Sissy's Serves Up Southern Charm the Texas Way: By the Bucket
Simmered down to an elevator pitch, Sissy's Southern Kitchen and Bar might sound like a handful of other Dallas newcomers: Food Network contestant comes close but doesn't win it; television near-miss spawns pseudo celebrity; fame spurs restaurant dreams and the masses come to eat.
Mostly this model has been applied to high-ticket dining, lacquered with a veneer of psuedo-refined cooking that chips away at closer inspection. But with Sissy's, owner Lisa Garza and her team have tried something a little more down-to-earth. And so far it seems to be working.
Just because Garza's new temple to Southern comfort invokes a more casual dining experience doesn't mean she's left anything to chance. She's hired as her chef Jeffery Hobbs, best known for his stint at Suze, a neighborhood spot with a monied following where Garza once worked the front end. She also hired Hatsumi Kuzuu, who helped transform Tei-An into a sleek, urban sushi den and captured Garza's vision here, building a dining room fit for the cover of Garden and Gun.
Sissy's turns on the charm well before you tear into your first pickled Gulf shrimp. The quaint A-frame cottage sports yellow doors that beckon like buttercups in the afternoon sunlight. Inside, just past the host stand in the small vestibule, the main dining room continues the almost saccharine seduction. A polished marble bar frames bow-tied bartenders at the ready. China and deer busts hang on the far wall, which frames an extended bar area outfitted with high-tops. Dark wood tones play off the creamy white interior.
On many nights Garza is working the floor herself, looking every bit the part as her Southern-inspired dishes are served on Spode Delamere plates. On a Friday night visit, the space is filled to capacity and blanketed by her bustling waitstaff, all tricked out in button-down shirts and country dresses. (The ladies wear aprons Garza designed herself.) It's all so very Southern, bless their savvy little hearts. And thankfully the food backs up the country charm.
To get the most out of Sissy's, you'll have to order the fried chicken, which is difficult to do with any semblance of restraint. The menu postures a two-piece order for $11 against an entire bucket containing 10 pieces for just $9 more. The price difference initiates a passionate inner monologue that borders on despair for solo diners. This solo diner, anyway.
You can't be eating fried chicken, not with Dallas' 45-minute pool season around the corner, and you certainly can't go around ordering 10 pieces in a row, but you will seriously think about it. Lisa's menu makes you order that bucket for matters of simple economics. And then when you do it, you somehow wind up pleased.
I start with a hunk of white meat because a breast is on top of the basket and there is no time for discernment. Then I eat a thigh, because I'm a professional and duty calls. The third piece I consume I have no good excuse for and it causes me great shame. I offer this information as an endorsement of the chicken's overall quality, and as repentance.
The chicken is pressure-fried. The way Hobbs tells it, pressure frying is the only way to go. The technique employs a space-ship deep fryer to crust up the bird at 325 degrees. It's much faster than traditional deep-frying, which allows the kitchen to turn out more of it, and the process ensures juicy and tender flesh. It's a good enough technique that a fellow named Colonel Harland Sanders built a fried chicken empire on it.
Hobbs' chicken sports a crisp mahogany crust and moisture hopped up by a low-salinity, 24-hour brine. It's even better after a night in the fridge — as if you needed another reason to order the bucket. But there are other dishes worth taking home, too.
Deviled eggs are cliché these days, served up at every trendy bar with a leather-bound snack menu, but Sissy's is one of the few restaurants to rightfully serve up the bites. The kitchen cuts them so they stand at attention instead of on their sides like your mom served them, and fills each porcelain cup with a velvet yolk puree. Hobbs uses curry paste for earth and body, but he does it with restraint, and the flavor lingers quietly in the distant background.
Shrimp and grits are less understated. While I wish the shrimp themselves had more character — keeping their heads and tails intact would help — a ladle full of gravy, studded with tasso ham, brings smoke and guts and grit.
Crabcakes are worthy of a coastal seafood shack. Moist and loose and peppered with mustard seeds, the cakes are flanked with a delicately dressed salad of fine herbs that are anything but filler. And bland purple hull pea cakes are saved by an aioli so bright with lemon that the condiment reminded me of Sissy's front door. A pan-seared striped bass perches a light piece of fish on savory rice, reddened with tomato and spice. It's a welcome light plate on a menu filled with pan-fried meat and gravy.
From there the menu embraces its true Southern calling.
Chicken-fried steak, fried oysters, squash puppies, fish and chips and fried okra all bathe in bubbling oil. These dishes are fine, but not show stoppers, and considering their caloric cost, your time is much better spent on the chicken.
That's what most people are doing as it is. Hobbs told me sales of fried bird outpace every other dish by at least 2 to 1. I tried a pork chop on my final visit, smothered in a salty gravy that ate like demi-glace and paired with a sweet corn bread pudding. As bucket after bucket of golden fried chicken passed my table, I wished that I had followed the masses.
That in mind, here's how to navigate Sissy's: Grab two or three friends and sit at the bar. The staff behind the marble seems more attentive than the rest, who forgot to bring my okra and despite their charm were clumsy at times. Order a bready Abita Amber or one of those stunning, spicy margaritas garnished with a flower blossom. Then order a bucket of chicken and a bottle of that housemade hot sauce for every hand. Stick to basics for sides: whipped potatoes, mac and cheese, Texas caviar and leathery collard greens, which wake up nicely with a touch of lemon or vinegar. And practice restraint if you want to make it through dessert.
Which you might want to do. Bread pudding brings a soft, custardy, jiggling, car battery-sized piece of lead, topped with candied nuts and drizzled with crème anglaise. It's delicious, but don't attempt to tackle this dessert without at least two friends, and call your mother to let her know you're OK when it's over.
The chocolate cake is lighter but it needs clarification. The menu claims it's "better than sex," which I'm quite certain it's not. Moist, rich and dark as pitch, it's a fine piece of cake for sure. It's better than bad sex, maybe, or sex you want but can't have. But only maybe. These things are relative.
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