Review: Annie Mae’s Pantry hits sweet spot with updated Southern fare

The first thing you notice when you walk into Annie Mae’s Pantry is an arresting, 10-foot-tall, black-and-white photograph. It depicts a petite African-American lady standing on her front porch with a nub of a broom. Wearing a tattered sweater and a kerchief around her head, she’s reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.”

But that’s not Miss Celie. It’s Annie Mae Norton.

Her granddaughter, Atlanta cupcake queen Andra Hall, owns this cafe.

Founder of CamiCakes and CamiCakes Creamery, Hall names her first restaurant for the family matriarch, a North Florida share-cropper who died in 1985. At this easy-breezy, fast-casual, chicken-and-fish place on the Westside, diners can sit in rocking chairs, sipping sweet tea and lemonade infused with vanilla bean, then sit down to a delicious, soulful meal that’s a contemporary response to Southern comforts of yesteryear.

Hall may be inspired by family scrapbooks, but she leaves the country-cooking stereotypes in the dust. There’s no fried chicken or chicken and waffles. Instead, Annie Mae’s simple menu focuses on intensely flavored smoked chicken; so-called “fishing pole finds” (shrimp and grits, catfish po’boys, fried trout on a grits cake); and a couple of sandwiches and salads tailored for takeout.

Though the menu says the bird comes with roasted potatoes and a green vegetable of the day, Hall told me in a phone conversation the format has evolved based on customer requests. She’s added more sides. So check out the tiny chalkboard by the cash register for the daily specials: perhaps collards or turnip greens, mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese, butter beans or corn.

Portions are generous. At $14.95, half a chicken is nestled in a heavy-duty tinfoil carryout container, drizzled with one of three signature sauces, and paired with a luxurious amount of go-withs.

The basic “Slow Smoked” chicken recipe, in which the bird rests in an elegant broth of onion, thyme and garlic, is very good. The “Dirty Bird” — aka Caribbean jerk chicken — lacked the heavy spice rub that usually distinguishes the dish. It came across more like barbecue chicken glazed in a sweet-tangy sauce. The grilled pineapple mentioned on the menu was not included.

The problem with smoked chicken (or any kind of meat) is that it tends to dry out. Thus if you happen by late in the day, the bird can be a little tough. (This has happened to me twice.) Dropping in one Saturday for an early brunch, we had better luck with the wings, just out of the smoker and perched on a “hush-puppy” waffle made with sweet-savory cornmeal batter. Drizzled with cane syrup, the wings and waffle hit all the right notes. (There’s also a plantain, sweet potato and buttermilk waffle.)

You can get your fish and grits a couple of different ways at Annie Mae’s. Hall updates the soul-food staple by pairing fried catfish (or trout) with a grits cake or hush-puppy waffle and her signature green apple-jalapeno coleslaw. I went with the more traditional preparation: a double-breasted fillet of mild, tender catfish on a puddle of wet grits with creamy gravy. Magnificat!

The restaurant has a stellar touch with collards and turnip greens — both long-simmered, silken, and tangy-sweet from a touch of balsamic vinegar. Tender butter beans, seasoned with smoked turkey, were likewise delicious. Macaroni is cloaked in a rich cheese sauce. Mashed potatoes are what Edna Lewis called “whipped” potatoes, a creamy puree with butter and cream.

As for the service, the line of communication between cashier and kitchen tends to be a little fuzzy: Mix-ups are commonplace. Call it the jinx of the gumbo.

On my first visit, I paid for gumbo, and a few minutes later was told the kitchen was out. The next time, the New Orleans-inspired bowl didn’t show up until the tail end of our brunch. (That said, it was laden with sausage and shrimp, piled on rice, and quite delicious.)

Be advised to check your orders carefully.

Once I requested a baked sweet potato as a side and ended up with mashed potatoes, as well as the sweet potato. On that same ticket, I asked for sweet-potato pie and got a wedge of chocolate-caramel-pecan cake! No biggie. The staff is eager to please and happy to swap out.

Speaking of sweets, whatever you do, don’t leave without a wedge of one of the towering temptations in the pastry case: layer cakes!

Red velvet is moist and glistening, the cream-cheese frosting flecked with red-velvet crumbs. Lemon-coconut, adorned with toasted coconut, is lovely, too. However, my faves are the carrot and sweet-potato layer cakes (as opposed to the Bundts), both frosted with cream cheese-caramel icing. Dirt Road Sweet Potato Pie, on a crust of crushed gingersnaps, shortbread and pecans, was light and ethereal.

No surprise that an entrepreneur who owns a chain of seven cupcake bakeries (five in Atlanta, two in Florida) kills it on the desserts.

Andra Hall has lovingly crafted a Southern gem that’s eye-catching and unexpected: a slice of the sweet life on Northside Drive. You can bet her grandmother would be mighty proud.

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