Thomas Boemer says he has only five or so other childhood memories before this one: "I was about six or seven at a big festival dinner in North Carolina, and another kid about my age looked at me and said, 'You want some BBQ?' I looked around, confused, and all I saw was this big pile of chopped meat, practically black at the edges. And then I tasted some. And it was the best thing I ever ate."
The chef/co-owner of south Minneapolis restaurants Revival and Corner Table was born and raised, until he was five, in Minnesota. Then, thanks to his stepdad's job, the family up and relocated to Lexington, North Carolina, a city that is a crucible of high BBQ tradition. They take their tradition so seriously, it can spark politically charged controversies as high up as the state legislature. Senate bills have been proposed to protect the name of the "official BBQ of North Carolina." Says Boemer: "It's pork shoulder only, smoked, usually with a dry rub and served with a vinegar-based sauce." That's it. Nothing more, nothing less, pure perfection.
That serious tradition made a serious impression on Boemer, a kid who, like many Midwestern '70s kids, grew up on powdered potato flakes and frozen chicken breasts. Things didn't work that way in Lexington. At his friend's house, mom was busy frying chicken in small, deliberate batches while the greens cooked down hard and the grits burbled on the back burner. "I just have this memory of watching her from the kitchen doorway, my jaw practically dropped, and she said, 'Are you going to just stand there, or are you going to come over here and help me fry some chicken?'"
In these moments, and lots of others too, Boemer developed a deep and abiding love for Southern cooking. And when he returned to the Twin Cities as an adult, it was clear: There was nothing of the sort to be found here.
"I would talk to people and they'd be telling me about fried chicken in crumpled paper bags. I said no — we put fried chicken on the fine china. Fried chicken is for the quintessential weekly family meal. There's nothing 'joint like' or 'shack like' about it. The places you eat this kind of food, the way it makes you feel, it's almost a religious experience."
Chasing the "authenticity" of classic American food is a fool's errand, especially when it comes to home cooking. But whether you grew up on Southern home cooking like Boemer did or if this is your very first taste, know this: You can feel reasonably assured that the cooking at Revival is what Southern food is supposed to taste like. Southerners regularly tell Boemer and co-owner Nick Rancone that they feel like they've just walked through a portal in time and space. Which does not mean that cooking food with this much historical and emotional weight is without its pitfalls — what's legit at one family's table might be blasphemy at another's.
"Of course you've got people who will say: 'We always had raw onion in our Hoppin' John!' So I tell my crew, if someone wants you to chop up a raw onion, then you chop up a raw onion." And whether you're quibbling about raw onion, or the particular seasoning blend in the greens, trust that Boemer knows this food well. He gets animated: "You've got to be from there to know what it's supposed to taste like. You've got to put some salt in the black-eyed peas! You've got to put some butter in it. You've got to be able to see a liquor in the pot!"
So the black-eyed peas, which Boemer says his young son sits in front of and shovels into his mouth with a blank stare on his face, do have a liquor. So does the Hoppin' John, which we actually found to be a little under-salted on our visit. This brings up an interesting point: Boemer is teaching his mostly Midwest-born crew this food — no small task — with an altogether different approach. "I tell them, we're not going to do cookbook cooking here. It's good that you can get inspired by cookbooks and TV, but this is home cooking." That means tossing in the raw onion even if the cookbook would instruct otherwise.
But it's clear that they haven't altogether chucked the books, or French technique, or the many culinary lessons restaurants teach in their many relentless, instructive moments. Sorry, Chef, but the proof is in the gloss of the bechamel on the mac and cheese, the flavor coaxed out of the collards even though they're vegetarian, the skillful crust on hefty hush puppies that crack to reveal pillowy steam and corn fluff.
It's also in the farm greens with a buttermilk dressing like what Hidden Valley meant to be but never was — evocative of the outdoors, of picnic tables, of ponds and flitting butterflies and big bell jars filled with wildflowers. The proof is in the pork rinds: big, dramatic, almost cartoonish crunchers that, whether you grew up on pork rinds or don't even know what one is supposed to be like, you'll enjoy because they're addictive and amusing as that primitive stoner's snack, the Funyun.
And of course, it's in the buttermilk-and-flour-battered, simple but ethereal chicken that Boemer says he essentially learned in his friend's mom's kitchen: dry and crisp on the flesh, piping hot and moist within, and with a crust that adheres steadfastly to the skin, no hint of old grease. This is clean, meaty, pleasant chicken.
The chicken now comes in four preparations — Southern fried, gluten free, Tennessee hot, and "Poultrygeist" with ghost chiles. That last preparation is inspired in some part by the ghost pepper chicken wings from Marla's Caribbean, where the kitchen crew crowds in after a shift. "We drew a line in the sand and said we are not going to apologize for making things spicy," says Boemer. They also offer four styles of house-made hot sauce that range from sweet-potato sweet to "WTF just happened to my face?"
Much brouhaha has been made about the Revival burger, and I say skip it. You can't swing a bag of buns without hitting a burger in this town, and if you gotta go here to get one, you're doing it wrong. We could see what they were trying to do (double patty American cheese griddle burger reminiscent of the now famous Parlour burger, or Chicago's au Cheval, or wherever you wish to trace it back to), but ours was overcooked and we get how that might happen. This here is a chicken place. Treat it with the esteem of the best one we might have ever had around here and leave the burger craving at home, this once.
If you absolutely must stray from the chicken, choose the Lexington pork shoulder, inspired by the BBQ of the chef's childhood, though not in fact the fatty, almost blackened pile of chopped pork on a bun. These are delicate slabs of the tenderest, eight-hour hickory and oak-smoked pork, almost steak-like in their form, resting like royalty in a silken lake of drinking-straw-worthy jus, bumping up against a sandcastle hill of plush yet toothsome white cheddar grits, soul-satisfying greens, and finished with house B&B pickles. It's a stunner of a dish, easily shareable and served in a bowl for those extra, deep-down comfort feelings.
While great cooking can provoke all sorts of feelings— excitement, curiosity, bravery, and even small, sad, petty things like elitism and exclusivity — few emotions inspire like comfort.
"I have the proudest, most humbling moments of my life when I walk into my dining room and it's packed and I can look out and see what our community really, really looks like — people who pull up in a BMW, people who take the bus to get here, the little neighborhood girl who comes in all by herself and sits at the counter and orders a two-piece."
Come to Revival and see what your community really looks like. And be comforted.Revival
4257 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
menu items: $3-$24
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