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Tupelo Honey Cafe: Where Southern Cuisine Makes an Appearance but Doesn’t Steal the Show

Apr. 8, 2022 at 2:36PM

Have you ever been so desperate to get away from something that you man-handled the first opportunity that presented itself? That’s how my relationship with North Carolina started. I was in my mid-20s, living in Madison. Many of my friends had moved on to different states, different countries, graduate school. I felt stuck, and I was desperate to leave Wisconsin.

Through multiple conversations with family and friends, I decided to pursue a degree in nursing, and I had zero interest in getting that degree in my home state; I applied in Oregon, Rhode Island, New Mexico, and yes, North Carolina. I was throwing darts at a board, playing Russian Roulette with states I had never set foot in and where I didn’t know a soul.

North Carolina won out, and despite it feeling like time passed slower than it does when you’re six and waiting for Santa to arrive on Christmas Eve, I was soon driving the 13-odd hours down south with my Dad to start life over in Charlotte.

Before I lived in Charlotte, I had never eaten grits, collard greens, real barbecue (no, that dry chicken breast grilled in the backyard and slathered with cloyingly sweet store-bought sauce doesn’t count), hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, or fried pickles. There was soda unique to the region (hey, Cheerwine!) and fast food joints I’d never even heard of (what’s up Cookout, Bojangles).

Despite being different in many ways, the Midwest and the South function like parallel universe versions of each other. The cultures heavily emphasize passive aggression. If somebody from the south ever says to you, “Bless your heart” it’s not a compliment. People there value politeness but show it in different ways. Manners are paramount in the South. In the Midwest, you shovel your neighbor's sidewalk without asking. Food leans into comfort—fried, sweetened, fattening, shades of brown. The ingredients may be different but the impact is the same—a food baby the size of a watermelon waiting for sweet release.     

I turned to food as a bridge to help me integrate into the culture. Charlotte is also where I first witnessed brunch as religion, before it became as popular as it is here in Milwaukee.  

There was a spot where everybody ate: Tupelo Honey Cafe. I’ve eaten at both the Asheville and Charlotte locations, multiple times. When I found out Tupelo Honey Cafe opened a Milwaukee location I felt excited; even though I quickly booked it out of Charlotte as soon as I graduated nursing school, I still daydream about what it was like immersing myself in a culture so different from my own, spoons and forks first. The felt sense of otherness melted into belonging the first time I dunked a spoonful of grits into my mouth. Tupelo Honey Cafe Milwaukee had big nostalgic boots to fill.

A Little Breading Never Hurt Anyone

To get the full southern experience, you have to eat fried food, even if it means setting aside your gluten-free ethos for the night (guilty). My partner and I opted for the fried pickles and fried green tomatoes to start our Tupelo Honey Cafe meal off heavy. The fried pickles are delicious. Thinly sliced and dunked in a peppery breading that tastes strongly of celery salt. They’re indulgent dipped in the ranch dressing. There’s a balance between the breading and the pickle, the salt pops, and the creamy ranch adds just that much more fat and salt to an already incredibly fattening and salty dish. Apropos.

The fried green tomatoes, on the other hand, were the absolute worst dish of the night. Thick, gummy breading. Dense, undercooked green tomatoes. A distinct lack of flavor, which is impressive considering fried food is one of the easiest foods to make taste good. The breading was wearing those poor tomatoes, not the other way around. Then, the folks over at Tupelo Honey Cafe tossed them on top of a bowl of equally thick, dense grits.

I promise this review will be less critical from here on out, but the texture of the grits at Tupelo Honey Cafe is sacrilege. I probably could have made them better by slicing the mass into cubes and frying it up like polenta but then we’re getting into an Italian-Southern fusion that nobody asked for. Grits should be thick but creamy. Smooth but slightly textured. Delicate but hearty. The grits were missing the balance above. 

The next morning, I heated up the leftover grits with a little broth, topped them with the collard greens (more on those below), and added a poached egg. Divine. The flavor of the grits meets expectations, the texture laughed in the face of my grits-pectations. Before I gorged myself on the rest of the pickles, we moved on to the “vegetable course,” which I say to make myself feel better about the sheer quantity of food we ate last Saturday. 

The Lemon Garden Party salad
The Lemon Garden Party salad

Have a Few Vegetables With Your Weekly Allowance of Fat

Listen. I don’t order southern food expecting to lose a pound or two. But, I can’t consider a meal complete without a vegetable or two. I was intrigued by the Lemon Garden Party salad, mostly because I love arugula, but also because of the sheer size of the balls of whoever named this dish one word off from an infamous early 2000s viral video (this is in no way meant to be encouragement to go-a-Googling). 

The salad was sizeable, had a good balance of ingredients, fronds of fresh dill, and had the makings of a decent dish. However, they topped it with the driest grilled chicken breast this side of the Mason Dixon, and I’m deducting points. 

What’s really disappointing is the trend that started to develop with the dishes here. The pieces are there, but every dish was missing the mark on one of the core components of culinary success: balance, cook, flavor, texture. The chicken had great grilled flavor, but honestly made me worried I was going to choke because of the lack of moisture. Marinate. Brine. Something.

The Fire Roasted Poblano and Corn Soup boldly inserted itself into our mouths with a spicy burn. The texture was lovely—a mix of puree with small pieces of corn and peppers. If I had anything to say about this soup it would be to add some cream or cheese (or both) to round out the flavor profile.

It was a good start, not a great start. 

A Tour of Southern Sides 

Southern cuisine does sides right. There’s a massive variety, and they’re all standout, except for anything with okra. Okra can go to hell. Because I wanted to try all the things, we ordered the Farm Fresh Vegetable Plate, which is a generous name for a sample platter of fattening vegetable-based sides of unknown origin. In any case, we ordered more grits, and the side version was also missing the mark texturally. I don’t need to say anything else about that besides, please, please Tupelo Honey Cafe, stop serving dense grits. 

The collard greens gave me one of the first and only hits of true nostalgia. Tender chunks of bacon. Stewed and softened greens. Tangy, sweet, and sour broth. Yep. The collards are worth your money. And as I mentioned above, they hold up well as leftovers in a breakfast bowl. 

I wanted to love the Baked Mac & Cheese. I really did. Here’s my say something positive: the noodles maintained a slight give, which I appreciated. The bite of cheddar cheese came through. The panko topping had a lovely crunch, which added dimension. Yet, the dish needed more cheese. Maybe it’s the fact that cheese runs through my veins as a Wisconsinite but I get the sads when dishes skimp on them. You’re in our woods now, Tupelo Honey Cafe; add some more cheese to your baked mac and you’ll earn our respect. 

On the other hand, the green beans rounded out the Farm Fresh Vegetable Plate by balancing out the food guilt. I could taste the basil. The green beans were cooked well, a touch al dente still with sweetness coming through. The brown butter they were supposedly cooked with was pretty subtle, and the dish could use salt. I suspect the brown butter was unsalted and switching to salted butter alone would improve the flavor. 

Full of vegetables, we prepared ourselves (unbutton those jeans) for the main courses.  

Let’s Fry More Things and Eat Them

Even though we had options for breading-free entrees, we went all out and got two more fried dishes for dinner: the Smothered Chicken and the Shrimp Po’Boy. My partner enjoyed his Smothered Chicken. The fry was good, the chicken juicy, and the breading crisp and flavorful. We’re still collectively trying to understand milk gravy (what are you?), and the consensus was “needs salt.” On the side, he had the Rosemary & Parmesan Potato Cracklins’ and the Blistered Corn & Shishito Peppers w/ Brown Butter & Lime Sauce. 

The cracklins’ were delicious, and I wish I could try them in the context of a brunch dish. Crispy. Salty. Flavorful. Cooked well. Texturally appealing. Definitely a win. 

Comparatively, the corn and shishito peppers were confused. First of all, the shishitos had a whisper of fire on them and were seriously undercooked. The corn was cooked fine and had a slight lime flavor. But we could not figure out how you were supposed to eat them together since the shishitos had stems on them still. And overall, the flavor was subtle. I want a punch of lime. A hit of brown butter. Instead, I was searching for both. 

I ordered the Shrimp Po’Boy and I’m happy to tell you this was the best dish of the night. First things first. Tupelo Honey Cafe, collard greens do not belong shredded on a po’boy. I hope you switch to an actual lettuce. I hear iceberg is cheap (and classic). Otherwise, the shrimp had a delicious, crunchy breading. The bun was soft and sweet with a nice crispy edge. I don’t condone violence but the remoulade was slap your mama good and spicy. With thick slices of tomato—which I was skeptical about before the first bites—it all came together to be just plain satisfying. As somebody who typically eats paleo and gluten-free, I have no regrets. 

We mustered up the strength to top our meal off with dessert. 

Mixed Feelings About Banana Pudding

Banana pudding is one of those classic southern desserts that you have to try at least once. It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It’s creamy, sweet, and laden with shitty store-bought cookies that become inexplicably appealing pockets of mush in a bowl of delicious mush. We ordered a regular serving of Tupelo Honey’s pudding, and reviews at our table of two were mixed. My partner loved the pudding. I watched him, in disgust, as he rapid-fire ate spoonful after spoonful despite declaring, “I’m so full! I ate too much.” So, my partner risked a stomach ache to eat the better part of the banana pudding. 

I will give credit where credit is due. Tupelo Honey’s banana pudding is sufficiently creamy. The downsides: the pudding had a slightly gritty texture that also, depending on the spoonful, tasted like mucous, the one thing you don’t want to associate with food. It was probably from the overripened bananas inside. It’s incredibly sweet, which, if that’s your jam you’ll probably love. I prefer my desserts to be a bit more balanced but I’m admittedly pretty picky about sweets. So if you’re more forgiving, go with my partner’s review. If you’re picky like me, the banana pudding may be worth a pass. 

Southern Food, Where Are You? 

I wanted Tupelo Honey Cafe to deliver a culinary experience that would transport me back to my time in Charlotte. Did it deliver? The dishes I sampled hit like a memory, slightly faded, a taste of my firsts with southern food, but falling short of the original form. It whetted my appetite but I’m left wanting more. 

Can you find authentic southern food in Milwaukee? Was Tupelo Honey authentic southern food to begin with? Or was it the difference between a New York slice and Napoletana pizza. One is enjoyable, worth your money, and satisfying, but the other transforms. You take a bite, embody satiation, and every time you think of it again, your mouth waters. You can almost feel the texture in your mouth again, and you’re warmed from the inside out. I want a southern meal that creates that experience and while satisfying, Tupelo Honey was not it. 

I’ll keep searching for the original high of a southern meal that changes my life.

About the author

Caitlin Knudsen

Propagator of succulents, hobbyist baker, healthcare by day, pug wrangler always.