Southern cooking is complicated for lots of reasons. No one can deny that, whatever you call it—soul, Southern, comfort—dishes like fried pig tails have roots in slavery. It’s too much to unpack here, but it’s well worth acknowledging before heaping praise on a new restaurant where so much of the menu comes from Southern foodways.
At Lula Southern Cookhouse, pig tails are the second best-selling appetizer, right behind the blue crab pimento cheese fritter. Other comfort food staples—blackened catfish, gumbo gravy—are stacked on the menu at prices no one charges for comfort food (the baked mac and cheese is twenty-four dollars, though it is generously laden with ham). If you glanced only at the menu, it would be easy to write off Lula as another trendy restaurant capitalizing on the appeal of Southern cooking.
But Bradley Gilmore did not come haphazardly to this concept for Lula. Gilmore—who shares the chef-owner title with business partner Brandon West—was born and raised in Pittsboro, North Carolina. (Brittany Socha Gilmore, Gilmore’s wife, is a third owner.) The restaurant is named for Gilmore’s primary cooking inspiration: his granny, Lula Mae Bryant.
“My whole life in the South was around supper and breakfast and the things it took to make that happen,” he says. “I knew if I ever got the opportunity to do my own restaurant, it would be focused around Lula and the way she cooked: real Southern food—not Midwestern Southern food.”
At Lula, portions are handsome and flavors are rich because they have to be. But there’s more to it than that. Consider the classic Brunswick stew: There is nothing outwardly spectacular about this murky reddish-brown bowl, but each spoonful is a comforting delivery of tender lima beans and chunks of rabbit and pheasant in a thick, tangy, tomato-y broth. It’s delicious, and it doesn’t taste like anything else around these parts. (Gilmore omitted the traditional squirrel meat.)
Lula is located at the edge of the Crossroads in the space that belonged to sushi restaurant Nara for fourteen years. Gilmore and West opened in November on a month-to-month lease and did not enlist any heavy-duty renovations on the interior. Booths have been reupholstered with smart tan leather, accent walls have been painted robin’s egg blue, and clusters of warm Edison bulbs dangle from the rafters. A smiling portrait of Lula is posted behind the host stand, welcoming guests.
I’m guessing Lula did not sous vide her pig tails for twenty-four hours, nor is she likely to have coated them in rice flour and flash-fried them, but I believe she would appreciate the effect (they eat like chicken wings). She would approve even more of the choucroute garnie, wherein the kitchen employs its own Creole seasoning blend, pork shoulder and pork fat to make a fabulous andouille sausage. Test the Tabasco-glazed carrots on the plate at your own peril—the fiery batch I had was definitely not “Midwestern Southern.”
As for the other appetizers, you will be tempted to order triple dip, a routine cloud-pleasing trio of pimiento cheese, creamy ham salad and warm crawfish. I urge you to look just one line below it and opt instead for the vegan collard rolls, a surprising combination of jackfruit boudin sausage stuffed into steamed collard leaves and served over a sweet potato hash. That Gilmore manages to synchronize the flavors without muddling them makes you curious to know what else he could accomplish were he deprived of animal products.
But let’s not take the butter out of Lula. It plays a central role in the grits, a taste of which will make you endlessly grateful for those ample Southern portions. Growing up, Gilmore was used to plain grits that you dressed up on your plate, but guests at Lula will suffer no such labor. Here, grits are cooked down with heavy cream and whisked with white cheddar and lots of butter. They are dreamier than any truffle risotto, silkier than any fairytale porridge, soothing enough to drown out the sounds of your conscience telling you that it would be rude not to share.
Those grits show up in several places on the menu at Lula. You may enjoy them as the spotlight-stealing co-headliner in the requisite shrimp and grits, where charred shrimp and crispy fried pig ears are more like textural sprinkles. You will find a blue cheese version of them served with the grilled beef coulotte.
Catfish is another Southern staple, though it is usually offered fried. Not at Lula.
“I got tired of everyone thinking every Southern dish has to be fried,” Gilmore says. So he makes a blackening paste with oil and the Lula Creole seasoning and rubs it into a thick catfish filet. This is grilled and served atop tender collard greens that are cooked down with ham hocks and dirty rice and prepared in the Louisiana tradition with finely chopped chicken livers and oysters.
The menu does not want for seafood, so don’t feel bad about skipping the NOLA Pot Pie. A chaotic mix of oysters, crawfish, shrimp, andouille sausage and gumbo gravy are tossed into a shallow tin dish and covered with puff pastry. Cast iron or a dutch oven would help take this dish’s internal temperature past lukewarm.
The fried chicken is the undisputed star at Lula, and it almost didn’t make it on the menu. Competition is stiff, Gilmore says, and he didn’t want to mimic Midwestern comfort food spots like Rye or Brookside Poultry.
“When we had chicken in the South, it was a big production and Lula would always do plenty of sides,” Gilmore says. “We realized that we couldn’t be a Southern restaurant and not do fried chicken, so we wanted to replicate that experience here.”
A whole fried chicken and three sides goes for $75, a price that the Colonel would squawk at, but consider that the half-chicken (with two sides for $40) is easily a meal for three people. Also consider that it is the best fried chicken in Kansas City.
Here is what Gilmore says the kitchen does with their Campo Lindo chickens: They are broken down and brined in brown sugar, garlic and sage for twenty-four hours. They are dipped in buttermilk and dredged in a mix of flours, cornstarch and seasoning. They are fried in peanut oil until they resemble sun-kissed, scraggly desert ridges.
The fried chicken comes with biscuits made from a recipe that chef Jonathan Justus (Justus Drugstore, Black Dirt) helped the Lula team perfect. They weigh as much as a cotton ball and last about three bites, and their only fault is that they are perhaps too perfect. No matter: A sip of your pecan old fashioned—one of several excellent whiskey-heavy cocktails on the drink list—and your suspicions will dissolve.
Desserts are humble childhood relics, and at least the banana pudding (layered with peanut butter cookies and vanilla wafers) is blessedly petite. And though we had scarcely recovered from dinner, the simple apple crisp a la mode was somehow what everyone at the table needed: Warm, familiar—almost like something you’d get at granny’s house.