Critic’s rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
122 Third Ave. N., Safety Harbor, 727-216-6341. Soups $3.50, Salads/Sandwich $10-$14, Entrees $11-$15, Dessert $3.50.
Southern Fresh is truth in advertising. The cuisine reflects the gastronomic heritage of its latitude, and the ingredients are, well, fresh. It’s another Safety Harbor bungalow converted to a mom-and-pop restaurant. There’s a patio surrounded by towering oaks and an intimate dining room that can fill up quickly.
The decor is simple and homey, which also means that the noise level can rise when the joint is jumpin’. Think of 30 people in your living room without carpet or drapes to absorb any sound. The menu is also simple, with just nine choices plus a single dessert coming out of what logically must be a tiny kitchen, given the space.
Southern Fresh offers no specific starters other than two soups. The BLT soup begins with a simmered broth of plum tomato, garlic, caramelized shallots and cilantro. The warm liquid then gets added flavor and crunch through a topping comprised of crisp bacon and shredded hearts of romaine. There’s also homemade chicken noodle soup dotted with celery, carrots, and onions. Both are fine, but not sigh-inducing.
SF also offers two salads. The Southern Fresh “namesake” salad combines chopped romaine and iceberg lettuce with shaved grilled chicken breast, roasted bell pepper, crisp diced cucumber, creamy fresh avocado, sliced ripe tomatoes, and chopped crisp bacon, all tossed with a light but tangy citrus vinaigrette.
The other salad starts with a bed of mixed greens topped with grilled asparagus. Then the chef adds chopped Roma tomatoes, briny capers, and candied lemon zest to serve as a base for grilled salmon marinated in fresh herbs and finished with goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. They’re fresh, but nothing new.
Then, there’s the lone sandwich of sliced pork — coal-fired Boston butt sliced and shingled on a fresh baked hoagie roll, and topped with mixed greens finished with a tangy cilantro cream sauce.
When it comes to Southern-inspired entrées, plain old-fashioned, down-home Southern pan-fried chicken is king. And if it’s made to order, it’s a process that can’t be rushed. To get a piece of perfect chicken that’s juicy on the inside but crisp and crunchy on the outside takes 25 minutes, so just calm down and enjoy the view from their patio. It’s worth the wait because the fried chicken delivers as advertised.
When I see that they also offer a half rotisserie chicken (no antibiotics, chemicals or steroids — just all-natural poultry) slow-roasted “with love” and served with the aforementioned tangy cilantro cream sauce, I know I have found my entree.
“I’m sorry, we’re out of roasted chicken,” the waitress drawls. Just like home — you snooze, you lose. And a tiny restaurant is often just like home.
Well, at least there are some other options, but both of the other entrees, the dry-rubbed pork, slow roasted over hardwood, and the grilled herb marinated salmon, topped with piquant lemon caper sauce, are too dry when they reach our table. I dream of juicy chicken, so thank heavens the fried chicken scores.
Luckily, all the entrees offer the choice of two side dishes from a group of four that one would expect from a Southern kitchen; they’re the real deal. Will it be bacon-tinged fresh collards, a roasted batch of nicely caramelized seasonal vegetables, Southern-style green beans that shout “al dente, say what?” or a generous scoop of comforting homestyle mashed potatoes?
Finally, it’s time for sweets. “Don’t forget to complete your Southern Fresh meal with a classic banana pudding” is the lone dessert option on the menu. Unfortunately, on the night I arrive with friends in tow, they are out of the caramelized bananas that make the dessert, so our serving is underwhelming. Their Facebook page does picture an attractive dessert of fresh blueberries and strawberries topped with a light oatmeal crust then drizzled with a sweet cream glaze. So if you go in season, you may get lucky.
Southern Fresh has obviously struck a chord with the community since it’s now the #1 restaurant in Safety Harbor according to Trip Advisor. So my hit-’n-miss visit may be the exception to the rule. I guess it’s never wise underestimating the allure of Southern fried chicken made to order in the shadow of majestic oaks. Just be sure to remember, as Mama said, “Chicken takes time. Now y’all just set a spell.”