Friday February 21, 2014 | 07:15 AM

When Portlanders want to eat well on a budget, a place like Hot Suppa! fits the bill.  Since I’ve been frequenting so-called cut-rate dining rooms this month in my quest to find good, moderately priced food, I set my sights once again on the hungry heart of fine dining on a budget.

The dining room and bar at Hot Suppa

I’ve been intrigued by Hot Suppa! for years.   I love their concept but haven’t always been thrilled with the food.  What they do is comfort food that leans on the tendrils of southern fare, a cuisine that is dear to my heart.    The menu is influenced by the usual suspects of barbecue in various guises, New Orleans-inspired dishes and the whole panorama of regional cooking from parts of the Midwest, the Deep South and the Carolinas. 

The blackboard specials that evening read very well

Brothers Alex and Moses Sabina, according to their website bio, “…Embarked on a gastronomic tour, eating their way across America’s finest diners, barbecue fests, soul food joints, and fish frys. . . seeking the simple perfection of everyday regional dishes served in establishments where original recipes are still made from scratch.  Their goal was to learn how a good neighborhood restaurant becomes a food institution; the type of place that a friend tells a friend not to miss.”

It’s a nice story and the restaurant has certainly been a success.  But sometimes regional cooking taken out of its natural habitat doesn’t travel well.  

Or perhaps it’s an issue with Hot Suppa!'s kitchen, which could be doing better than it does. The food can be gutsy and at other times it misses.  Yet none of this keeps the crowds away, lining up  for weekend brunch or for lunch and dinner nearly every day of the week. 

I stopped in last week for breakfast and ordered a special on the board.  It was called cornbread hash.  It turned out to be cubes of yellow cornbread that was hashed with Andouille sausage and kielbasa, and sautéed onions and green peppers.

It was served, as requested, with poached eggs.  But the dish was very dry, especially the cornbread—over baked and over done in the hashing.  Some good old bacon grease would have helped moisten the dish.  The eggs were overcooked, too, when runny yolks should have hugged the hash. 

Several days later a friend joined me there for dinner.  We arrived at 5:30 because my buddy likes to eat early--an ungodly dinner hour indeed.  To our surprise the dining room was already pretty full and we secured one of the last remaining booths. 

We were in time for the 4 PM to 6 PM Happy Hour, which listed such small-plate bites—at discounted prices from the menu--as New Orleans style barbecued shrimp and smoked marinated chicken wings.  We ordered both.  The shrimp were tasty, and we eagerly mopped up the brown butter sauce with the slices of French bread served with it.

New Orleans style barbecued shrimp

Marinated wings

The chicken wings were excellent in a sweet and spicy sauce.  I had been earlier in the week to a place famous for its wings and these compared favorably at double the price ($5 for 5 wings).  My friend who’s in the restaurant business disagreed and thought a buck a wing was average.

We also ordered a side of fried green tomatoes.  The breading was very tasty as was the remoulade dipping sauce.  The tomatoes were, however, tasteless and undercooked, needing a knife and fork to cut through them.  I’m not so sure that green tomatoes should be cooked out of season anyway.  These were local tomatoes grown in a winter greenhouse; but missing was the inimitable sweetly sour flavor of seasonal green tomatoes plucked from young or old vines.

Fried green tomatoes

Onto entrees I had the seared pork chop.  If it was in fact seared the chop should have had more crust; instead it was barelyy kissed by the heat.  The meat was very tender (was it smothered?) with good flavor, but should have been hotter. The tomato jam was delicious but cold instead of being served at room temperature.  The chop was placed over mashed potatoes that were mixed with bacon, cheddar and scallions.  After all that the potatoes were dull. With it came braised spinach with garlic.  It was very garlicky.

Seared pork chop with tomato jam

My friend chose the Cajun jambalaya made with chicken, smoked sausage and Cajun rice.  He wasn’t happy with it at all.  He thought the rice was soft (overcooked) and gummy and the rest was dry and uninteresting.

Chicken jambalaya

We ended the meal with dessert—Hot Suppa!’s version of Boston cream pie with lemon custard and a blueberry sauce.  The cake part was leaden—more custard would have helped moisten the dry layers.  The blueberry sauce, though,  was a good touch.

 Hot Suppa's version of Boston cream pie










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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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