimp.   It's like a little mixed plate, with all the good stuff. 

Although I do enjoy eating at Popeye's or Bubba Gump's, they really are Southern food catered to the mainstream palate.  Their authenticity extends only as far as general mainstream American tastes will allow.   For the real Southern goodness, you have to venture into a small restaurant like Dixie Grill.    I always used to patronize the location on Ward Ave., but sadly that location is gone and has subsequently changed restaurants several times ever since.   But thankfully, you can still find Dixie Grill out in Aiea, just as you get off the Pearlridge offramp.  

Gumbo at Dixie Grill
Dixie Grill actually has some really authentic Southern cuisine.   You know you're in a real Southern restaurant, when the waitresses have a true Southern drawl, and they call your iced tea, "sweet tea".  The decor is also fantastic, looking like something out of the Dukes of Hazzard.   I particularly love their handwash basin, that looks like an old galvanized metal washtub, where you turn on the water by depressing  a foot pedal, and thus your barbecue sauce covered hands never touch the faucet.  Ingenious!   But besides the atmosphere, their cuisine is actually pretty accurate to tastes I encountered in my travels down south.   Their gumbo in particular (while not nearly as good as my own) is a spicy, savory blend, that actually has the requisite okra to be called gumbo.  In addition, it's got some tasty sausage in it.  The one detractor is the presense of some tomato (which you would never actually find in real gumbo). 

Crunchy Potato Crusted Mahi Sandwich at Dixie Grill
Just ordering a crunchy potato crusted fish sandwich, you can see the quality that they put into their dishes.   The fillet of mahi mahi they put in it is just huge, about the size of a greeting card.   It's very crunchy, with a batter almost similar to Popeye's, and the fish inside is a perfect flaky, moist texture.

Southern Fried Catfish at Dixie Grill
The truly authentic Southern fish at Dixie Grill, however, is their awesome Southern fried catfish.   This really brought me back to my travels, as its hard to find places that do catfish really well.  The texture of catfish is much more meat-like than any other fish.  It's as flaky or delicate as mahi, but has its own tender unique flavor.   I really love catfish, and they season theirs just perfectly the way I remember it down South.   Next to that, you've got a super savory bowl of collard greens, that has just enough bacon flavor to accentuate the soft dark greens.   As in all real Southern collard greens, the best part is drinking the pot liquor at the bottom of the bowl.   The creole rice next to it is the only item that doesn't really capture the buttery flavor of true creole rice, but that's easily overlooked while enjoying the catfish itself.

Probably the best thing on Dixie Grill's regular menu is their "Trash Can Buffet".   Just like the Bucket o' Boat Trash at Bubba Gump's, this enormous platter of food (served on an actual trash can lid), is a feast for 2 people with a little bit of everything that they do so well, fried chicken, catfish, ribs, etc.   But even this massive platter seems ordinary during the month of June, when Dixie Grill holds its annual CrabFest.   They've got a ton of crab dishes: soft shell crab jamabalaya, crab po' boys, etc.   But the most awesome thing that Dixie Grill offers is their crab platter during Crab Fest.   It's got huge servings of Alaskan king crab, Japanese snow crab, dungenous crab, and blue crab.   It's so rare that you get to try all 4 major different types of crab on a single platter, in such generous portions, and seasoned so perfectly with their Southern spices.  It is a crab lover's dream!   Crab happens to be my uncle's favorite food in the whole world.   We can easily satisfy him on any special occasion with the inclusion of some crab.   So I really wanted to take him to Dixie Grill for their crab platter.   The only drawback was that his birthday is in December, whereas Crab Fest is held during the month of June.   But after a little bit of pleading, they accomodated us by making the platter specially for his birthday (although not at the regular June pricing).  I think it may have been one of the most satisfying birthday dinners we've taken my uncle to.

Despite not being from, nor having lived for any long period of time in, the South, somehow Southern cuisine is so comforting to me.   Maybe it's just that the concept of Southern hospitality is so pervasive, that it permeates their cuisine, even so far from the South itself.

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