At Soco, Chef Greg Richie delivers down-home cuisine highlighted by creative international twists.
The magnificent Korean Fried Chicken.
The Thornton Park area has gone through some growing pains, food-wise, with casual eateries and fine dining alike moving in and out over the past several years.
When cool hangout Hue closed in May 2013 after 12 years in business, much was made of its potential replacement, but it took almost a year before that replacement was publicly named as Soco, with area veteran Chef Greg Richie at the helm. After a four-month refurbishment of the space, Soco-Southern Contemporary Cuisine opened this past September to well-deserved praise.
“It took lots of planning. I wish I had been able to open years ago, when I first thought of this restaurant,” says Richie, who can point to the Soco name on recipes he wrote in 2006. “Then it wouldn’t look like I was part of a trend.”
If recent restaurant openings are any indication, the South is definitely on the rise with even big-ticket hotels getting on the Southern cooking hay wagon. Highball & Harvest at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, American Q at the B Hotel and PB&G at the new Disney-area Four Seasons have turned their kitchens loose on grits and fried chicken, joining the “Southern Public House” offerings at Cask & Larder, John Rivers’ Coop, and any number of local diners, cafés and barbecue joints already ladling endless rivers of sausage gravy on vast mountains of biscuits.
Southern cooking can be many things, from low-country South Carolina crawfish boils to Alabama ribs to the European Cajun cuisine of New Orleans. Under Richie’s seasoned eye, the ever-changing menu at Soco embraces many down-home influences and then adds playful twists: tiny jewel-like duck eggs filled with deviled crab; squash and watermelon rind casserole; ravioli stuffed with shrimp and grits.
Richie grew up in Georgia and can trace his family roots back several generations in Texas. “I was always in the South, with the food of the South.” His mother claims young Greg talked about becoming a chef when he was 12, and after an education at Johnson & Wales culinary school, he worked at respected restaurants in Georgia and South Carolina. Answering the call of Asian cuisine, he became executive chef, and later partner, at Roy’s in Hawaii, then opened the Orlando location. After four years as chef de cuisine at Emeril’s Tchoup Chop, he partnered with real estate developer Craig Ustler to revive Thornton Park’s CityFish and open Soco.
“We want to be a great neighborhood restaurant,” he says. “Beautiful ingredients with a simple honesty—that’s how I define Southern.”
Dishes may have Southern roots and benefit from Asian and European techniques, or begin as something altogether different. The cassoulet of duck ($10) starts French, adds dark and spicy Andouille sausage, and serves the richly flavorful fowl on a bed of slow-simmered boiled peanuts instead of white beans. Cornmeal crisped oysters ($9) sit gently on a hammock of fried chicharrón pork rind, promising the inevitable crunch. Perfectly cooked smoked Florida Cobia ($26) lends a subtle woody aroma and taste to a dense and flavor-packed cake of black-eyed peas and potatoes, a well-considered amalgam of Deep South and Florida inspirations.
And then there’s the Korean Fried Chicken. A product of decades-old chains in Seoul, where wings are served alongside beer as snacks called anju, this alternative KFC began hitting the New York and California food scenes around 2007 and is slowly spreading across the country.
The super crunchy, twice-fried delight had already made a local appearance courtesy of several ride-a-trend food trucks, but Soco’s version ($23) is a mastery of the art. Served with a sweet and vinegar sauce alongside, the locally sourced Lake Meadow Naturals chicken is marvelously moist underneath its thin, brittle exterior, with a taste of that coveted crisp skin of a roasted turkey fresh from the oven. Those who favor actual Southern fried chicken might be taken aback by this South Korean variety, but I am crazy about it. Order a beer and prepare your teeth and taste buds for a workout.
Wood and whitewashed brick has replaced the stark black and white color scheme of Hue inside and along the still-popular outside deck. A fascinating parquet wood bar holds a place of companionable pride, and the open kitchen belies its seemingly small size by containing a constant buzz of chefly activity. Chef Richie can usually be found checking each plate before it leaves the kitchen. He can take Southern pride in every one of them.
Even diners who eschew meat get a no-excuses option at Soco: chicken-fried cauliflower ($17), a thick sliced veggie steak coated in crisp batter and served with asparagus, richly flavored garlic mashed potatoes and a savory tomato gravy. “I tested this out in my kitchen,” Richie says, “until I knew I could offer something to vegetarians that wasn’t a second-class dinner.”