As a child, I lived in the South for several years. Uprooted from New England, I ultimately never felt at home below the Mason-Dixon line, never fully embraced the stifling summer humidity, the snakes or the red clay. When the time came, I could not wait to leave. But to this day, I love returning to visit, especially because there is one thing I did fall hard for: the food.
Every once in a while, I’ll get lucky and run across grits or Lane Cake on a menu in the Northeast, but up here, it’s generally pretty difficult to find a non-barbecue restaurant that specializes in cooking from the South. Moses Sabina – himself a Yankee with college ties to Tennessee – spotted the same situation when he and his brother decided to open a restaurant in Maine a little over a decade ago.
“In Portland, Southern food is a little bit of a niche,” he said. “But it’s something I knew and I liked. There’s a feeling like being at a backyard party in the South where everybody has brought something to eat, and they end up talking about their recipes for hours. I wanted to share that with people up here the way that people shared it with me.”
During its first several years, Hot Suppa! rolled out its version of Southern hospitality only during the daytime – in the process building a reputation as one of the area’s top breakfast and brunch destinations. Purely by accident, that focus turned out to be what helped them weather the storm of the financial downturn, when diners across the country shifted their dollars to earlier, less expensive meals.
But dinner was always the objective. “People used to hound us to be open for dinner. Then, when we did it in 2010, we felt a little bamboozled, because it was really slow for the first couple of years. But since then, it has come into its own,” Sabina said.
Chalk that up, in part, to a smart, Southern-inspired cocktail list that isn’t doctrinaire about traditional recipes. A little license is taken in an excellent Sazerac ($8.50) that uses a liquoricey Pernod wash instead of absinthe, and a little more in the Firefly Half-and-Half ($8), an alcoholic take on the Arnold Palmer, made with sweet tea-infused vodka and freshly pressed lemonade.
Then there are complete reinventions, like the New Fashioned ($9), a gloss on the simple sugar-and-bourbon Old Fashioned, with muddled oranges and lemons for tartness and sweetness and served with liqueur-infused cherries that, six years ago, our then reviewer raved about in her 31/2 star review of Hot Suppa! Apart from the lemon seeds I got in my first mouthful of the drink, it was a pleasure to sip, with just enough acid to make it work as a complement to the meal – something that too-sweet or too-boozy cocktails just don’t do well.
In particular, it was exactly the sort of refreshing pairing necessary for a Flintstones-sized appetizer plate of barbecue pork spare ribs ($13), served with pickled watermelon rind and two sauces: a decent honey-chipotle sauce, and a glorious South Carolina BBQ sauce that was arch and complex, backgrounded by bacon fat and molasses.
Apologies to the saucier, but the spare ribs needed neither condiment. Because they were first coated in brown sugar to make the spices stick, then rubbed with cayenne, cumin, coriander and ground fennel before being smoked on hardwood, they retained more than enough flavor on their own. Best of all, the ribs were cooked to the point where the interior was tender, with rose pink meat that could be coaxed off the bone with nothing more than a nasty look.
So too, the moist, buttermilk-battered, sweet tea-brined chicken served as part of a plate of chicken and waffles ($17), a dish that our server – after putting both hands on the table to emphasize the importance of what she was about to say – opined was “so good that you’ll be sorry later if you don’t order it.” It was easy to see what she meant. Not only was the chicken peppery and crisp, but its perfect partner, the waffle, was light, faintly sweet and (this is a sincere compliment) a nearly identical copy of one you might taste at a famous Southern diner chain.
She also suggested we try one of the evening’s specials, a superb cup of gumbo ($8). Brimming with smoky andouille sausage, oysters, shrimp and teensy crawfish tails, it packed a punchy but pleasant heat. Despite its coffee-like color, this was also a light, brothy gumbo, not over-thickened with flour and earthy, herbal filé – a combo that can make gumbo gloppy. “I like a thinner gumbo. Cajuns in west Louisiana like their broth dark and thin, so I did it that style by leaving out the filé and going darker with the roux,” Sabina said.
Still, we ran into a few minor miscues with side dishes: The collards ($3) were earthy, mineral and full of smokiness from ham hocks, but a little too watery. Similarly, the yellow-eye baked beans ($3.50) were infused with meaty flavor from salt pork and cooked to give them just the slightest bite, yet a little too sweet. But then, a piece of exceedingly good cornbread ($3) turned things around.
Hot Suppa!’s cornbread is baked in a cast iron pan and served in wedges – with both of the cut sides grilled in butter – yielding a slice that is caramel brown everywhere you look. That is, until you open it up with a knife (or your teeth) and it reveals its steamy, lush pale yellow interior. This is an itinerant, military brat cornbread that seems to steal its defining characteristics from travels around the country: a very slight sweetness that evokes distant memories of Northern foodways, and the close but still crumbly texture of Southern cornbread made with absolutely no flour.
No wheat flour also means that the cornbread is gluten-free, just like the buttermilk pie ($6) with apple-cinnamon glaze. By far the best part of this dessert was the filling: a slightly cakey thick custard, almost the consistency of a baked cheesecake, with a rich sweetness and just a tad too much nutmeg. But the crust (which gave away no hint that it was gluten-free as I was eating it) was light, buttery and flaky.
If you’re so inclined, it turns out to be remarkably easy to avoid wheat at Hot Suppa! That’s even true of the best dish of the meal, the Hot Cat ($17), a cornmeal-crusted fillet of fried catfish, served in a pool of very loose, creamy grits (in a style reminiscent of a savory Chinese congee) and topped with a few thin slices of practically every pepper you can imagine. Jalapeño, banana, cubanelle, Anaheim, Fresno, serrano, poblano – they’re all part of this Noah’s Ark of a dish, delivering “lots of different pops of heat as you eat, so that you get a different bite every time,” Sabina said. None is really fiery enough to justify the dish’s name, but that doesn’t matter; the dish is still a delight. I might have eaten it while sitting in a booth in an exposed-brick room with a gilt inlay ceiling – not in a lawn chair at a backyard shindig a thousand miles down the coast – but the first few bites of Hot Cat made me think back fondly to my favorite Southern dishes and then do exactly what Moses Sabina wanted me to do all along: I asked about the recipe.
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter @AndrewRossME.