FORT WORTH -- Grits are a hit, even out west.
The corn-based porridge, for years a misunderstood mainstay of Southern cooking, used to be somewhat hard to find in greater Fort Worth.
But today, the dish is featured not only at Cracker Barrels and Waffle Houses, but in upscale restaurants. Chefs with sophisticated culinary training are looking for new ways to splash the scoops of congealed corn granules with tangy sauces and top them with daring cuts of meat such as spicy shrimp, smoked quail and thick slabs of pork porterhouse.
Grits were introduced to settlers by American Indians, who ground the corn by hand with stone tools. The modern version is more likely to be infused with chiles and brought to the table coated with cheese.
The creaminess of grits can provide rhythm and balance to a dish with otherwise bold flavors.
"To me, grits are like a basic unit of life," said Keith Hicks, executive chef at Buttons, a popular soul food restaurant in west Fort Worth. "They can be served with so many layers of flavors, and they're very comforting."
While old-school Southerners are happy to eat grits plain or with butter, newbies are often encouraged to treat the grits as a complement or contrast to whatever else is on the plate. At breakfast, for example, rather than eating a bite of grits alone, try using them to mop up pancake syrup, or try them with a bite of bacon or an over-easy egg.
Once you're accustomed to the texture, you may come to appreciate them as much as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who recently told a USA Today reporter he survived on grits and eggs while trying to make it as a pro wrestler in Nashville.
It's even OK to sprinkle grits with sugar or raisins -- despite what people in Georgia or the Carolinas might tell you. Just don't expect them to taste like Cream of Wheat, a similar-looking hot cereal that is more commonly eaten sweet.
The 25th annual World Grits Festival is taking place Friday through Sunday in St. George, S.C., a bedroom community near Charleston where folks reputedly eat more grits per capita than any other city in the world -- and Dallas-Fort Worth is in no position to challenge that claim. Although North Texas does share a fair amount of Southern heritage with its South Carolina brethren, the Metroplex tends to lean decidedly more Western in its cuisine -- particularly in greater Fort Worth, Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County.
But make no mistake, there are many places in these parts that can make a mean bowl of grits. Some restaurants admit to using grits out of a box, while others order from a growing number of places that still make them the hearty, old-fashioned way. One such place is Homestead Gristmill in Elm Mott, just north of Waco.
When prepared properly, grits shouldn't leave a gritty impression on the tongue. Instead, they should be fluffy, a bit like mashed potatoes, but with a more complex texture.
"Grits have a creamy texture. They just warm you up," said Travis Purdin, chef at the famously Western-themed Reata restaurant in downtown Fort Worth, who says grits were easy to carry on a chuck wagon and were eaten by cowboys on the cattle trail. "You can pretty much make grits with anything you want. It's a blank palette, with a light corn flavor to it."
During the past few weeks, I visited a sampling of restaurants that offered grits on the menu. I invited my wife and two young children, but could persuade them to come along on just a handful of visits.
My wife -- who grew up a world away from grits in El Paso -- first tasted them a few years ago in Shreveport, La., and was so disappointed that she no longer wishes to experiment with them.
My kids enjoyed simple and generous bowls of grits served at Waffle House, but at other restaurants could only eat a few bites of tricked-up versions of the dish.
I, on the other hand, was eager to find out more about this latest trend in the modern American cuisine revolution. So when I couldn't find company for this grits journey, I dined alone.
310 Houston St., Fort Worth
Grits: Appetizer of smoked quail with jalapeño-Cheddar grits and molasses barbecue glaze, $10; As a side dish grits are $6.
Hits: A work colleague and I walked from our downtown office over to Reata for lunch on a Monday afternoon, and I ordered this grits dish from the appetizer menu. Four ounces of delicately smoked quail were resting atop a fluffy pile of grits, then squirted with thin streams of sweet molasses barbecue glaze. The grits were very soft and had a thick texture. Their color was sunny and yellow -- perfect for spring -- and each bite had small chunks of jalapeño and corn. A very mellow flavor. The Cheddar cheese was infused into the grits, rather than melted on top. The combination of the creamy grits and sweetness of the barbecue sauce perfectly calmed the slightly gamey taste of the quail.
Pits: No complaints here. Gobbled it up and wished for more.
More: 817-336-1009; www.reata.net.
770 Road to Six Flags East, Arlington
Grits: Entree of shrimp and grits with bacon, andouille sausage, mustard greens and goat cheese, $18; goat cheese grits also available as a side dish, $5.
Hits: Pairing goat cheese with grits is a terrific idea. The meal, which arrived on a diamond-shaped platter, offered a delightful complexity of flavors. Six humongous shrimp were mounted on a small pile of greens, which was surrounded by a moat of the creamiest, whitest grits in town. The dish is a celebration of several strong tastes, including the spicy sausage and razor-thin slices of a what appeared to be an entire garlic clove -- but the goat cheese grits, like the culinary version of a circus trainer, made sure all the ingredients behaved themselves in my mouth.
Pits: Worth every bit of the $18 menu price, but that's a little steep for many eaters.
More: 817-226-2600; www.olenjacksgrille.com
4701 West Freeway, Fort Worth
Grits: Entree of shrimp, fish and grits, $13 at lunch or $23 at dinner; jalapeño-cheese grits also sold on the side, $4.
Hits: Buttons executive chef Keith Hicks cooks with love, and for this dish he loves to pile on the layers of simple but interesting ingredients. It starts with a pond of shrimp creole placed in the bottom of a bowl, topped with an ice cream scoop-size serving of Quaker instant grits infused with jalapeños (seeds in) and cheese, a ladle of red-eye gravy, an egg cooked over easy, three catfish fillets and four enormous shrimp that have just come off the grill. Hicks has been making this dish more than 12 years, and it has been a top five seller at Buttons since the restaurant opened in late 2008. The well-crafted dish is the perfect thing to munch on while taking in the funky '70s feel of his restaurant. I visited during lunchtime, but first chance I get I'm going back to Buttons at night, when Hicks' generous helping of shrimp, fish and grits would be the perfect accouterment for a night of live jazz.
Pits: If anything, the dish could use a larger serving of grits, which were buried and a bit overpowered by all of the other goodness.
More: 817-735-4900; www.buttonsrestaurant.com
2700 E. Southlake Blvd., Southlake
Grits: Entree of smoked pork porterhouse with creamy roasted poblano grits and maple brandy glaze, $14 at dinner or $12 at lunch.
Hits: The plate arrives with a generous mound of white grits dotted with large chunks of green poblano peppers, and an inch-thick pork steak resting on its edge. The grits are creamy, and the use of poblano instead of jalapeño or New Mexico-style green chile gives it a darker peppery taste. It's really good chased down with a Real Ale Fireman's No. 4 draft beer.
Pits: My 8-year-old son thought the taste of the grits was way too spicy. Thankfully, at the time of our order a very nice server named McKensie offered to bring out my son a small cup of the grits as a sampler, to make sure he would eat them. Instead, he took two bites and rejected them -- "They don't taste like potatoes at all!" -- so McKensie was able to change his order and bring him a side of fries. When my meal arrived, I cut a piece of the pork porterhouse and dipped it in grits and maple brandy glaze and offered that to my son, and he liked the combination a lot better than grits alone. "Yeah, that's good," he said. "They're more like rice."
More: 817-748-2100; www.wildwoodsouthlake.com
3020 Western Center Blvd., Fort Worth (15 locations in Tarrant County)
Grits: Big cereal bowl full of instant grits, bright and white, with no unusual ingredients.
Hits: Believe it or not, Waffle House has served more orders of grits -- 1.1 billion since 1955 -- than coffee or waffles, according to the company's Web site. Waffle House serves more than 3.2 million pounds of grits each year, enough to fill 86 tractor-trailers. It doesn't attempt to dress up the grits, and a lot of people -- my kids included -- like it that way. The kids didn't grow up eating grits, but when the bowls arrived they added a generous dollop of butter and gobbled them up. My 15-year-old daughter ate them with hash browns, and my son used them as a side with his waffle and maple syrup. I ordered the All-Star breakfast with scrambled eggs, toast with jelly, coffee and a waffle. I ate the whole thing in about five minutes and immediately realized how full I was. Even so, it's a real relaxing feeling to be digesting a satisfying bowl of grits while Johnny Cash plays on the jukebox.
Pits: Waffle Houses can be chaotic and frantic, especially during the breakfast rush. Many of the booths are just a few feet from the waffle grills, where there's an unobstructed view of waffle batter splashed all over the cooking areas, walls and just about everything else -- it's gross, but in a groovy way.
More: 817-306-8006 (Western Center Boulevard location); www.wafflehouse.com
Lambert's Steaks, Seafood & Whiskey
2731 White Settlement Road, Fort Worth
Grits: Lambert's, located between downtown and the Cultural District, infuses its grits with green chile, and tops them with grated Cheddar. They're a popular $4 side item on steak and seafood plates.
Hits: I ordered an $8 appetizer of crispy wild boar ribs, with a bowl of grits on the side. The ribs are fall-off-the-bone delectable -- soaked in a molasses plum sauce, with thin streaks of a Chinese-tasting mustard. The atmosphere is comfortable and Western, and the air is splashed with the aroma of wood and smoked steaks. The happy-hour deals are terrific, too. I got there just after 7 p.m., but if I'd arrived a few minutes earlier I could've had the ribs for half-price.
Pits: The grits are pea green. A bartender discloses that they're not only infused with green chile, but also with pureed spinach for color. They taste great, but a lady sitting next to me mistakenly asks what kind of soup I've ordered. Also, the side order arrives in a family-size bowl, which a server later explains is common when side items are ordered a la carte. It's not a big deal, but my mom always told me to finish all my food before leaving the table, and I felt a bit guilty about eating less than half the grits.
More: 817-882-1161; www.lambertsfortworth.com
Jalapeño Cheddar grits
This Reata recipe serves six to eight people.
3 cups water
3 cups heavy cream
2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon kosher salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
21/2 cups dry grits
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
1. Combine the water, cream, jalapeños, salt and pepper in a large saucepan and cook over high heat until the liquid reaches a rapid boil. At the boiling point, slowly whisk in the grits, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Lower the heat to medium and continue to stir. Stirring frequently, cook until the grits are soft and creamy, usually about 30 to 40 minutes.
2. Remove from heat and add the butter and grated cheese. Season with more salt and pepper, if needed. Let cool slightly before serving so that the grits can be mounded easily. They should be the consistency of mashed potatoes.
Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 6: 874 calories, 65 grams fat, 56 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams fat, 223 milligrams cholesterol, 1,221 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 66 percent of calories from fat.
GORDON DICKSON, 817-390-7796