At Punk’s Simple Southern Food, coffee is served in an enameled metal cup, the kind with a rolled lip. As I took a sip and the metal touched my mouth, I had one of those weirdly vivid memories that swept me back decades.
I was a child standing at a windmill in a pasture on my aunt’s farm in Western Kansas and using the same kind of metal cup to draw a drink of water from the spigot. The windmill blades swooshed above me, and dairy cows watched warily from a distance. That metal cup always hung at the windmill on a hook, usually clanging in the breeze. In the algae-lined metal stock tank, big goldfish improbably thrived and, curious, flicked to the surface to glimpse us.
But enough of my Marcel Proust/madeleine reverie.
The point is that the food at Punk’s, which just opened two weeks ago in The Village and is from the same group that owns Coppa, Coppa Osteria, Brasserie 19 and Ibiza, really grabbed at something in me. I’m not Southern – I grew up half-and-half in Kansas and California – yet chef Brandi Key’s food speaks to me more intimately than anything I’ve had in years.
The deviled eggs are good but not fancified, made simply with pickled relish, mustard, mayonnaise and paprika. (Key told us that her kitchen hard-boils three cases of five dozen eggs – 540 eggs total – every day to keep up with demand.) Sweet corn hushpuppies are fried not one second too long, so each is crunchy outside yet so tender inside it is nearly still wet. Big pickled Gulf shrimp come with their pickled accompaniments of celery, cauliflower, fennel, jalapeño and wisps of onion. And the pimiento cheese – served with carrot sticks, celery sticks and Ritz crackers – is already my picnic favorite.
My family didn’t drink much, and the Kansans certainly didn’t eat oysters, so Key’s oyster shooters rang no food-memory bells for me. Made with Deep Eddy vodka, Punk’s (spicy housemade) Sauce and a big ol’ Gulf oyster, these are for the brave of heart. I don’t know if they’ll put hair on your chest, but they certainly will provide a frisson of earthy satisfaction.
Andouille and chicken gumbo is a little different from what you might expect. The roux is not bitter chocolate dark (a la Danton’s Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen), but more red. Key uses whole chicken thighs in her gumbo and serves the rice on the side. I think you will like it. Our table also enjoyed the big wedge salad that is swathed with Green Goddess dressing and showered with corn kernels, scallion, tomato dice and bacon crumbles. (Note: Look for chef Key’s Green Goddess recipe in an upcoming edition of My Table magazine.)
Finally, there is the home-style fried chicken that comes with mashed potatoes, red eye gravy and Punk’s sauce and is served on an aluminum sheet pan. You can order a half bird (5 pieces) or whole bird (10 pieces). If you’re like us, you’ll want to also have the butterbean succotash, macaroni ’n’ cheese, maybe some stewed green beans, cornbread with honey butter and/or braised collard greens.
For dessert there was banana cream pudding (sorry, I don’t care for bananas) and sweet-tart strawberry rhubarb pie with a buttery crust. That’s when the coffee was served and launched me back to the dairy farm belonging to my Aunt Nellie, one of the best home cooks in the world. I know she would applaud Brandi Key’s menu, too.
PS In the weeks to come, Punk’s plans to open a walk-up window for take-away fried chicken, just as neighboring Coppa Osteria has a pizza window.
Punk’s Simple Southern Food, 5212 Morningside at Bolsover , 713-524-7865, punkssimplesouthernfood.com