You might have heard of Lucky 32, and you might have even eaten there over the years. There are two Lucky 32 locations, one in Greensboro and the other in Cary near Regency Park, and until last year, I didn’t think much about the place. My recollections of Lucky 32 were of a glorified, slightly high-end chain restaurant in the ilk of Tripp’s. The menu was all over the place, with food representing cuisine from just about every major country. People who have never been have told me that they thought it was a Chinese restaurant.
Last October, while attending the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium, I was waiting in line to get some grub and started talking to this guy with long hair pulled back into a pony tail and a bitchin’ goatee. He told me his name was Jay Pierce, and that he was the chef at Lucky 32. In a moment of Southern food snobbery, I wondered what the hell a chef of a high-end Applebee’s was doing at the SFA symposium. I quickly learned from Chef Pierce that Lucky 32 was a completely different restaurant, that it had a focus on Southern cuisine with locally sourced ingredients. I couldn’t believe that Lucky 32 had changed so much.
A month or two later, I got an email from Jay, asking me if I’d be willing to come over and go through a tasting of the new winter menu. I was intrigued by what they were doing, and so I came over at lunch time and joined Jay and General Manager Shane Garrity in a whirl-wind tour of about 15 dishes. These were dishes that were sometimes classic Southern, but always inspired by Southern traditions. I offered my comments to Jay, telling him what I liked and what I would change slightly. I told Chef Pierce that Lucky 32 had become a high-end “meat and 3” place, as the side dishes were as much of a feature as the mains. He liked that concept, but frankly, I had forgotten about it until recently.
Flash forward to two weeks ago, when Jay invited me back to try to summer menu, which he was calling “Suddenly This Summer.” I was excited to get back for two reasons. First of all, because I had failed to write about my first tasting experience, but second, and more importantly, because I wanted to see what he was going to do with summer produce. As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed that the name of the restaurant had slightly changed; it’s now “Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen.” It appears this transformation to a high end meat and 3 is complete, so I was anxious to eat. This is what I tasted, and the comments I gave.
Heirloom Tomatoes with sea salt, cracked black pepper, and fresh herb vinaigrette
Five slices of perfect tomatoes, perfectly seasoned. I suggested that they should serve 4 thicker slices, to get more tomato in each bite. They agreed with me and made the change.
Okra Popcorn with herb buttermilk dressing and voodoo glaze
This is just really good fried okra. I let them know that I learned a trick of adding a bit of semolina to the cornmeal to create even more crunch (and a crunch that lasts longer). They thought it was a good idea, but I doubt they did anything with it.
Grilled Peaches with Goat Lady chèvre, country ham and sorghum glaze
This was a potential kick-ass dish, but to me, there was too much chèvre in each peach half, and the sorghum glaze could be a bit more pronounced. The flavors were fantastic, and I bet this is a solid seller.
Chilled Cucumber-Avocado Soup
I loved this dish, but Jay thought that it hadn’t been pureed enough. I thought that it had a bit too much dairy, but only slightly. I’d love to have a bowl of this right now.
Golden Tomato Soup with sharp cheddar croutonThis was another fantastic soup, with much less acidity than typically found with tomato soups. I could see no way to improve this.
Farmhouse Salad: wedge of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, hard cooked eggs, sliced mushrooms, sharp cheddar, 32 Thousand Island dressing and cornbread croutons
This salad was supposed to be a wedge, but it didn’t come out that way, so it was not as well-composed as it should have been. However, I loved the flavor of this salad, and that “32 Thousand Island” dressing kicked ass (and I’m not a fan of 1000 Island dressing). The cornbread croutons were a great touch, but they weren’t sufficiently crisped up, which they acknowledged.
BLT All-Natural bacon, iceberg lettuce and heirloom tomatoes on sliced challah bread
This was a great BLT, and the bacon here was not very salty. In fact, we agreed that the tomatoes could be salted just a bit.
Carolina Caught Shrimp and Okra with Creole sauce over white rice
If you like okra and tomatoes, I’ve got a dish for you. This was one of my favorite dishes, simply because I love the humble, slimy pod. And the shrimp were top-notch. I did suggest that they serve the dish with lemon, as a quick squeeze would brighten up the dish. Chef Jay agreed.
Grilled Strip Loin Medallions with Carolina peach chutney and grilled onions
I was surprised to get some beef with fruit, but this dish was fantastic, particularly when paired with Lucky 32’s fantastic mashed sweet potatoes. I loved the peach chutney.
Mississippi Delta Hot Tamales filled with house pulled pork and steamed, served with vinegar slaw, candied red onions and voodoo glaze
I love tamales, and these were very good, but this dish generated the most discussion — not because of the tamales, but because of the side dishes. Jay served it with slaw, some sweet/sour onions and rice. I thought the rice was completely unnecessary, particularly because of the masa in the tamale. I also thought that the flavor profiles and textures of the slaw and onions were too similar to be on the same plate, but Jay liked the combination.
Hunk of Braised Pork Shoulder slowly simmered in Pig & Whistle sauce, over grits
This is a hunk of meat, indeed. It’s too big, in my opinion, as the flavor of the braising liquid really didn’t penetrate the meat enough. I thought they should have served hunks one-quarter the size, but Jay thought that he really wanted to appeal to the “caveman” side of folks, with a large portion. The grits were some of the best I’ve ever tasted. We also discussed better ways to plate this dish, as it was pretty stark, but then, if you’re appealing to cavemen . . .
Banana Pudding, John Egerton’s family recipe
When a man uses a recipe from one of the leading authorities on Southern cuisine, you had better not criticize the dish. And I didn’t, except to point out that the typical browning of bananas in banana pudding has been overcome by Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner, as he uses pastry cream for his custard. I don’t really know why that prevents browning, but Bill swears by it. And by the way, John Egerton’s family recipe is mighty fine.
Bowl of Fresh Peaches with Boiled Custard
Peaches and pudding. Who wouldn’t love that?
I can’t remember when it was served, but one of their summer side dishes is just a simple cucumber and tomato salad, and
I let them know how Bill Smith popularized the combination of tomatoes and watermelon. I’m interested to see if they add that to the menu at some time.
The only other comment that I recall making had to deal with the portion sizes — they’re mammoth. You certainly won’t go hungry at Lucky 32.
Finally, there are a couple of other things you need to know about Lucky 32 and Jay Pierce. Jay is from New Orleans, and he is incredibly passionate about his food. He cares about where the food comes from and how it’s prepared, all the while respecting, but not being a slave to, Southern traditions. This comes through loud and clear on the plate, and like many a classic “meat and 3” places, it’s embodied best in the side dishes. He uses Allan Benton’s salty bacon in his deviled eggs. Grits come from Old Mill of Guilford. And whatever you do, don’t miss the whipped sweet potatoes. Those are, as my father-in-law says, “Mammy-smacking good.”