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Review: It's a Southern Thing fully embraces the regional cuisine of owner's adopted home

Jaime's BBQ 1/2 Chicken is a house-smoked and wood fire oven-roasted, served with Jaime's Bourbon BBQ sauce, seasonal veggies and potatoes at It's a Southern Thing in Durham.
Jaime's BBQ 1/2 Chicken is a house-smoked and wood fire oven-roasted, served with Jaime's Bourbon BBQ sauce, seasonal veggies and potatoes at It's a Southern Thing in Durham. jleonard@newsobserver.com

You walk in, and immediately your eye starts ricocheting around the sprawling converted second floor warehouse space that became home to It’s a Southern Thing last September.

To your left, vivid red B - A - R block letter marquee lights hang at a 45-degree angle over a patina-streaked copper bar. To your right, large vintage black and white photos of downtown Durham span a lilac colored wall.

In between, suspended by ropes from a wooden beam over the low partition wall that separates the dining room and lounge, a constellation of glass globe terraria orbits a TATTOOS sign. You see more signs than you can count, in fact, on nearly every vertical surface — beer signs galore, a neon pig behind the bar, even a couple of repurposed bourbon barrel tops.

There’s a longhorn steer skull on a rough plank sliding door that you’re guessing leads to a separate dining room. And could that be — why yes, it is — a disc golf basket mounted on the wall near the open kitchen window.

Quirky? Absolutely. Random? Absolutely not. Virtually everything you see is a tangible manifestation of the life and culinary career of Pete Susca, the restaurant’s owner.

Susca, a native of New Jersey, relocated with his family some 20 years ago to the Triangle, where he helped his parents open and run La Russa’s Italian Delicatessen in Chapel Hill. In the two decades since, he has worked in a number of restaurants, most recently as bar manager at Motto, the previous tenant in the space where he opened It’s a Southern Thing. He kept the B - A - R sign from that restaurant as a souvenir.

Judging by the food he has chosen to serve at his first restaurant, Susca has fully embraced his adopted home. Inspired by classic Southern cuisine, he envisioned a fresh take on the repertoire — everything from fried green tomatoes with local goat cheese and charred tomato-bacon jam to shrimp and grits with homemade andouille sausage — with an emphasis on local produce. To put that vision on the plate, Susca chose chef Matt Kulp.

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Inspired by classic Southern cuisine, It's a Southern Thing is a fresh take on the repertoire - everything from fried green tomatoes with local goat cheese and charred tomato-bacon jam to shrimp and grits with homemade andouille sausage - with an emphasis on local produce. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Which is where that disc golf basket comes in. An avid disc golfer, Susca met Kulp while playing the game several years ago.

“Matt was an IT guy back then,” Susca says. “I got him into cooking.” In the years since, Kulp went on to work at Zely & Ritz, Garland, and most recently, McCormick & Schmick’s.

Low country crab dip, served hot under a blanket of oven-blistered aged white cheddar and accompanied by plenty of warm pita points for dipping, is a deservedly popular starter. So are charred jalapeño and sweet corn hushpuppies, though these can occasionally be a bit underdone in the center. Peel ’n’ eat shrimp, steamed in Old Bay-seasoned shrimp court bouillon, are another winning option.

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The smoked wings at It’s a Southern Thing are fried to order and given a quick dip in a vinegar-based Carolina style barbecue sauce, these come out fat, smoky and juicy beneath a crisp skin. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

But for my money, the smoked wings take the first course prize. Fried to order and given a quick dip in a vinegar-based Carolina style barbecue sauce, these come out fat, smoky and juicy beneath a crisp skin. You get just three to an order, but they’re whole three-jointers, big enough that even the wingtip offers some satisfying gnawing.

In fact, you can pretty much order anything with “smoked” in the description and count on a winner. A smoked half chicken, for one, is succulent — even the white meat — beneath a translucent glaze of bourbon-bbq sauce.

You don’t have to be vegan to appreciate the “Faux Q” sandwich, featuring house-smoked barbecue made with lentils and carrots. That is, if you can resist the temptation of pulled pork, served with collard greens, hushpuppies and potato salad studded with bacon that was cured and smoked in house.

That’s not to say the only route to a satisfying meal is by way of the smoker. The jalapeño-brined Southern fried chicken sandwich is juicy and just spicy enough in a crunchy batter (though the accompanying house-cut fries could be crisper). Blackened NC catfish, served over spicy red beans and topped with bacon-creamed spinach and crispy shallots, is another keeper.

So is the pan-seared red snapper I recently enjoyed as a special. Moist and crisp-skinned, served against a colorful backdrop of garlicky green beans, chilled tomato and herb salad, and adobo cream sauce, the dish was so popular that chef Kulp added it to the summer menu he’s rolling out.

That menu offers several tempting new options I haven’t yet had a chance to sample. K.F.C., for one, whose cheeky name in this instance stands for Kulp’s Fried Cauliflower. I could go for the crawfish and shrimp po’ boy, too, and how could anyone say no to a strawberry bourbon biscuit shortbread for dessert? And what better way to put the finishing touch on the meal than with a few sips of small batch bourbon from a collection that is the pride of a fully stocked bar?

As you leave It’s a Southern Thing after your meal, you can’t miss a large sign over the exit. In all capital letters as exuberant as the the restaurant’s owner, it says: “Y’ALL COME BACK NOW YA HEAR!” Even if you imagine hearing those words spoken with a slight fading New Jersey accent, you’ll likely be happy to accept the invitation.

It’s a Southern Thing

605 W. Main St., Durham

919-294-9632

itsasouthernthingdurham.com

Cuisine: contemporary Southern

Rating: 3 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: wildly eclectic

Noise level: moderate to high

Service: friendly and enthusiastic with occasional lapses in attentiveness

Recommended: smoked wings, peel ’n’ eat shrimp, roasted half chicken, blackened catfish, pan-seared red snapper

Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday, brunch Sunday.

Reservations: accepted

Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio (second floor courtyard); parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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