Review: At Tupelo Honey, some of the southern classics hit the spot while others could use a bit more soul

Omaha’s lineup of restaurants serving solid Southern cuisine is still fairly short. A trio comes to mind: Herbe Sainte, Mouth of the South, Acadian Grille. 

Now there’s a new contender: Tupelo Honey, the first restaurant to open east of tenth street in downtown Omaha’s new Mercantile development. 

After two visits, I found some dishes to like and a surprisingly good spirit free cocktail — but the dishes I enjoyed most were not the ones I expected.

Before we get into the nitty gritty: It is pretty cool to dine on 8th and Harney Streets for the first time ever as a downtown Omaha resident. Situated just east of the Old Market on newly constructed roads that were once part of the ConAgra campus, I’m guessing that the giant patio outside Tupelo Honey will be mighty popular once spring rolls around.

I had not heard of Tupelo Honey, but I learned it is part of a national chain of restaurants based in Asheville, North Carolina. It has more than 20 locations across the country with a dozen more planned openings. The restaurant serves brunch, lunch and dinner, and diners will also receive a full menu of cocktails and wine. 

I was most curious to try the restaurant’s fried chicken, available as a half bird, just white meat, just dark meat or in a sandwich. It comes smothered in either gravy or hot honey, or topped with the restaurant’s signature “honey dust,” which is what we opted for. 

Fried chicken and collard greens

I thought it was just ok. While the outside was hot and crisp, the white meat was somewhat dry, and I did not get the burst of sweet flavor I expected from the “dust.” The dark meat had more flavor and was juicier, and I’d opt for it if I were to order again. On a sandwich topped with a hot honey sauce, it read about the same: a touch dry.

Instead, I found that southern flavor elsewhere, most notably in the cast iron pork. Slow cooked in rich duck fat, the meat is super tender and topped with a Sriracha honey glaze that has a flavor similar to hoisin sauce. It’s served with bright pickled red onion and fresh cilantro. I’d order it again. 

Cast iron pork

Also good was a bowl of creamy, cheesy grits topped with a handful of good sized shrimp, chorizo and a red creole sauce. The grits, interestingly flavored with goat cheese, are lovely, creamy and unusual. The shrimp on this one is nicely cooked, and the chorizo and sauces lend plenty of spice. My only complaint: the whole dish could have been hotter. 

I didn’t think we could leave without trying the fried green tomatoes. Served on top of a pile of grits that was, this time, steaming hot, they are good: coated in a crisp breading of mid-thickness and fried to a golden brown. The tomatoes had a texture somewhat tough, but its January in Nebraska, so I gave them a pass. 

Fried green tomatoes

The menu boasts many side dishes, and we sampled several. The best of the bunch had to be the savory, smoky collard greens. Flavored with the scent of barbecue smoke and plenty of chunks of savory pork, they’re a well-executed classic. We also enjoyed the “biscuit for a cause” — the proceeds go to Tupelo Honey Relief & Development Funds that aid Tupelo employees in need. Tender inside and just-crisp outside, served with a big knob of butter and a bowl of homemade jam, this good biscuit is tough to argue with. 

I wished the macaroni and cheese had a creamier sauce. Ours had a grainy finish I didn’t care for. And the broccolini served with a chipotle aioli, like the shrimp and grits, could have been hotter. 

I exchanged some emails with the restaurant’s executive chef, Hunter Bushong, but we were not able to chat before my deadline. 

So Fresh and So Green Green

The restaurant has a robust drink list, a fine wine list and several spirit-free cocktails being it’s Dry January, though several, including house made ginger beer, Southern sodas and hopped sweet tea are always there. 

I’m (mostly) abstaining from drinking this month, and I really enjoyed the Lyre’s buzz free bees knees, made with a zero-proof Tequila alternative that I’ve already ordered and enjoyed at home as part of a zero proof margarita. 

When we visited in December, I liked their fully leaded blood orange margarita and a bright, cucumbery green cocktail called “So Fresh and so Green, Green.” 

Biscuit for a cause with butter and jam

I expected more from the staples on Tupelo Honey’s menu, but I found most of the dishes just okay. Southern food can be absolutely fun or original, but the very best Southern food I have eaten has one ingredient I didn’t find on my two visits to this Omaha outpost: soul. 

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