Finding Soul in SoCal Food


Finding Soul in SoCal Food


Photo credit: Katelan Cunningham

    When I moved from Savannah, GA to Los Angeles, CA a fleeting three months ago, I was warned by people who'd lived in LA that I might become one of two things, either a pot head or a health nut. Well, so far, I'm still a Southerner just looking for some good grub. The extensive healthy food options and easy access to fresh produce is a luxury that took no time to for me to appreciate, but I've been missing, well, anything fried. I crave that stick-to-your-bones full you get from any food that might have "down-home" in the name. Not the kind of food you eat to fuel your chakras or to detox. I'm talking about the kind of food that (despite your cholesterol levels) feeds the needs of your soul. I've had bites of the extensive Los Angeles menu here and there, but in my quest to find a taste of Southern charm in SoCal, I've found two dishes that appeased my Southern needs.

     Honey’s Kettle Fried Chicken is in downtown Culver City. It’s a casual, inviting environment, perfect for the conversation that comes with Southern food.

Photo credit: Katelan Cunningham

     The breading is your mouth's introduction to any fried chicken, and the characteristics of Honey’s Kettle's breading are very unique. It's crispy but not crumbly. It's got an amazing crunch, and doesn't slide off when you bite into it. But when you get to the meat of things (pun intended) the inside lives up to the outside. The chicken is juicy and hot, not overcooked and tough to chew--it just slides off the bone. Any good fried chicken leaves some grease stains on the parchment paper, and this had just the right amount of grease, enough to be down-home but not so much that you felt the need to blot your meal before eating it. The chicken is hand-dipped and fried to order, not waiting under a heat lamp for its next victim. The name implies that the chicken might have honey in the recipe, but that comes later. Honey’s Kettle offers their own honey and a special sauce, both of which are perfect pairings with their chicken and biscuits.

     Before you get to know the chicken, you may take a bite of the biscuit in passing. It's an unassuming-looking bread with a sloppy sort of square shape. It doesn't look triumphantly fluffy or shine from a honey glaze. But when you take a bite, you realize this biscuit is no sidekick -- it's a real contender. A masterpiece of buttermilk, this biscuit is a perfect instance of the cliché "melt in your mouth." It's slightly sweet and indulgently buttery, light but medium-dense as a biscuit should be. While holding together all of the biscuit characteristics, it's fall-apart soft! A contradiction I'll never understand, the Honey’s Kettle biscuit is a rival for any Southern biscuit.

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     Further east, in Historic Downtown Los Angeles, Cole's is "The Originator of the French Dip." I'm not interested in who got to the French Dip first. And while it was tasty, I'm not even here to talk about the French Dip. If you're in Los Angeles, looking for a sweet bite of the South, this LA saloon-like staple has a great option. In addition to their seasonal pies, Cole's menu features two pies year round: dark chocolate cream and "Our Famous Bourbon Pecan." I seldom fall victim to claims of food labeled famous, first or best, but Cole's, you got me, because if this pie isn't famous, it should be.

Photo credit: Katelan Cunningham

     You'll see in the picture that I ordered my slice of Famous Bourbon Pecan pie a la mode, because passing up ice cream is not a habit of mine, but this slice of pecan goodness did not need an understudy. Mastering the texture of corn syrup that make the innards of the pecan pie is a balance so delicate, it has to be called artistry. Beneath the caramelized pecans of the pie should be a sort of corn syrup gelatin. Ideally, it’s smooth, but not so thin that it won't hold its shape. Cole’s pie passed the test with a harmonious balance resulting in an ideal slice of pecan pie. All of this was encased in a flaky crust (which was not quite doughy enough for my taste), beneath a layer of whole sticky pecans (which I much prefer to crushed).

     What I assume gives this pecan pie its notoriety is its healthy dose of bourbon. The bourbon does not tip-toe in to offer an "essence" or an aftertaste. It punctures your palette from the first bite. Maybe you can get too heavy-handed with liquor in desserts and maybe you can get a little goofy off a piece of pie, but the liquor in this dessert is just before that point. It doesn't overwhelm. My only issue with the bourbon in the pie is that some bites had more/less than others, yet the consistency of the pie, from pecan to crust, makes up for the lack of consistency in bourbon.

     When I got to LA, I thought I'd miss the certainty of knowing that a place that serves Southern food is going to be the real deal. But the truth is, I went to a number of places in the South where the biscuits were too hard or the collards were too soggy. Being in the South doesn’t make food Southern. It’s the taste. It’s the down-home approach. Fried chicken and bourbon pecan pie are holding their own amidst vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free Los Angeles hip, not just because there’s a population of displaced Southerners, but because no matter where you're from, you're going to crave a piece of soul. And I’m going to continue the journey to find it in SoCal.

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