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Will Travel for Southern Food | Listen

By: The Local Palate

For as long as the South has been a region, Southerners have come and gone from it, often taking or bringing their favorite foods with them—and this has only added to the melty, chewy layers that make our regional cuisine as vast and varied as our palates. It also means you can track solid Southern food to all points north, east, and west—so, whether you’re in need of barbecue shrimp in Los Angeles, a crispy Cajun jambalaya in New York, or black-eyed peas in Boston, these Southern-representing chefs have got a taste of home waiting for you.

Cat Cora

Originally from Jackson, Mississippi, but currently resides in Santa Barbara, California
meeno cat fryer

Cat Cora’s career has taken her around the world and back—from her run as the first female Iron Chef to operating multiple businesses, including Cat Cora’s Kitchen, which can be found in airports around the US, to her current home in California. But her family roots remain here in the South. Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, to a Greek Orthodox family, Cora has chow chow and fresh-caught catfish running through her veins. “My heart in my cooking is never far from Mississippi,” she says.

Cora’s life in Jackson revolved around her family’s large, close-knit circle of friends. “We entertained together almost every weekend. My dad would grill something smoky and succulent. My mom would make delicious side dishes like a large Greek salad, rice pilaf, or a spinach pie with feta. And everyone brought something artisan-made, like fresh bread, savory fig jam from figs picked from their tree, or pickled okra from the garden,” Cora recalls. There was lots of laughter, plenty of healthy debate, and, she says, “good intellectual conversations. I learned a lot from that special group!”

Being part of a Greek Orthodox family meant being surrounded by amazing cooks and home chefs who ignited her fire for cooking. “I was making dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), spanakopita (spinach pie), baklava, and moussaka from when I was 7 or 8,” she says. “Southern food is my heart but Greek and Mediterranean food are my love language.”

Though wealth and television fame would come later for Cora, growing up in Jackson, she says her family “didn’t have a lot of money but we had all the riches of what the South had to offer.” Gardening was a central part of their lives, with neighbors swapping big brown bags of fresh tomatoes for figs as large as baseballs. And peaches went into fresh-churned ice cream, “the old-fashioned way—with rock salt and a lot of muscle,” she says.

Today, at Cora’s home base in California, all six of her sons are picking up her appreciation for the South thanks to what she puts on their plates. “It’s barbecue, fried chicken, and chicken and dumplings at least once every year, plus pecan pies every holiday,” Cora says. They also return to Jackson when they can. On a recent trip, Cora taught her boys to catch catfish, which her brother fried and served along with hushpuppies while she shared stories of growing up.

This March, Cora returns to Jackson to headline the first Jackson Food & Wine Festival—but also to dig into her favorite Southern food memories. “I’ll start off by stopping at the nearest stand for hot boiled peanuts—that gets my taste buds ready for what’s to come,” she says. There will be fried catfish and hushpuppies, tamales, barbecue (her favorite is the crispy burnt ends), spicy crawfish, and fried dill pickles with comeback sauce. And, if there’s a roadside stand, she’s stopping, she says. “I’m bound to pick up some homemade goods and a pie.”

Where Cat Cora Finds Southern Food Around the Country

Peaches HotHouse (Brooklyn, New York)

Cora stops here for the fried green tomatoes, buffalo catfish sliders, and barbecue shrimp with grit cakes.

Stevie’s Creole Café (Los Angeles)

“They have an award-winning seafood combo, but I also love their hot honey wings and short rib po’ boy,” Cora says.

Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen (Inglewood, California)

“Their food is delicious, traditional, and made from scratch,” she says. Go for the smothered chicken or pork chop, oxtails with baked mac and cheese, and sweet potato pie or peach cobbler to finish.

Brenda’s French Soul Food (San Francisco)

This is Cora’s go-to for crayfish beignets, broiled oysters Tchoupitoulas, and red beans and rice with andouille sausage.

Pecan pie

Grandma Alma’s White Chocolate Pecan Pie

Dominick Lee, Alligator Pear

Originally from New Orleans, but Currently resides in New York

When it comes to Southern cuisine, Dominick Lee is breaking with tradition. Lee is the chef and owner of Alligator Pear, a New Orleans-inspired restaurant and cocktail bar that opened in New York City in 2023. The eatery provides a space for Lee to showcase how he views his hometown’s food and break down the barrier to reinterpreting traditional recipes. “That’s why you couldn’t do a New Orleans restaurant in New Orleans,” says Lee. “They are going to be like, oh, my grandma doesn’t make it that way.”

Lee was previously the executive chef at Poitín Bar & Kitchen in Houston, Texas, which used international ingredients in Southern dishes, before the restaurant closed during the pandemic. Following the closure, Lee, who is Sicilian American and Creole, lived in Italy for three years before returning to the States and opening Alligator Pear. The restaurant, whose name is another way to say “avocado” among New Orleanians, offers brunch and dinner.

The menu at Alligator Pear offers a mix of quintessential NoLa fare, like beignets coated in powdered sugar, and spins on classics like the crispy Cajun jambalaya, which combines elements of jambalaya, paella, and tahdig, Persian rice cakes, topped with vibrant greens.

“Food has those interconnections and derivatives that allow you to have those different meeting points,” Lee says. “We find the easiest connections.”

The po’ boy, which originated during the 1929 streetcar strike in New Orleans, is another way Lee is inspired by Louisiana cuisine. Lee has served a version of this popular sandwich—traditionally “dressed” with mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles—with braised beef cheeks and onions, topped with fried potatoes and dill pickles, as an “ode to the original po’ boy.”

Where Dominick Lee Finds Southern Food in New York


“Melba’s is a vibe,” says Lee about this Harlem eatery. “She’s got a drink that I like called Strawberry Hennessy.” His other go-to favorites are the signature chicken and eggnog waffles, smothered chicken, peas and rice, and ASAP yams.


Lee says KJUN, a Korean and Cajun soul food restaurant in Midtown East, is “just simply special and delicious.” The menu features bites like the cornmeal-crusted catfish nuggets, gochujang andouille sausage, and NoLa barbecue shrimp.

Charles Pan-Fried Chicken

Lee recommends heading to this fried chicken eatery that has four locations across Manhattan. Order the chicken and pulled pork combo with collards, yams, and cornbread.


Crispy Cajun Jambalaya

Tiffani Faison, Sweet Cheeks Q

Originally from points all over the South including Texas, but currently resides in Boston
Tiffani Faison Head Shot

The dishes of the South have always felt like home to chef Tiffani Faison. The Boston-based chef, who competed on Top Chef and is a regular judge on Chopped, was raised on army bases around the world—but no matter where her family was, her mother was cooking Southern food. “Germany, Greece, Southern California—her Southern cooking always centered me,” Faison says. When her career landed her in Boston in 2001, she went looking for Southern food to calm her homesickness. When she made her way to a Southern-leaning restaurant, what she found bummed her out. “The fried okra was frozen,” she reports.

Fast-forward to the moment when she was ready to open her first restaurant. She intended to wade into fine dining to show off her chef skills. Instead, she found a space near Boston’s Fenway Park that was compact and built for something more casual. “I just knew when I saw the space that it could be Southern. I wrote the menu in about 15 minutes; it just came pouring out of me.”

Sweet Cheeks Q opened in 2011 with an emphasis on Texas-style barbecue and sides inspired by what she ate growing up—black-eyed pea salad, broccoli casserole, and fresh fried okra. Leading up to the opening, Faison took a tour through Texas to refresh her memory, spending two-and-a-half weeks eating her way through the Dallas area. It reminded her that the most important element of good barbecue is sourcing quality meat—that’s been the basis of her restaurant ever since. She takes a hands-off approach with her straightforward, simply seasoned brisket and smokes it slow over a green white oak.

There’s a lot more barbecue in Boston these days, but Sweet Cheeks continues to win customers who come back for the mainstays, like that broccoli casserole, which has never come off the menu. “The greatest compliment for me is when I see that light switch go off—they realize they’re getting the real deal,” she says.

Where Tiffani Faison Finds Southern Food in Boston

Grace by Nia

“I really like [Grace] as a human, and her food is as lovely as she is,” Faison says. You can’t go wrong with her Maryland hot crab dip or the oxtails and grits.

The Coast Café

This long-standing soul food spot in Cambridge does “really great fried chicken,” Faison says, but you’ll also find cornmeal-crusted catfish and candied yams.

Broccoli & Cheese Casserole []

Broccoli and Cheese Casserole

Darnell Reed, Luella’s Southern Kitchen

Family roots in Mississippi, but currently resides in Chicago
Darnell Reed pc Jeff Marini

With a background of 18 years as a chef for Hilton Hotels, Darnell Reed knew he eventually wanted to open his own restaurant, but it wasn’t until he did a themed Southern dinner that he knew the kind of food he wanted to serve there. Luella’s Southern Kitchen is named for his great-grandmother, who moved to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1940s, and on the menu are items reminiscent of what she served at family dinners and on holidays: grits, cornbread, collard greens, buttermilk biscuits, and fried chicken.

“The restaurant is very nostalgic because of her and because I spent a lot of time around her growing up,” Reed says. “I make food I remember her making for us growing up. I play music that I remember being played when I was a kid.”

The restaurant opened in 2015, the year Luella passed away. But not only was she able to visit and eat there, she also consulted with Reed on the menu. “She didn’t particularly write recipes,” Reed says. “That was what I had to pull out of her. I know how to cook, but I told her,

‘I can’t get the cornbread to taste like yours.’” The secret, Luella told him, was using lard instead of butter.

Reed says he gets customers who have never tried Southern food before, as well as transplants who are searching for flavors of their childhood. One important distinction he makes is that Luella’s serves Southern food, rather than soul food. “People confuse Southern with soul, and I have to educate people on that as well.” For instance, he serves Louisiana-style gumbo, but the gumbo Luella made was West African, made with broth, rice, chicken, and okra but no roux.

The distinction between soul food and Southern food is important to Reed, who sometimes consults on the distinction with Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), who first visited Luella’s because his sister is a fan. “When we make Mississippi hot tamales, is this considered soul food or not, because Africans learned that from Mexicans? [Miller] said he thinks it can pass for soul food even though it was born in America because it falls in line with the ingredients that Africans were cooking with and eating when we first got to the South.”

Where Darnell Reed Finds Southern Food in Chicago

Two Fish

Reed is a regular at Two Fish, which is a seafood boil restaurant reminiscent of Louisiana or Lowcountry boil—“but it’s a little different because Chicago has already put their own spin on seafood boils where they add different sauces and heat levels.”


Blending creole and Italian food, chef Jourdan Higgs offers handmade pasta in dishes like seafood with spicy cream sauce, while also sprinkling crawfish all over the menu. “There’s a lot of good stuff there,” Reed says.

Junebug Café

“We make a very good beignet, but when I’m looking for beignets, I go to Junebug,” Reed acknowledges. “Ours are more like a glazed donut cut like a beignet, and people just love it. But it’s not the same as Café du Monde. And hers is.”

Soul and Smoke

When asked what he likes at this barbecue joint, Reed says, “Everything. They have really good brisket, the ribs, the mac and cheese. They have these brisket cigars, brisket wrapped in collard greens. It’s a little snack they offer every now and then.”


Skillet Cornbread

Matthew Lewis, Where Ya At Matt

Originally from New Orleans, currently resides in Seattle
Matt Headshot (Grey)

A “lagniappe” is a Cajun creole term for a small gift given to a customer as a sign of appreciation. It’s a concept that Matthew Lewis has been sharing with Seattle diners since launching his food truck in 2010. “Our whole mission was bringing that sense of Southern hospitality to the streets of Seattle,” he says.

When the New Orleans-born chef first introduced Where Ya At Matt, he made a point of remembering customers’ names, what days or locations they tended to visit, or if he felt like an order took too long to serve, adding comped beignets as a lagniappe. “I like to say that Southern hospitality is the opposite of Seattle’s hipster service,” he laughs, referring to stiffer, more punctual interactions he’s experienced when coming at things from the guest side.

Lewis began his education in gumbo and jambalaya at the sides of his mother and grandmother and later honed his Southern food expertise at prestigious spots around the country, including Highlands Bar and Grill, under the venerable chef Frank Stitt, and Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama. A position at the Four Seasons took him to Seattle, where he fell in love with the environment and developed a community of friends. He built his resume at Restaurant Zoe, Canlis, and others before identifying a niche to introduce creole soul food to the city. With the help of chef friends who contributed to the menu, Lewis started slinging po’ boys, jambalaya, shrimp and grits, muffulettas, and more out of his garnet-red food truck. “Seattle really embraced us,” Lewis says. Fourteen years later, they’re still going strong.

Where Matthew Lewis Finds Southern Food in Seattle


“This is one of my favorite places for that nice Southern vibe,” Lewis says. The Vashon Island restaurant is a 20-minute ferry ride from West Seattle and the chef, Dre Neely, is a buddy of Lewis’s; he grew up in Birmingham. “Order the salt and pepper shrimp banh mi,” he says.


Theo Martin, the chef behind Caribbean concept Island Soul, opened Arleana’s in 2023. “It’s based around his relationship with the foods his mother prepared growing up,” Lewis says of the Kirkland spot. “It’s another Southern-inspired place that’s a must.”

Jack’s BBQ

This spot does “Texas-style barbecue, with old-school smoked meats,” Lewis says; look for multiple locations around the city.


“Communion has been on the national map for a while,” Lewis says. Chef Kristi Brown is a force, he adds. “I love the pork chop, but [Brown] also does a catfish sushi roll. That’s a playful dish I really appreciate.”

Roux pc Matt Mornick v

Shrimp and Grits

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