Savor the down-home flavors of the South right here in Reno-Tahoe.
When I was a middle schooler, my family moved to Atlanta, Ga. One of my mom’s new co-workers, a deeply Southern woman whose family was from the rural part of the state, invited my family to join hers for its annual Thanksgiving open house. A true Southern tradition, the open house, I discovered, was an opportunity for neighbors to pop in and visit with each other at any time — and always with a dish in their hands to leave behind — then mosey on to their next destination. The spread always included black-eyed peas; collard greens; potato salad; ambrosia (a fruit salad usually made with orange slices, coconut, and Cool Whip); a country ham; cornbread; and gallons of sweet tea. No guest would have dared to bring something store-bought.
It was my first exposure to a true Southern meal, which I quickly learned was only partially about the food itself. More than that, it was what the food represented — it was a welcome, a personal expression of love, a warm hug. That much-storied Southern hospitality is directly tied to food; strangers are invited to meals and given homemade chess pies.
It’s no wonder that folks in the Reno-Tahoe area are embracing Southern cuisine in these days of anxiety and division. What could be more comforting than the warm hug implicit in a basket of warm biscuits? And though I’ve lived in Northern Nevada for the last 25 years, in my heart, summer will always mean Southern fried chicken, potato salad, and always-full, icy glasses of sweet tea.
Fortunately, Reno-Sparks is home to a number of local dining establishments serving up Southern cuisine done right and straight from the heart. Go try ‘em, y’all.
M&M’s Southern Café
Mitch and Gieshula Moore started selling their authentic Southern food in 2006, having been strongly urged to do so by friends. Mitch, a native of Texarkana, Texas, moved here in the late ‘80s, and Gieshula, of Little Rock, Ark., in the early ‘90s. Owners of a hair salon, they enjoyed preparing Mitch’s mother’s Southern recipes for various social events, and delighted friends kept insisting the food was good enough to sell. It led Mitch to purchase a food truck, before it was hip.
The food truck appeared at popular local events, such as Sparks’ downtown farmers’ market and The Big Easy. Soon, demand for the food became greater than demand for barbering, so the Moores closed the salon and opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant, M&M’s Fish & Chicken Shack, on Mill Street in Reno.
“It did so good, the first day we opened, we ran out of food!” Gieshula says.
After developing a strong local following and opening a small second location — a drive-through on Prater Way in Sparks — the Moores moved their business to the Scolari’s shopping center on Holman Way in Sparks in 2014, christening it M&M’s Southern Café.
Here you’ll find Mitch in the kitchen while Gieshula; their daughter, Bianca; and even their two young grandsons run the front of the house. The family vibe instantly makes you feel at home. The menu will transport you to the South, with dishes such as fried catfish, fried chicken, po’ boys, fried okra, collard greens, and even deep-fried alligator bites, a Southern delicacy. The brisket, when it’s occasionally available, draws a crowd.
And if you’re looking for oxtails or black-eyed peas, you’d better get there early: “When people come from California on the weekend, that’s all they buy,” Gieshula says. “We can’t keep them in stock.”
The fried catfish here is that rare unicorn of fried foods that’s perfectly crispy, thanks to a light cornmeal batter surrounding a thin fish filet, but not even the tiniest bit greasy or heavy, ensuring the flavor of the delicate fish inside shines through. The Moores are batter experts — for the fried chicken and alligator bites, which are first marinated to infuse flavor and spice, they’ve selected a flour-based dough, one that’s not too heavy or too thick, but which is thick enough to fry to a crisp golden brown.
Pair them with proper collard greens, black-eyed peas, potato salad, hush puppies, or fried okra, a crispy, cornmeal-encrusted masterpiece, without a hint of the slime that keeps many away from the low-country vegetable.
And wash it down with sweet tea in a glass loaded to the brim with ice — I like mine with a few huge lemon slices. Perfection!
Pine State Biscuits
Southerners expect a lot from their biscuits. The ubiquitous breakfast accompaniment, it should be simultaneously buttery, flaky, and soft while also big and hearty enough to withstand drenching in country sausage gravy or stews, or enclosing slabs of meat, eggs, and cheese, all without crumbling or growing too soggy. It’s a tall order, but Pine State Biscuits in Downtown Reno has mastered it.
Owners Bryan Snyder, Walt Alexander, and Kevin Atchley all hail from North Carolina and became friends while attending college in Raleigh. When the three of them eventually made their way to Portland, Ore., they reconnected and started lamenting its dearth of good biscuits.
“What we got was nothing like what we were used to,” says Snyder, who grew up in Albemarle, N.C. “So we talked about taking this ubiquitous concept in the South — biscuits for sandwiches or gravy — and serving it up with a little Northwest flair, sourcing ingredients locally.”
Having had no experience baking biscuits or owning a restaurant, the three men started experimenting, practicing dozens of recipes and techniques over about six months, tapping local chefs and holding taste-test parties. Once they landed on a winning recipe, they started dipping their toes in the water, selling biscuits and sandwiches at farmers’ markets while maintaining their full-time jobs.
After two farmers’ market seasons, when they consistently had people lining up around the block to buy their biscuits, it was time to make a go of a restaurant. With a running start, Pine State Biscuits grew rapidly; there are now four Portland-area locations and, since 2019, one in Reno.
Its menu features traditional Southern favorites, including Carolina-style pulled pork, fried chicken, shrimp and grits, corn dogs, fried green tomatoes, collard greens, and hush puppies. Of course, Pine State still is primarily a breakfast restaurant, offering its trademark fluffy biscuits, on their own, buried in gravy, or holding up sandwiches, including its most popular item, The Reggie. This knife-and-fork sandwich includes a thick, beautifully breaded fried chicken breast filet, slices of bacon, melted Cheddar cheese, mountains of country gravy, and, if you like, a fried egg.
Southerners take their grits seriously, and the folks at Pine State don’t mess around. They use a blend of heirloom and regular grits to arrive at the ideal level of creaminess. The grits are served on their own as a side dish, or as a bed for Pacific-caught shrimp sautéed in garlic, green onions, mushrooms, and bacon that create a rich, savory gravy that makes the Shrimp-n-Grits dish sing.
Folks in the South are known for their sweet tooth. Fortunately, Pine State’s pastry program is impressive. Try the Bourbon Caramel Cinnamon Roll, which is nearly as big as my head, fills a plate, and is soaked in a decadent, salty/buttery caramel sauce. Or pick up the Seasonal Pop Tart, the restaurant’s riff on the well-known, handheld pastry but containing quality ingredients in unique combinations, such as the Hummingbird, filled with pineapple, pecans, pastry cream, and coconut flakes.
What’ll really transport you down South is the beverage selection, which not only includes sweet tea (of course), but also bottled Cheerwine (a Southern institution), BubbleUp, and NuGrape.
Mr. Crab Boiling Seafood
In the low country, or coastal plains, of Georgia and the Carolinas, fresh seafood reigns. Here, you’re more likely to see a low-country boil (sometimes called Frogmore or Beaufort stew, after the towns where it’s believed to have originated) on a Thanksgiving table than you are a turkey. In summertime, special events feature butcher paper for the table and giant stock pots filled with water (or lager beer), tons of Old Bay seasoning, lemons, and some combination of crab, shrimp, crawfish, oysters, smoked sausage, corn on the cob, and red potatoes. They’re all boiled together, strained, tossed out on the table, and left as fair game for anyone with a bib, crab cracker, and, often, melted butter for dipping.
Though Carlos Martinez, his wife Norma Martinez Quintana, and his brother Oscar Martinez don’t have roots in the Southern United States, they all share a history of preparing seafood boils in much the same way, thanks to their own roots in coastal Mexico. Having perfected their own versions of the boil and seeing the possibilities of sharing the concept with Reno residents, they opened Mr. Crab Boiling Seafood in Midtown. But none of them saw the pandemic coming when they planned to open in March 2020.
“We went back and forth, ‘Should we open? Should we not?’ but then we just decided to go for it,” says Norma, co-owner and general manager.
In November, seeing the restriction on capacity at 25 percent, they realized it was a great opportunity to open slowly, test the waters, and gather feedback that might prepare them for opening at full capacity. The plan worked. The team, with Carlos at the helm as co-owner and chef, took the customer feedback to heart and tweaked recipes.
Since then, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, from people both familiar with the seafood boil concept and some first-timers who have fallen in love with it.
Guests order by the pound, based on the number of people in their party, a combination of items that may include shrimp, king or snow crab, octopus, lobster, crawfish, scallops, oysters, mussels, Cajun sausage, red potatoes, and corn on the cob. Seasonings go beyond simple Old Bay and lemon and appear in sauces with a Mexican twist that can be used alone or in combinations, including Cajun jalapeño, cilantro lime, and the fiery hot Mr. Diablo.
Prepare to get messy. With crab cracker in hand, you’ll pull apart seafood and eat with your fingers. The seafood, sourced from Sierra Gold Seafood in Sparks, is exceptionally fresh, meaty, and flavorful, and the sauces add distinctive and unexpected flavor and heat to the meal. If you have extra room or a larger crowd, don’t miss the Lobster Mac and Cheese and Garlic Parmesan Fries (one order of each for the table is plenty). A word of advice: Wear loose-fitting pants.
Though Marco Dobrescu was born and raised in Ely, Nev., he has spent the majority of his culinary career in Nashville, Tenn., with brief stints in South Carolina and Louisiana as well, learning to cook good old Southern food. When he returned to Northern Nevada a few years ago, he couldn’t find a restaurant that fit the sensibilities he had about food, so he set about finding a food trailer in 2018, with the goal of bringing the Southern comfort foods he loved to Reno.
The end result was Uncle Buddy’s, which he named for his own great uncle, a former Nevada barbecue champion.
“He used to roast animals on spits, smoke pork, and cure meats, that sort of thing,” Dobrescu says. “His style of entertaining and hosting and cooking was where my love of cooking came from. Coupled with Southern food’s ability to provide comfort, it just made sense to name it after him.”
Dobrescu keeps his food trailer parked in front of The Flavor Studio at an office park on Louie Lane in Reno. He’s fortunate to have access to The Flavor Studio’s restrooms, tables on the sidewalk outside, and a commercial kitchen next door where he prepares his rotating menu of casual Southern classics, all from scratch, from the handmade bologna and hot dogs to hamburgers; fried catfish; shrimp po’ boys; fried chicken; fried green tomatoes; deviled eggs; grits; side dishes, including chicory salad, potato salad, potato chips, coleslaw, okra, and heirloom Native American red beans; and even the brioche bread (made with organic flour) and remoulade sauce for his sandwiches.
Dishes are created with an eye toward the seasons, with ingredients sourced locally as much as possible. Prepared in his own smoker, his pulled pork and smoked chicken are as authentically Southern as it gets, but he also makes a mean sausage and pastrami. But it’s the Nashville hot chicken, undoubtedly, that’s Dobrescu’s most popular offering — that and his original fried chicken sandwich. It’s a perfect blend of hot and cold, crunchy and soft; the chicken is fried to a perfect crisp in a lightly spicy breading and topped with cold, crisp coleslaw, inside a soft brioche bun. The po’ boy includes sautéed, not fried, lemony shrimp for a fresher flavor. I enjoyed mine with the handmade potato chips that reminded me of summer days at the fair.
“Something I learned in the South was that the best food comes from the best growers, and a turnip tastes a lot better if it’s grown and picked near where you live,” Dobrescu says. “We just try to buy the best quality products, which makes our job a lot easier.
Food From the Heart
When it comes to Southern food, it’s not so much about what you eat as how it’s prepared and with whom you’re sharing it. It’s all about the love.
“I think Southerners cook food with love,” says Gieshula Moore. “I think that’s why some people call what we have soul food. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t matter. I think Southern people do it from the heart, and you can taste it. It’s the ultimate hospitality. That was the main thing where we grew up — we didn’t have a bunch of money, but if we could feed you, treat you like a queen for a day, that’s hospitality to us.”
Jessica Santina, managing editor of edible Reno-Tahoe, lived nearly half her life in the South. She makes a mean potato salad, currently has an enormous glass of sweet tea on her desk, and plans to spend her summer cheering for the Braves.
This summer, sample delicious Southern cuisine at these Reno-Tahoe area restaurants:
BJ’s Nevada Barbecue Co.
80 E. Victorian Ave., Sparks
775-355-1010 • Bjsbbq.com
Southern offerings include shrimp and grits, biscuits and gravy, and, of course, BJ’s signature ribs and pit-smoked barbecue.
M&M’s Southern Café
820 Holman Way, Sparks
775-356-1070 • Mmsouthern.com
Mr. Crab Boiling Seafood
1507 S. Virginia St., Reno
775-449-5237 • Mrcrabreno.com
Pine State Biscuits
200 S. Center St., Reno
775-432-2464 • Pinestatebiscuits.com
Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint
1500 Old Hot Springs Road, Carson City
775-884-4471 • Sassafrascarsoncity.com
Sassafras offers a few Louisiana and soul food dishes, including deep-fried cheesy grits, shrimp po’ boys, pulled pork sandwiches, muffulettas, and a classic Southern fried chicken sandwich with pickle chips.
5303 Louie Lane, Reno
Unclebuddysreno@gmail.com • Find Uncle Buddy’s Reno on Facebook