On a quest for authentic Southern soul, Amy Paige Condon savors Savannah’s meat-and-threes.
» Photography by Kala Minko
There are a good number of reasons why living in a tourist town rocks—you can travel vicariously through conversations with people from faraway places; you can use a slow-moving trolley as an excuse for being late; and you always have a ready set of iconic places to take (or send) family when they visit.
The downside comes when all the gritty, messy, everyday-ness of your hometown is sanitized for visitors who make commodities of things you hold dear, such as the righteousness of Southern food, which is quickly becoming a caricature of itself the more hip it gets. (When exactly did we become a “cuisine”?)
Thankfully, Savannah is filled with pockets of get-real grub—modest establishments where the patrons are city workers who plant trees, street lawyers with rolled-up shirtsleeves and ties askew, and moms toting a kid on each hip. These outposts—meat-and-threes—are where you can still find authentic, unfussy food that is humble, hearty and made with heart by self-taught cooks. With origins in the backs of corner stores and neighborhood grocery stores, meat-and-threes combine the convenience of fast food with the flavor of slow cooking.
Although the moniker is bandied about more often in Nashville, Tenn., and Greenville, Miss., than in Savannah, the equation remains the same no matter where you go: one meat plus three sides equals a four-square meal. Here’s a taste of the places around town that’ll melt your butter and stick to your ribs.
This aptly named take-out restaurant just off West Victory Drive and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is the kind of place you go when you need to be taken care of. Here, it’s easy to fall into friendly conversation with LaTonya, the daughter of Willie and Ida Gadson—the restaurant’s owners who serve this city’s best smothered pork chops, thick-sliced and lightly dredged in salted and peppered flour.
Although pocket-sized, Neighborhood Soul’s selections are plentiful and the servings are big. Beef stew, lasagna, fried chicken, hamburger steak, oxtail—and those are just the meats. Slip over to the sides and you’ve got cheddar-crusted mac ’n’ cheese, voluptuous butter beans, bright okra- and-tomato stew, tender field peas with the ham hock still sitting in the pan for every last bit of earthy goodness, caramelized sweet potatoes and savory beef rice with gravy. You even get your choice between plain or cracklin’ cornbread. (Go with a partner so you can try both.) Chase it all with a slice of mousse-like sweet potato pie or cinnamon-soaked bread pudding with raisins in every bite. And once you try the salmon croquettes for breakfast, you’ll be sure to have a blessed day.
504 ½ W. 42nd St. 234-5081. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
At most meat-and-threes, you slide through a buffet-style line, choose your sides, your protein, your drink and, finally, a dessert such as banana pudding made with ‘Nilla wafers. But this Southside strip-mall treasure, with a plate of greens and chitterlings hand-painted on the window, defies convention. The positively radiant Cynthia Daniels, wife of owner and cook Willie Daniels, greets you with a genuine and heartfelt “Welcome, darlin’!” the moment you walk through the door. The day’s specials are written on a propped-up dry-erase board behind the counter, where Cynthia takes your order and pours your lemonade-infused sweet tea.
Fried or blackened chicken breasts, seafood (including smothered shrimp and grits) and other mains are made-to-order here. Servers bring the food to your table in big Styrofoam containers because you’re almost certain to take half home with you—except for the fried okra, which you can’t stop eating until it’s gone. Save room for the red velvet cake, or live with regret.
7010 Skidaway Road. 692-0036. Serves lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Masada Café at the United House of Prayer for All People
Let’s be frank: God, SEC football and good, honest eats represent the Holy Trinity of the South. And, in this light-filled cafeteria tucked into the west wing of a church just over the viaduct on West Bay Street, you’ll find authentic soul food cooked up by Archie Washington, who says with the deepest conviction that his main ingredient is love.
You can taste the love in that hint of nutmeg dusted throughout the luscious mac ’n’ cheese. You can hear it in the sharp crackle of some peppery fried chicken. It hovers in the air—the scent of salted pork used to flavor greens. It’s the half-and-half iced tea that never runs dry.
The staff of Eater.com chose one place in each state to enjoy a last meal should the ancient Mayans’ apocalyptic 2012 predictions prove true. In the whole of Georgia—with its Kevin Gillespies, Hugh Achesons and Chris Nasons—they picked Masada Café. Now, maybe Eater.com was hedging its bets—this being a House of the Lord, and all. But I can’t say I disagree. If it’s the end, I want a meal that feels like a big-armed, never-ending bear hug from someone I love. Can I get an amen, brother?
2301W. Bay St. 236-9499. Serves lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sisters of the New South/Brown’s Family Restaurant
When my husband and I first moved to Savannah three years ago, we hunted for off-the-beaten-path places with full parking lots. That’s how we discovered Sisters on Skidaway Road.
For my Yankee-born husband, the simple concept of a meat-and-three was a revelation—straight-forward, uncomplicated and something he could get behind. The fact that the portions are so plentiful that he can make two (sometimes three) meals out of one purchase is even better. He’s a big fan of the spicy-sweet yams studded with pineapple chunks. I’m a sucker for the slow-simmered green beans that remind me of bygone potluck suppers.
We both love the fat squares of golden cornbread that come with every meal, but our allegiance to the meats is ever-changing. Some days it’s smothered shrimp, others it’s baked—no, wait!—fried chicken. The Sisters’ turkey wings, hamburger steak and pork chops have sated our appetites on the many occasions I didn’t feel like cooking dinner. For dessert, if you’re having a hard time choosing, pick a slice of the three-way cake, a striped confection with one layer each of chocolate, vanilla and red velvet held aloft by fluffy cream cheese frosting.
Good news for those on the west side of town: Kenneth and Vicky Brown, who run Sisters, also own Brown’s Family Restaurant on Ogeechee Road. Situated in a former Howard Johnson’s (the diner for the first franchised HoJo Motor Lodge in the country, in fact), the restaurant lacks the warm ambience of its cross-town sibling, yet it offers the same tasty bites.