Well, Shut My Mouth
There’s a lot to love about Kiss My Grits, a cozy little restaurant located behind Varsity Grill &Bar in Puck’s Alley. It’s as cute as a blue and white apron, it’s as American as a red and white tablecloth, but bless their little ‘ole hearts, they need a lesson in frying chicken from Paula Dean or Sean Priester of Soul Café in Kaimuki.
But let’s start with the good stuff, shall we? Kiss My Grits has a menu which reminds us, that like the word church, the word barbecue in the south is a verb, not a noun. You church on Sunday, you barbecue everyday. As someone who lived in the South for nearly a decade, I learned first hand what it means to say Mr. and Miss before anyone’s first name, and, maybe even more importantly, that you never, ever assume that the tea you just ordered will come to your table any other way than sweet. The truth is, I learned to appreciate these customs, and I learned to love Southern food more than just about anything else.
So I planned for a Tuesday night out at Kiss My Grits as a journey down memory lane. I studied their menu online. I read reviews and grew sentimental about drinking from mason jars, and then I put on my best pair of stretchy jeans. I even found a Bible, which I stuffed into my purse just in case I felt like churchin’ afterward. So when I pulled up to the pretty blue and white windows and a sign that said “Southern Biscuits & Barbeque,” I grew nostalgic about that tiny “q” in the word barbecue. There it was, a reminder that Southerners, even when it comes to spelling, are true rebels.
As you walk into the restaurant a sign says, “Take a seat and grab a menu,” and it’s all easy enough. The tables have fresh flowers and jars of vinegar and pepper sauce, and on the stove, I can see a whole mess of biscuits, and I’m thinking that pretty soon a feather’s gonna float by and I’m gonna wake up in Greenbow, Alabama.
Needless to say, I was mighty pleased to see that Brunswick stew (also known as “hash”) made it onto Kiss My Grits’ menu. They say it’s a North Carolina staple, but I say it’s a simply Southern staple found in restaurants from the tip of Tennessee all the way to the Carolinas and Georgia, and the stew gets pretty hairy (as in squirrels and rabbits) when you get to the Mississippi/Alabama border. Just as the name suggests, this tomato-based stew is full of butter beans, okra, corn and beef, chicken or pork. If cooked right, the stew has a smoky flavor, and Kiss My Grits nearly satisfied my great expectations.
Also on the menu are biscuits and gravy. This sounds like a simple dish, but listen here Honey, biscuits and gravy–Southern-style–are hard to come by in Hawaii. So you can imagine my disappointment when the gravy turned out to be–brace for it!–brown instead of white. What happened to white gravy over biscuits? Bleached flour needs a home somewhere, but this grossly over-peppered gravy was devastated by too much sausage grease, which turned my gravy the color of muck. It was almost criminal.
The man sitting next to me had an oyster po’ boy (which is basically an oyster sandwich on thick chewy bread) and he seemed rather delighted. But the family sitting at the back table behind me had a real mess on their hands–three plates of black chicken. I made no judgments, for gawd’s sake, I hadn’t even tasted it yet, but from the looks of things, nobody was kissing anybody’s grits tonight. That chicken was burnt like rubber.
Instead of complaining, the family kept their mouths shut, literally, and three plates of chicken were later tossed into the trash by the very friendly, but hardly apologetic waitress.
Now that’s just a dang shame.
North Carolina barbecue is all about the vinegar, the salt and the snobbish attitude about sauce, which means they prefer it without, and that’s a debate any serious barbeque-er is more than ready to join. At Kiss My Grits you can order a Carolina chopped barbecue plate, which includes coleslaw, hushpuppies and a deviled egg for $10.95. You can choose between the “North” version (a vinegar and red pepper sauce) or the “South” version (a tangy mustard sauce). For me, I prefer my barbecue the way I prefer my Civil War politics–Yankee style.
Pimento cheese is served with just about everything, and I’m pretty sure I tasted a little fatback in my shrimp and grits, and that made me smile. Although the shrimp and grits were a tad bit too creamy (I can’t believe there is such a thing), I will say that I liked it. Where it succeeded in its perfect preparation of grits, it failed in overall balance, and I would be doing us all a disfavor if I didn’t mention that. The dish is, after all, nearly $15 and served in a paper bowl with a plastic spoon.
The truth is, I wanted to love this place. I wanted to crack my knuckles and lick my lips every time I thought about its biscuits and its sides of fried green tomatoes and collard greens and fried okra. But dangit, I was just plain underwhelmed. I’m not trying to be hateful, just honest, and should the sky fall on my head, I want my readers to know that to dine at Kiss My Grits is not to dine in the real South. Perhaps the owners are from North Carolina, as the menu suggests, but there’s something soulful missing.