When presented with a complimentary bucket full of freshly made popcorn coated with brown sugar and bacon pieces, it’s hard not to get starry eyed. Follow that up with a stiff drink like the Grand Street Manhattan ($11), a mixture of sweet orange- and vanilla-infused bourbon with whiskey barrel bitters, and you have the start of something wonderful. Resist the urge to stuff too many fistfuls of that popcorn in your mouth and save room for former Chelsea Grill chef Omar Drammeh’s heavy menu, laden with mostly fried or cheese-coated Southern comfort food.
At the top of the list: chicken and waffles ($14). Unlike most places specializing in this dish, Drammeh has sectioned the waffles into quarters and gently placed a buttermilk batter-fried breast atop each piece. Coating the tender chicken with one of the two sauces, classic maple or the not-as-sticky peach amaretto syrup, marries the meat and pastry in a sweet and savory combo of pure bliss. The same taste pairing also comes out in the deep fried hushpuppies ($7), though the fluffy cornmeal balls get their saccharine from a spicy hot pepper jam on the side.
From the appetizer menu, try the caramelized bacon and pecan brittle ($5), a direct take on the Louisiana snack found throughout New Orleans’ bars. While we dug the crispy, candy-like brittle, we were disappointed by the mushy, goopy mac ‘n’ cheese ($9). It had a nice flavor, but the texture could have been improved by al dente noodles and a longer firing time. The pasta’s failure was quickly redeemed by the crisp casing and smoky flavor of a handmade frankfurter ($10), served with a pile of salty strings of delicately fried onion.
The care in which the food is wrought isn’t surprising given Drammeh’s unique introduction into the culinary world. At 19 years old, the young Drammeh stowed away on a boat heading from his home in Gambia toward Europe. Along the way, the ship’s captain caught the young man and put him to work in the galley. Drammeh stayed aboard the boat, cooking for three years and eventually becoming its chef before moving on to study cooking in Europe. He last worked at the famous Harlem soul palace Amy Ruth’s, which helped prepare him for his role at South Houston.
The dedication to both taste and detail here comes not only from Drammeh, but also from owner Michael Carpiniello. From the get-go, it’s obvious that after shutting down his previous joint, the Italian restaurant Lasso, Carpiniello took pleasure in developing a restaurant where solid food is the focus. While munching on the succulent thyme-scented pork chop ($17), one of the more “healthy” things on the menu despite the savory pork gravy slathered on, I noticed for the first time that I was happily dining in a sports bar— the food distracted me from the glaring basketball game to my right.
True to form, South Houston has the right components to be a haven for sports: It offers dozens of beers like the sunny Kelso Pilsner ($6) and the crisp Atwater Michigan Lager ($6); there are televisions in every corner; and the seating is made up of high tables. But, while sipping the salty, cool, cucumber-and-olive martini ($10), I couldn’t help but ruminate on the class of the space. Even the décor encompasses distinct facets, from the rotating artistdecorated blackboard in the back (a jazz scene on one visit), to the cut-metal map of old Soho circa 1968. For a space that was revently Italian chic in a trendy area, South Houston has managed to reinvent the sports bar space and comfort food cuisine to make them fashionable.
>> South Houston 331 W. Broadway (at Grand St.), 212-431-0131.