A bit of southern hospitality

January 2021 View more

Jalapeño-brined fried chicken sandwich with crispy Brussels, shrimp and grits, and low country seafood boil

Does a road trip really count if it only happens in one’s mind (and stomach)? It’s a question worth asking these days. Because although physically traveling to visit, say, Southern environs has largely been a no-go since early last year, experiencing a comforting taste of the South has emerged as something of a delicious alternative for diners in the western suburbs thanks to Pete Susca, the restaurateur behind It’s a Southern Thing (1727 Freedom Dr., Naperville, 331.457.5336, getsouthernfood.com).

After originating in Durham, North Carolina, the latest addition to Naperville’s Freedom Drive culinary corridor has—for only its second location—moved lock, stock, and cracker barrel into the space previously occupied by World of Beer. And while it’s somewhat ironic that a restaurant centered on Southern cooking has set up shop at the northernmost point in the city, this is not at all some cheesy iteration of the South (although those looking for cheesy would do well to try the cheddar grits). Susca may be a Jersey boy by birth, but the devotion to the foods and traditions of the South he developed over the past two decades in Durham couldn’t be more genuine.

“Our mission is to take care of folks and make them feel like family from the moment they come in,” he says. “We love the Southern hospitality and the food from all over the South.”

The South Rises

An August 2020 opening turned out to be a less-than-ideal introduction to the Naperville market, but Susca and his team have managed to roll with the pandemic punches and pivots to build a following over the past six months. While the restaurant’s true atmosphere of slow Southern dining may not hit its fully relaxed stride until some semblance of normal (and/or the outdoor patio) returns later this year, even amid a COVID-restricted experience or in a humble carryout order, it’s easy to see what chef Michael Felcher and his crew are up to with their innovative twists on traditional Southern favorites.

Evidence of this philosophy is available right off the bat in the cocktail program, where twisted takes on traditional pours like the namesake It’s a Southern Thing—a clear bourbon-milk punch that requires a five-hour filtration process and is served over a large ice cube with an orange peel—share the spotlight with a straightforward slate of craft beers, wines, and whiskeys. But the drinks are just the beginning of this Southern trip.

Blackened chicken baked mac and cheese

Comfort + Joy

While Susca tabbed the smoked wings among his favorite starters on the menu (vegetarian FYI: the fried cauliflower can be tossed in the same sauces) and Felcher gave a nod to the fried green tomatoes, it was the low country crab dip that garnered the highest marks at our home table—a dense, creamy, not-too-fishy concoction served with soft pita wedges for dipping.

Another winner that appears on both the lunch and dinner menus (and another recommendation from Chef Mike) is the jalapeño-brined Southern fried chicken sandwich. Even as we live through the seemingly unending fast-food chicken sandwich wars, few can aspire to the heights of this lovingly crafted version—a deep-fried dream, drizzled with roasted garlic ranch dressing, studded with housemade sweet pickles, and tucked into a fluffy brioche bun.

Those in search of a more Carolina-specific spread would do well to sample the Eastern NC pulled pork platter, which of course replaces the sweet or spicy barbecue sauces of the middle U.S. with the tangy vinegar-based style native to the Tar Heel State. The juicy meat is served alongside garlicky collard greens and a swappable side. There’s really no wrong choice here, but both the mac and cheese and the avocado and chorizo hash are standouts.

Among the three desserts on offer (or “puddins,” as they’re dubbed), the creamy banana pudding is first in flight, with the rich pecan pie coming in closely behind.

Low country crab dip

It seems a relatively sure thing that It’s a Southern Thing stands to become a very popular northern thing as more and more Naperville diners seek out its regional charms. And even as actual road trips eventually come back into vogue, those looking for the comfort and authenticity of a trip down South won’t feel cheated by a quick jaunt over to Freedom Drive.

Photos courtesy It’s a Southern Thing