Detour Before Dark: Falling under ‘South’s’ deep spell of comfort
By Scott Thomas Anderson — first published in the Roseville Press Tribune
Born in New Orleans, it shouldn’t be a given that “all business N’Gina” knows voodoo; but after whipping up dishes in Sacramento so genuinely southern they’ve caused addicted customers to have shouting matches over tables, N’Gina’s been frustrated enough to warn misbehavers she may in fact know how to cast a Louisiana hex or two — especially if they don’t chill out, enjoy the food and just enjoy life.
And for every rare, fidgety chicken fanatic acting up inside the restaurant called South, there are a hundred more who reflect the true character of N’Gina, her husband and her staff, demonstrating a passion for connecting with friends and strangers through mind-blowing comfort food.
It’s a late Friday afternoon in the Sacramento neighborhood of Southside Park. Tucked between the looming Victorians and faded craftsmans a group is laughing and enjoying food under the cloud cover. Beyond their beers, glasses of wine and piles of Gulf Coast dishes, the singular word “South” has been scrawled on a window with a fat white marker. The exterior may look like a den for food truckers or what Louisianans call guerilla chefs, but the restaurant South has mustered such a reputation in the last 12 months that few in the neighborhood think it’s going anywhere. It was conceived with the aim of serving fine food at a quick pace, and it’s proven that philosophy from Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia can be transported anywhere.
Inside, people relax on vintage wood tables surrounded by the white washed walls and few pieces of edgy, steel-colored modern art. Shot glasses filled with water and a sweating tin bucket of ice complete the ambiance. A barely visible, aromatic cloud of oven smoke lingers throughout the dining room like pluming swamp steam.
In the back, N’Gina Kavoojian engages in food tasting with some members of her kitchen crew. She has cook Matt Wright stationed outside at a smoker working a ruby rack of ribs. N’Gina and her husband Ian both have years of experience working for popular restaurants and top wine distributors in the region, but the creation of South is entirely their own labor of love. And at this moment, some of that labor is reaching customers in the form of the joint’s gumbo, a mound of feathery white rice covered in okra-infused broth, stirred brown with shredded chicken and portions of Andouille sausage. The dish offers a tasty mishmash of cool bases under its broiling, multi-layered flavor bouquet.
Another thoroughly New Orleans-influenced dish being served is the Fettuccini Jambalaya, which pops with a searing tang from its snappy peppers and a sauce tingling from the spicy array alive in its back seasoning.
On this late afternoon, the kitchen is also putting out plenty of its Chef’s Burgers. The Gulf states may not have a monopoly on great burgers, but South is nonetheless competing for Sacramento’s championship title in that arena, putting out fat patties dripping so much one might need a crawfish-style bib to eat them. For people who love a punch of charbroiled juices and a bottom bun soaked with tasty beef bleed, this is truly their burger.
But the headliner on South’s menu — its big fight, or its main event — is the chicken. It hits the tables as drums and chunks of friable, fire-bronze trophies with skin like salty shells over the soft, perfect moisture South’s cooks coax out of the meat.
“The fried chicken is my mother’s recipe,” says N’Gina from a table near the front window. “My mother is the reason this restaurant is here. It’s taking her recipes and her history, and putting a little of my own touch on it. But in the end it’s taking everything my mother is and turning it into a physical building and physical experience.”
N’Gina, her husband and her crew have been so successful in that culinary mission that they’ve had to contend with a handful of customers spurred to ugly Californian-type behaviors rather than relaxed southern manners. This includes patrons trying to call “dibs” on tables they’re eyeing before they place their order at the counter. Such pushiness — which is antithetical to South’s spirit — has on one occasion driven N’Gina to confront the party-spoilers on her blog, pondering aloud, “Are you 4-years old? Do you lick the last Dorito in the bag so that no one else can have it?” She lamented in the same post how her good customers were being affected by those who “act the fool” and make her want to haul out her voodoo dolls.
It was more honesty than the region’s media is accustomed to from small business owners, but for South’s official “poultry tech” Danny Chicken D. Fernandez, N’Gina and Ian’s down-to-earth approach is the heart and soul of why the restaurant is a smash hit in Downtown.
“For me, the best thing about working here is the management and owners,” Fernandez remarks during a break from cutting meat. “They really do treat the staff like family, and they let us be creative while we bring great comfort food to Southside Park. It’s something no one thought would ever happen.”
On an average day, Fernandez breaks down five crates of chicken, meaning he chops more than 200 pounds of poultry before the sun goes down. He doesn’t have any illusions about why the modest dining hub keeps gaining a reputation within the area’s main culinary battle zone.
“What makes us stand out is that love that we have for the food,” Fernandez reflects. “It’s a simple as that.”
When N’Gina and Ian Kavookjian decided to take their dual 15 years of experience in the restaurant business into the realms of a solo project, they never dreamed of how much red tape and bureaucratic headaches they’d encounter. After a long, expensive process of trying to open at a sought-after Downtown Sacramento location, the couples’ bank account was tapped and their culinary vision no closer to being a reality. That’s when the two engaged in an act of improvisation that would have made jazz masters in N’Gina’s hometown of New Orleans smile with approval. They took over an abandoned Chinese market in Southside Park and turned it into the region’s most talked-about destination for comfort food. In the middle of tasting testing new items and chatting with regulars, N’Gina reflected on South’s one-year anniversary.
Scott: So tell me how South ended with this unique space.
N’Gina: We worked so hard to start at the other location, and when that wasn’t going to happen, we finally decided, ‘Let’s just get open and get the food out to people.’ This old market was basically left the way it was when it closed, and it was pretty grimy when we came in; but we cleaned up, and the next thing you know we had food coming out of the kitchen.
Scott: Where does South’s down home feel come from?
N’Gina: After all of the trials and tribulations we had with the city, when we finally opened we didn’t have any money left for all the bells and whistles on the atmosphere. We had to be very simple with the décor, and we knew that the food was going to have to be amazing to keep people coming back. There was going to be no extra plus with customers from a fancy ambiance. From day one, we understood the food had to be spectacular and consistent for us to keep the doors open.
Scott: Having been born in New Orleans, and having family in Louisiana and Mississippi, is it safe to say that connection is the main inspiration behind the menu?
N’Gina: We definitely look to that heritage and familial background. Our focus is food from the gulf area, and my family is still in Biloxi, Tylertown and New Orleans, so that really is where our kitchen puts its energy.
Scott: South has a pretty fanatical fan base. What do you attribute it to?
N’Gina: I think the most important thing is that our customers know that we’re not doing this to be famous. We’re not trying to get onto the Food Network or Guy Fieri’s show. Honestly, I could care less if we end up in national magazines. We have a lot of customers who are always telling us they think we could do those things. But that’s not what we’re about. As southerners, we truly love to feed people. I want people to walk in and feel they’ve been invited into our home, and I want them to know Ian and I are actually owners they can come in and talk to.
Scott: Is that relationship with your customers another southern influence?
N’Gina: Yeah, but I wouldn’t just chalk it up to ‘southern hospitality.’ I don’t actually like that phrase because I feel it’s really been bastardized. What people in the south are about is so much deeper than just being nice … being southern is about respecting people, relating to people, having a connection.