In Search of Southern Cooking in
America at Large:
Tupelo in Cambridge
Skynyrd and Fried Chicken: Come on in! With a sign like that, who could resist walking into Tupelo on a warm Saturday evening? Lots of people, apparently, for the restaurant was more than half-empty when my friends and I walked in. Much to my dining companions’ chagrin, the staff was not, in fact, playing any Skynyrd. Instead, we were greeted with Neil Young’s “Southern Man”: a little cliché, if you ask me. But we weren’t in much place to argue. After all, one of my friends was wearing cropped seersucker pants.
Despite the music, we were pleased to be seated quickly. With locally brewed beers in hand and complementary corn bread on our plates, we tackled the menu. (Louisianan ex-pats take note: They do also serve a couple different Abitas should you need to satisfy an urge.) Tupelo offers a slightly off-kilter selection of Creole-influenced comfort food: Think gumbo, fried oysters, and catfish, along with chicken and dumplings, mac and cheese, and meatloaf. Oh right, and fried chicken—at brunch it comes on a waffle or sandwiched in a biscuit. Most entrees come balanced on top of a mountain of side dishes like grits, mashed potatoes, stewed greens, and pickles, lending a plate aesthetic akin to those emerging from the buffet at all-you-can eat cafeterias like Picadilly’s. Restraint must not be a familiar word in the kitchen.
After munching on my sweet, cake-like corn bread, I tucked into the blackened catfish plate. The fish was tender and spicy, and the meat flaked onto my fork in handsomely large chunks indicative of perfectly cooked white fish. I could tell you that the coating could have been a tad crisper, but then I’d be seriously nitpicking. Alongside the fish were supple braised collards, house-pickled cabbage and cucumbers, and an unfortunate pool of watery, over-salted cheese grits (skip). Ignoring the grits was sad but easy. I made up for my lacking carb quotient with a few more bites of corn bread, giving me a meal that was pretty darn good despite its unoriginality.
My friend in the seersucker ordered barbecue chicken, one of the night’s specials. It was, again, a massive plate of food: an entire half of a chicken slicked with K.C. Masterpiece-style sauce and cooked just past pink teetered precariously on cheese grits (unfortunately from the same watery pot from which mine came), pickles, and spinach salad, making for what was, once again, a perfectly serviceable dinner.
Another companion stuck a bit closer to the Creole side of the menu, choosing to slurp from an enormous bowl of chicken and andouille gumbo. The bowl was sloppy and adorned with what looked to be a misplaced slice of soft baguette, but the stew was rich, spicy, and thick with magical okra ooze. It was everything one could expect from a gumbo—nothing more.
The next weekend, I returned for brunch and sat solo at the bar. The weekend menu is, once again, a mish-mash of Creole-ish dishes, Southern standards, and typical over-the-top hangover helpers. I steered clear of biscuits and gravy, the egg sandwich loaded with all kinds of meat and cheese, and the pie-filled waffle (um, what?) in order to fully attack their signature fried chicken and waffles.
Unlike other restaurants previously discussed in these pages, Tupelo’s chicken and waffles come in one flavor: bourbon. Okay, so just the syrup and butter are bourbon-based, but together their alcohol content probably equals that of a strong Jack and Coke. In other words, once the butter is smeared on the waffle and the syrup drizzled daintily over the crisp chicken skin, I needed no Bloody Mary to get my hair of the dog.
Sadly, the extra-crisp breading on which I drizzled the syrup was only extra-crunchy due to its extra-long time in the fryer. Given the speed with which I received my plate, Tupelo must pre-fry their chicken and then throw it back into the fryer for a reheat before service. Now, a double-fry is by no means a bad idea (see Mission Chinese Food’s double-fried chicken wings), but it only works if the double-fry is done with care.
Even with its over-fried chicken and lackluster grits, I’d return to Tupelo. In fact, I’d return frequently if it weren't an hour’s train ride from my apartment. The place just feels right.
Instead of being slapped on the side of your head with hip grunge or sleek, cool minimalism, Tupelo nestles diners into a space of comfort. It’s not the cocoon-like comfort of a worn-in comfy couch, but rather the understated charm of a decades-old rocking chair; the seat may look a little hard and rickety at first glance, yet after only a few seconds of sitting, feels perfectly contoured to the body. Sit down at a table with a cold drink and you’ll be tempted to spend an entire evening in the small dining room, nursing a beer, chitchatting, and slowly munching away until you’ve forgotten what it was you were supposed to do that night.
Eating at Tupelo is a reminder that not all contemporary Southern restaurants have to ride the hipster wave. Servers don’t have to wear thrift-store accented American Apparel to sling fried chicken. Plates don’t need to be painstakingly composed or accented with the most in-vogue seasonable pickle. Sometimes, the grits can be grits and the chicken can be chicken. The food doesn’t always have to be mind-blowing, exciting, or new.
When I think of the best meals I’ve eaten—Southern or otherwise—the food itself is often outranked by the experience of eating it. I would much rather eat decent food in a comfortable setting surrounded by friends than picture-perfect, over-designed plates in an obnoxiously trendy restaurant surrounded by food bloggers with their digital S.L.R. cameras. In fact, my meals at Tupelo have felt more authentic for their lack of pretension than those I have had at restaurants more eager to show off their attention to Southern detail. If the back of the house just fried the chicken to order and thickened the grits, Tupelo could actually stake a claim for best low-key Southern in the city.