Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: For your consideration, two more Southern-inspired restaurants

Bubby’s Pie Co.
Address: 120 Hudson St. (@ North Moore St.)
Phone: 212-219-0666
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. (brunch) and 6:00-11:00 p.m. (dinner); closed 4:00-6:00 p.m. on weekends.
Editor's Note: Bubby’s has a second location at 1 Main St. in DUMBO, Brooklyn; 718-222-0666.

The Goods
The food at Bubby’s isn’t so much “Southern” or “Soul Food” as it is just honest American cooking with its own unique perspective: Make everything from scratch using fresh, local ingredients. And because it doesn’t claim to serve authentic Southern food, I don’t hold it to the same stiff standards that I reserve for those restaurants that classify themselves as Southern. But, it is definitely Southern-flavored and no matter what standard you hold it to, it doesn’t disappoint.


  • Delivers what it promises
  • Wholesome ingredients
  • Classic pies


  • I’ve tried, but I just can’t come up with any negatives.

My Meal

  • Soup of the Day, $3.95 (cup) or $5.95 (bowl): Rosemary White Bean
  • Smoked BLT, $4.95 (1/2) or $8.95 (whole): The classic with Applewood-smoked bacon on homemade bread
  • Sour Cherry Pie, $5.95: Plump whole cherries and a buttery lattice crust

On a recent two-and-a-half hour break during jury duty – an experience that is taking me longer to digest than any large meal, and which I will write about in this space shortly – I walked from the courthouse at 111 Center St. over to the corner of Hudson and North Moore for a leisurely lunch at Bubby’s. A large, airy, sunny space, Bubby’s was the perfect antidote to the chilly – make that frigid – gloomy courthouse, and the food was most definitely a comfort.

With its Tribeca location, Bubby’s draws an eclectic lunchtime crowd of business people, film professionals, lawyers, neighborhood locals, tourists and, in my case, jurors. In other words, if you’re dining alone, it makes for good eavesdropping and people watching while you eat. To my right was a pair of tired (or so it seemed) tourists who had little to say to each other (or so it seemed) and to my left, a pair of soccer moms out sans the kids for a change (or so it seemed). I also strained to hear the networking session going on between two well dressed, well coiffed women, marketing professionals in the entertainment industry (or so it seemed), who both ordered the Pear-Arugula salad. Their lunch seemed so much more glamorous than my escape from New York State Supreme Court. I intentionally held up my copy of The Independent magazine so they’d think I was one of them, but alas, they never noticed.

The range of daily specials and regular menu items at Bubby’s matches the diversity of its patrons. I had a tough time deciding between lunch or breakfast, which is served up until dinner time (eggs, grits and homefries; banana-walnut pancakes; and huevos rancheros are just a few of the choices), and so I compromised with the Smoked BLT. This isn’t your local diner’s BLT: Hearty slices of homemade whole wheat bread were topped with thick slices of chewy applewood smoked bacon, crisp lettuce and firm tomatoes. The Rosemary White Bean Soup, one of the day’s specials, that I had as a starter delivered what it promised – not just a hint of rosemary, and not an overpowering amount either, but just right, flavoring small tender white beans in a tomato base.

I was pretty much full as a tick after the soup and sandwich but couldn’t pass up the Bubby’s specialty, a slice of homemade pie. Again, with a mix of seasonal specials and staples on the menu, I really had to ponder my selection. I finally decided on the sour cherry pie, heated up and served with homemade whipped cream laced with real vanilla. I don’t even usually like whipped cream, but I’d forgotten to ask the waiter to hold it, and I was actually glad. It was like having my pie – with a buttery handcrafted crust – a la mode, but without the heft.

I dreaded going back to the court house afterward, but the good-natured ambience and naturally good food at Bubby’s eased, if only for a bit, my frustration over a trial that never should have been. But, like I said, more on that in another column.

Afterthought: I was entirely happy with my meal, and would order any of it again on a subsequent visit. But I reckon next time I’ll have to try the Meatloaf & Gravy and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie. The various barbeque dishes and Tex-Mex choices look great, too.

Spanky’s BBQ
Address: 127 West 43rd St.
Phone: 212-302-9507
Hours: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11:00 p.m.; Sunday, 12:00-9:00 p.m.

The Goods
Virgil’s Real Barbeque, around the corner on West 44th St. (see BONUS TRACK, below), has better ribs – and sweet tea, which Spanky’s lacks. But all in all, Spanky’s offers a decent down-home meal.


  • Spicy popcorn shrimp
  • Collard greens cooked like your Southern grandmother used to make
  • Hefty portions


  • Soggy Fried Green Tomatoes
  • Ribs with more aroma than flavor
  • Bland banana cream pie

My Meal

  • Fried Green Tomatoes, $8.50: Firm, not yet ripened tomatoes fried and doused with an unidentifiable sauce
  • Popcorn Shrimp, $7.50: Expertly seasoned, battered and fried with a remoulade
  • St. Louis Style Center Cut Pork Ribs, $21.50 (full rack, 10-12 pieces) or $16.50 (half-rack, 5-6 pieces): Smoked short ribs with cole slaw and one side
  • Collard Greens, available as a free side order with select dishes or $2.95 a la carte: Finely chopped and slightly vinegary (although I’m pretty sure they were actually turnip greens)
  • Candied Sweet Potatoes, available as a free side order with select dishes or $2.95 a la carte: Traditionally sweet and cinnamon-tinged, but somehow watery
  • Banana Cream Pie, $4.50: A mushy, uninspired mess

Editor's Note: No, I did not eat all of that by myself… I had help from my dining partner, Aram Bauman, a Brooklynite who also had Tater Tots and thought it was all good. Tater Tots are just too school-cafeteria for me, so I can’t vouch for those.

Still seeking solace from what was – as I’ve mentioned – a painful jury duty experience, I turned to another so-called Southern restaurant, this one a Times Square theme restaurant owned by the man who brought you the Heartland Brewery. His intentions are good: The menu at Spanky’s BBQ features a solid mix of genuine Southern smokehouse staples (ribs, barbeque chicken, collard greens, sweet potato pie) and classic roadhouse staples (chicken fried steak, Texas chili). It also has some souped-up versions of the above catering to tastes north of the Mason-Dixon Line (smoked maple-cured pork loin with a mango barbecue sauce and a fried catfish sandwich served on brioche), which is only fair considering the restaurant is, after all, in the heart of Manhattan.

But Spanky’s both a hit and a miss. The smokehouse aroma is more enticing than the actual flavor of the ribs, and the meat doesn’t exactly fall off the bone like it should. On the other hand, if you’ve never had true Southern barbeque or are jonesing for it pretty bad, Spanky’s will get the job done.

Like the ribs, the sides were a tad bland. They were flavorful to a degree, just not as rich or salty as the real thing. The collard greens were chopped up fine and cooked down well with bits of smoked pork – a plus since many times they are left large and leafy and simply steamed ( a distinctly un-Southern way to make collard greens). In fact, I believe that they may have actually been turnip greens – which I prefer to collards but can never find in the naked city. The candied sweet potatoes were O.K., but their flavor seemed diluted by being cooked in too much water. I wanted to try the black eyed peas, but the waiter said they weren’t seasoned with pork so I thought, what’s the point? I love black eyed peas cooked just about any way, but when I’m eating out in a Southern spot, they better be cooked with ham hocks.

As for the appetizers, you seldom see fried green tomatoes on any menu in New York, so Spanky’s gets bonus points just for having them. But if you’ve never tried them before, don’t judge them by those at Spanky’s. Battered rather than simply dredged in cornmeal, salt and pepper, and then drenched in an indistinct sauce, they were, in a word, disappointing. Far better was the Popcorn Shrimp, which we had no trouble polishing off.

One thing Spanky’s has going for it is portions. They were large enough that even with two of us eating, I took home enough leftovers for a substantial meal a few days later. And even though I’d been a bit disappointed by the food, I had no trouble finishing it off the second time around.

Afterthought: If I had it to do over again, I’d probably try the Jalapeno Poppers and/or Heap of Onion Straws appetizers instead of the Fried Green Tomatoes, and at some point I will have to return to try the Chicken Fried Steak and the “Southern Fried Chicken.” I had to put that in quotes because fried chicken is only called “Southern Fried” when you’re not in the South… As for dessert, I’d probably try the Sweet Potato Pie or Key Lime Pie next time around.

BONUS TRACK: Top 3 Southern Food Joints in Manhattan

So many New York restaurants promising Southern food – or soul food, if you prefer – just don't deliver the real thing. The fried chicken is overly battered; the mac-n-cheese, gussied up; the iced tea, unsweetened; the barbecue, too sweet; the vegetables, bland and undercooked.

Here are three Manhattan joints serving the cholesterolilicious real thing, right down to the vegetables unfit for a vegetarian, spiced with pork and cooked until just before the point of disintegration.

1) Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too
Address: 366 West 110th St.
Phone: 212-865-6744.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, noon-10:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, noon-11:00 p.m.; Sunday, 11:00 a.m.-9:30 p.m.;

Miss Mamie's has the quintessential Southern baked mac-n-cheese – a square-shaped serving that doesn't dissolve into a saucy mess. Although you'll be stuffed after the meat-and-two-sides entree and basket of cornbread, indulge in the banana pudding anyway. If the Red Velvet cake is available that day, it's a must-try, too.

2) The M&G Diner
Address: 383 W 125th St.
Phone: 212-864-7326.
Hours: Daily, 8:00 a.m.-11:30 p.m.

You know it's for real when the baked mac-n-cheese arrives swimming in its own butter; and the salty corn muffins – the closest to real Southern cornbread you'll find in the city – come swimming in butter; and the candied yams come swimming in butter. Don't miss the fried chicken; the smothered chicken runs a close second. TIP: Call first in the summer; the place shuts down for two or three weeks for vacation.

3) Virgil's Real Barbecue
Address: 152 West 44th St.
Phone: 212-921-9494.
Hours: Sunday-Monday, 11:30 a.m.-11 :00 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight.

Yes, it's in Times Square. Yes, it draws a considerable number of tourists. But Virgil's is nonetheless the real thing, with barbecue that will make you think, for at least a while, you're down in Memphis, and Elvis may come walking through the door any minute now. Other highlights: Big fluffy biscuits with gravy and the Oklahoma State Fair Corn Dogs appetizer.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes, this blog is supposed to be about life in Manhattan, not the definitive authority on Southern restaurants in the Big Apple. While I may arrogantly consider myself somewhat of an expert on that topic, I’ll get back on point in my next entry. Consider me banned from discussing Southern food for a while – at least until I start craving it again…