I was born in the South, Eastern North Carolina in fact. I grew up hunting, fishing, and using those animals. Whole hogs were cooked several times a year. Venison sausage was made by hand. Fried catfish caught on the pond was a staple. Mac n’ cheese so thick and cheesy you better have some sweet tea ready to wash it down. Cracklins. Collards. Pimento cheese. Hush-puppies. Barbecue. These aren’t menu items to me. They’re a way of life where recipes are coveted and passed down, and were everyone’s mamma made a better version of [insert here] than your mamma did.
But that’s Eastern North Carolina.
You don’t have to go far before “southern food” starts to look, smell, and taste different. Western NC for example has a tomato base infused sauce for their pork. South Carolina does grits in a way that will make you find Jesus (if you’re the 0.05% of the population who hasn’t yet). Mississippi, Alabama, Florida (gasp), all have entirely different cuisines ranging from catfish to ribs to fried grouper. Are Tennessee sticky, sweet, molasses ribs not Southern? All this is to say that my understanding of “Southern food” is not the same as yours. Or the person next to you. Or your grandmothers even. Every region in “The South” and every generation has a different understanding of what “Southern food” is and therefore every restaurant anywhere serving said Southern food is likely to have a different interpretation of it.
Enter Due South, a restaurant that “offers creative cuisine inspired by the Southern states with an emphasis on in-house smoked meats, locally sourced seafood and farm fresh produce.” Providing food that was inspired by “the Southern states”…like, all of them?!? Upon a scan of the menu it is clear that Chef Rusty Holman, who found success in The Bayou which catered toward New Orleans cuisine, is clearly trying to cover all the Southern staples. I can also see why I have heard such mixed reviews from my friends from the South. There are few things that rile up Southerners more than debates about food. You try and tell an Eastern North Carolina boy that vinegar has no place in BBQ and it’s on. Ever tell a Texan all brisket is garbage? I didn’t think so. Or if you’ve ever been between a whiskey fueled grits debate between a South Carolinian and a Georgian then you know finding an exit quickly is your best bet.
Is it possible to have a truly open mind to Southern food, made in Washington, D.C. for that matter, when my definition of what pulled pork is supposed to taste like is so clearly biased?
Let’s find out (and yes you’re going to have to scroll to the bottom to find out what our favorite dish was)!
After seeing the decor, the proximity to Nationals Stadium and located in a bustling neighborhood, I can see why it’s attractive. The cocktail list is approachable without being too silly. The variations make sense, and the outcomes solid.
Moving past cocktails we found familiar staples on the menu. With mixed emotions we had to try the pimento cheese. “I really hope this is good,” I remember saying as far too often people mess with what is clearly already a good thing. If you can’t make good pimento cheese and describe yourself as a Southern restaurant, then there’s a chance folks likely won’t order much past this. Thank God it was good. Damn good in fact, and here’s where I’m reminded of having an open mind when it comes to folks making “Southern food.” Was it the color of the pimento cheese I am used to? Nope. How about consistency? Wrong again, not even close. But like I said before it was very good. Super thick and creamy and packed with flavor. While I missed the “country bread” that the menu described as coming with, the warm pita, fresh crisp vegetables were great. But the kicker was the pickled okra. One, pickled okra is amazing, and two, why not list this on the menu (especially since, you know, it was plated directly on top of the pimento cheese). I’m a stickler for either serving the dishes as described on the menu, or having staff that can tell you what’s different. Unfortunately, this theme continued throughout the meal but thankfully it little impact on a delicious outcome.
I’ll spare the narrative and just say that the “squash hushpuppies with jalapeno aioli” where phenomenal. Crispy exterior with super moist filling that was helped by the squash inside that you could barely taste (in case you aren’t that into vegetables and just want fried-awesome-nuggets-of-Southern-goodness). There’s also the jalapeno aioli which just means fancy smooth creamy sauce with a little kick. These are good, get these too.
Last for our pre-meal snacks we ordered “bourbon-glazed pork belly bites.” Served on a bed of pickled slaw which provided a nice crunch and contrast, the pork belly bites where sweet and melted in your mouth. They don’t have any crispy skin, but we didn’t miss it at all. We did miss the “Chipotle ranch dipping sauce” it was supposed to come with, but not that much. These were great on their own.
We also ordered some smoked chicken wings with Alabama white sauce (which is amazing). Personally, neither myself nor my guest like smoked wings. It’s just a thing. However, I can say that these were super tender, they were smoked and then flash fried to order so the skin was crispy and they had a great smokey flavor. If you like smoked wings, there is a good chance you’ll like these!
The tension was noticeable as the BBQ plate arrived. We wanted to try some hickory-wood smoked 12-hour Texas brisket and the Carolina style pulled pork. Which comes with cornbread, collard greens, mac n’ cheese, raw white onion and pickles (a total nod to Texas that was 100% noticed and appreciated), and two sauces; a sweet tomato based variety that had some tang, and a vinegar sauce reminiscent of Eastern NC.
Admittedly not a brisket fan, I found this moist and flavorful. The meat was perfectly tender, not greasy, not oversmoked, and the sauce was a nice compliment. Personally, a bite of this, with some raw white onion and pickle dipped in the sauce was awesome. Followed with some very crispy yet light cornbread and there you go. If you like brisket then chances are you’ll like this.
The collard greens were great. They weren’t mushy as we feared they could be. They were tender, perfectly strong, great amount of vinegar and pork/bacon. No complaints here, tastes just like back home.
The only thing we didn’t like from our entire food experience here was the mac n’ cheese. Again we run into a problem where the menu descriptions were not reflected in what arrived on the table. For the rest of the meal, it was overlooked because what actually arrived was good. This was seriously lacking. Described as “Orecchiette + Fontina + Jack & Cheddar” on the menu arrived with a different pasta (okay, fine), but seemed void the gooey cheesy stringy characteristics one looks for in mac n cheese. Perhaps it was tossed in a thin cheddar bechamel rather than a three cheese blend as stated? Whatever it was, this was (sadly) consistent with what we had heard from other diners. There’s no excuse for sub-par mac n’ cheese and hopefully this is something easily improved upon. However, while the mac n cheese needs helps, it certainly should not keep anyone from going to Due South.
The pulled pork was great. Tender, smoky, just a solid pulled pork. I didn’t ask if it was whole hog (which to me means Carolina style) as it was most likely shoulder. But I reminded myself that an open mind was necessary in this experience and good pork is good pork, and this was good pork.
Were it me, I’d never have this on any menu. Sure, you can smoke meat similar to someone’s daddy from Memphis, but can you ever really make a shrimp and grits that’s like Grandmamma in South Carolina made it? Certainly not like MiMaw did in the Bayou. But hats off to you at Due South, this was great. The complex flavors where balanced and came together quite nice in a surprising way. “Tasso ham gravy, Anson Mills grits, heirloom tomatoes, sauteed kale, and parmesan” composed the dish. There are two main things one should look for in this dish. First, how are the grits cooked? Using the famed South Carolina Anson Mills grits was the right way to go, however they seemed cooked like you’d find them in NOLA, rather than smooth like on the East Coast. While surprising, who cares – they were damn good. The salty, strong broth brought down the sweetness of the grits. Jumbo shrimp that were cooked nicely laid on-top and the kale (personally I’d opt for the collards) and tomatoes helped lighted it up. While the parmesan didn’t add to the dish in our opinion, it didn’t take away from it either.
Now, at this point you’re probably thinking, “we should grab some hushpuppies and pork belly bites and beers at the bar before the next game” or “I love smoked wings, let’s go.” Maybe it’s “shrimp and grits sound great.” That’s all fine and well, but if you walk into this place and don’t have the burger, you are seriously missing out. Yes, everything above is true and all good (minus the mac n cheese obviously), but holy sh!t this burger.
Le Diplomate, Duke’s Grocery, the lamb burger at Bourbon Steak, double patties at Tchoup’s (formerly Alfie’s spot), a neighborhood fatty at Convivial…these are my favorite burgers in DC. I say that to provide some reference point to my next addition to this list, the Pimento Cheese Bacon Burger from Due South.
Toasted bun but soft to the touch, crispy applewood-smoked bacon (that needed some repositioning but who cares!), one beefsteak tomato, crispy fried tobacco onion, house bread and butter pickles, a gorgeous medium rare burger, and that melty, gooey, pimento cheese. It’s hard not to curse here. I literally want one of these as I am writing this. Open her up and tuck that bacon under (as not to loose an eye), grab this thing with both hands, and dig in. The crispy onions, the salty bacon, the smooth melted cheese, the meaty patty, it all just worked perfectly together.
Oh, and if that wasn’t good enough…the fries come with Mississippi Comeback Sauce (yeah, you guessed it, keeps you coming back for more).
Branding a restaurant as not only “Southern” but trying to cover all of the regions is hard thing to do. No questions asked. Getting everything right is impossible. But Due South gets almost everything right, and that’s saying something. Well cooked food, hot when it should be, cold when it should be, quick, fresh, tasty…scratch that, damn tasty, and pretty spot on to what the majority of Americans think Southern food should taste like. Will it ever taste like Miss Beulah’s cookin’? Nah, it won’t. But then again, if it did, would you want it to?
Have an open mind about “Southern food,” recognize it will never be what you remember it to be back home, and walk into Due South for some damn good food. We’ll see you there, burger in hand.