Metro Phoenix may feel far removed from the Deep South, but Southern-style eats and traditional soul food staples long have been a part of our local food culture. Whether you’re on the hunt for first-rate fried chicken and waffles, or harder-to-find dishes like collard greens and oxtails, here are five indispensable spots in the Valley for Southern cooking and soul food.
15226 West Bell Road, Surprise
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Monday
A meal at Mom’s Fixins in Surprise starts off in the best way imaginable: A complimentary plate of biscuits and sausage gravy lands on the table shortly after your arrival. The restaurant, which offers one of the largest menus of Southern-style eats on the west side, includes highlights like beautifully fried catfish fillets, and chicken that is fried to a thick, golden crisp. It’s also worth swinging by on the weekends for an expanded menu that includes shrimp and grits, gumbo, and sweet-savory barbecue ribs. The meat on the latter is so soft and saucy, you can pull the bones right off the slab.
Sure, you’ve had cornbread squares and muffins, but how about a jalapeño-bacon cornbread waffle? This fluffy, spicy, and very flavorful signature side is worth the upcharge. Pair it with some fried cabbage and buttery, deliciously lumpy mashed potatoes for a Southern-style meal that’s worth every calorie.
For dessert, Mom’s Fixins offers an impressive selection. On any given day, there are several scratch-made cakes available by the slice, along with staples like banana pudding, sweet potato pie, and peach cobbler. The banana pudding, especially, is not to be missed. It’s served in a Mason jar, and so light and creamy, it seems to disappear into the ether.
AZ Fry Guy
13048 West Rancho Santa Fe Boulevard #110, Avondale
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday
AZ Fry Guy got its start as a popular food truck, but now you can find the restaurant’s signature fried chicken, hot links, and Southern-style sides being dished out of a small brick-and-mortar shop in Avondale.
The tiny restaurant, squeezed between a nail salon and house of worship in a newer strip mall, has only been open a few months, but it’s already developed a strong neighborhood following. And why not? The menu is simple but satisfying, and includes the restaurant’s finely breaded, extra-crisp, fried chicken breasts, tenders, and wings.
Fried seafood is another highlight at AZ Fry Guy, especially the lightly breaded tilapia and catfish — both are expertly fried, leaving all the natural juice and succulence of the flaky seafood intact. But some of the most craveable dishes at AZ Fry Guy are the sides, especially the extra-cheesy homemade macaroni and cheese. The collard greens are also wonderful, flavored with pork and cooked to a soft, nearly soupy finish. There are two house-made desserts — banana pudding and peach cobbler — and the sweet and airy banana pudding is definitely the way to go.
4825 East Warner Road
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Ezekiel’s is a friendly mom-and-pop restaurant tucked into the Ahwatukee Palms Shopping Center, just over the freeway bridge from the monolithic IKEA store in Tempe. The hardest part about eating here is deciding between the fried chicken or the quarter rack of barbecue ribs — both are excellent. The fried chicken dinner comes with two pieces and your choice of white, dark, or mixed meat. The chicken is cooked to order, which becomes obvious the moment you lift the first hot, craggy, golden-crusted breast, wing, or leg quarter to your mouth.
Barbecue ribs, meanwhile, are slow-cooked until perfectly soft and tender and come slathered in a pleasingly thick, dark-red sauce — there are paper towels on every table for a reason. Of course, your Southern meal wouldn’t be complete without a couple of savory, starchy, sweet sides, and you really can’t go wrong with most of the options here. What you want for your veggies is the seasoned cabbage, which is cooked down to a tender, sweet state and punched up just enough with salt and pepper to bring it back to life. Collard greens are fragrant and tangy, with their natural earthy bitterness toned down with long cooking.
Leave room for the homemade desserts, especially the restaurant’s signature mini sweet potato pies, which are subtly spiced. A close runner-up is the peanut butter and chocolate cake; the frosting, especially, is intensely smooth and nutty.
Rhema Soul Cuisine
21803 South Ellsworth Road #101, Queen Creek
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday
The first thing you should know about Rhema’s Soul Cuisine is that it’s in Queen Creek. Depending on where you live in the Valley, dining at this friendly, family-run restaurant might constitute something of a road trip. It’s more than worth a long drive for specialties like Rhema’s signature chicken and waffles plate. A fluffy, spongy red velvet waffle is embellished with a drizzle of sugary icing and paired with hunks of meaty, juicy boneless chicken burnished to a nice brown crisp. The meat is so tender it nearly flakes apart on its own.
If you’re feeling adventurous, try the “Brorito,” a kind of Southern take on the burrito. Think of it as a traditional meat-and-three meal wrapped up in a sturdy flour tortilla, with slices of moist smoked chicken layered against bundles of meaty black beans and rice. The whole thing is sluiced deliciously with the house “magic sauce,” a blend of the house sweet-and-spicy barbecue sauces. For a heartier meal, the barbecue menu at Rhema’s rarely disappoints. Whether you’re a brisket or ribs type of person, you can safely assume that at least one option will be sold out by the time you make it to the cafe (diners can call ahead orders). St. Louis-style ribs are saucy and so tender you can pull the bones right out and practically fold the meat into your mouth. Pork barbecue is also top-notch.
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Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe
808 East Jefferson Street
Hours: Daily 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe opened in 1964, making it one of the first restaurants to bring traditional Southern-style cooking to metro Phoenix — and it’s still one of the best. Fried chicken is the main attraction at the cafe, featuring a gorgeously crackly exterior, beautifully seasoned breading that employs a spice mix that has remained a secret for decades, and meat that is piping hot and extra-juicy. For an extra layer of taste, order your fried chicken smothered, and it will arrive floating in a salty, flavor-rich gravy.
The kitchen also makes a mean chicken-fried steak, and meaty, flavorful oxtails are often available. But don’t overlook the pork chop platter. One order gets you a couple of deep-fried chops, which are exceptionally tender and succulent.
There are all the great Southern sides on offer, too, including what is arguably one of the best renditions of macaroni and cheese in town. A tangle of thick noodles are presented in a gooey mass of buttery cheese. You’ll want to try to leave room for dessert — Mrs. Elizabeth White’s famous homemade peach cobbler is one of the best in town.