Usually, soul food, home cooking, country cooking -- there's barely a nickel's difference between them -- is hearty workman's food.
At Southern Hands Family Dining, you'll be served plenty, but some of the family favorites are almost dainty.
Take the fried chicken (but not mine, please). I ate my first meal there with a friend who knows a good deal about home-style cooking. As soon as he bit into the first piece, he nodded his head knowingly.
"It's egg whites," he said. "That's what makes the crust so delicate."
Not an egg wash, which would likely include yolks, but just a quick dip in lightly whipped whites before being coated in seasoned flour.
Is that what they do in the kitchen at Southern Hands? I can't say, but they're doing something right, something that turns out fried chicken that is moist and tender, encased in a thin, light crust.
"Lady chicken" is what my friend called it. It gets the point across, though there is something about the phrase that doesn't really jibe with chicken wings.
Southern Hands is a family-owned restaurant led by matriarch Betty Baskin. They've opened three locations since 2008, and this review is only of the one in Cordova, which opened almost a year ago a little north of Macon Road on Germantown Parkway.
The name was suggested by Baskin's daughter, Cassandra, and the story on the website describing how hard Baskin has worked with her hands, from picking cotton to scrubbing clothes, is a touching one (written by another daughter):
"My sister told her that her gift was to cook and that her hands were a blessing that should not be kept a secret. My sister said hands that strong and a heart as big as my mom's could only come from a Southerner -- hence the name Southern Hands Family Dining."
While not everyone working in the restaurant is family, I felt like everyone I came in contact with during my visits took pride in the restaurant and their job. We were warmly greeted when we arrived, even for Sunday lunch, when people spilled out the doors as they waited for tables. Service was slow that day, and we were forgotten more than once during lunch, but the apologies were so sincere and the general atmosphere so welcoming that it was easy to be forgiving.
Chicken and dressing is a special on Sundays and Fridays, and it's popular for a reason. It's a cornbread dressing that's on the wet side but not sticky, and it's full of onions and celery. I expected dressing with pieces of chicken cooked in it, which is often what chicken and dressing is in a restaurant. At Southern Hands, a big, very tender baked chicken breast is served over a bed of dressing, all topped with a light gravy.
The dish is filling and comforting, but suffers for the absence of sage.
Some of the other sides could also use a more generous dash of seasoning. The mashed potatoes and the black-eyed peas needed a bit of salt, though both were good. The peas were firm, not overcooked, and they contained a few snaps.
The turnip greens were too smoky for my tastes, but that's an issue left to the individual palate; I prefer my greens without any meat. At Southern Hands, the greens do have a nice balance of sweet and sour -- but mostly, they were smoky.
The macaroni and cheese was creamy and rich on one visit, and separated and watery on another.
The fried green tomatoes were just about perfect, though. Big slices were coated with a fine cornmeal crust, soft inside and crisp on the edges, and served with a creamy dipping sauce that we left mostly untouched. It was fine, but the tomatoes needed nothing.
The meatloaf was good, a savory mix topped with a slightly sweet tomato-based gravy.
Better, and possibly as good as the fried chicken, was the fried pork chop. Properly frying a piece of meat does much more than give it a crust and a few extra calories: It seals the juices in the meat, which makes it tender and gives it so much flavor. I found myself picking at the meat around the bone of the pork chop (where it's always the most tender, anyway) to get every morsel.
I'd heard talk of Baskin's cornbread for some time before I tried it. When I saw it, I could tell it was going to be sweet, and I felt a pang of disappointment. But that was for nothing. I don't usually care for sweet cornbread, and yes, it is sweet at Southern Hands. It's also light as a tea cake. I found myself picking at it again and again, and I finally just gave in to it. It's excellent, as good as any hearty, crusty cornbread, even if it is of such a fine texture that it has almost a cake crumb.
It's lady cornbread. And it's a mighty good match for lady chicken.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Southern Hands Family Dining
Address: 1250 N. Germantown Pkwy.
Telephone: (901) 757-8979
Hours: Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday; Monday through Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Fried chicken ($9.49 at dinner); fried green tomatoes ($4.99 for appetizer); fried pork chop ($7.29 at lunch and $10.49 at dinner).
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars