“I think it’s easy to dismiss Southern food as nothing but grease and grits.
I happen to like both grease and grits,
And if you call them lardo and polenta, no one would have a problem with it.”
~John T. Edge
Author John T. Edge acknowledges that negative stereotypes are rampant about Southern food, crediting some of those perceptions to how Southern food is marketed. Instead of Southern food being presented as one of America’s great culinary traditions, all too often it’s presented as bumpkinly and backwater. Instead of focusing on its soul-warming deliciousness and comforting properties, it’s presented as fatty, fried and laden with butter. It could well be argued that Southern cooking is the Rodney Dangerfield of American cuisine; it gets no respect. Credit media, particularly the aptly named “boob tube” for perpetuating unsavory—and often inaccurate–stereotypes.
If you were a product of the ‘60s and 70s, your perceptions of Southern cuisine were probably gleaned from such television shows as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons. While these programs were generally family-oriented and depicted homespun values, they often portrayed Southern food in a condescending light. Who, for example, can ever forget the typical Beverly Hillbillies soiree of possum shanks, pickled hog jowls, goat tripe, stewed squirrel, ham hocks and turnip greens, gizzards smothered in gristle, and smoked crawdads? Or Aunt Bee’s homemade pickles on the Andy Griffith Show which were described as tasting “like they’ve been floating in kerosene?”
It doesn’t get any better in contemporary times where today’s viewers are subjected to a barrage of bizarre and jejune wackery. Though we’ve never made it past the first commercial break on either Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty, two minutes of each was enough to convince us that mealtime scenes were probably as bizarre and annoying as the “stars” of these prime-time reality nightmares. Nor have we endured more than a snippet of Chrisley Knows Best, Atlanta’s equivalent of the Kardashians…at least in terms of both plasticine families being ditzy and unlikeable. We don’t even want to imagine what constitutes a dining experience in their world.
Having lived in the Deep South (the Mississippi Gulf Coast) for nearly eight years, we were fortunate enough to discover what Edge describes as “the cradle of some of our great folk foods,” the traditional foods of a small group of people living in isolated or rural areas. Crawfish is one example of a folk food (and so are quelites (lambs quarters), a spinach-like plant enjoyed throughout northern New Mexico). We also discovered the dichotomy of a fierce pride in Southern culinary traditions and a self-effacing modesty that prevents crowing loudly about those traditions.
Southerners may not be prone to braggadocio and self-promotion, no matter how good their cooking is, but they are experts in hospitality. Whether in a restaurant or in a private home, Southern hospitality is more than a turn of phrase; it’s a way of life. Food figures prominently in Southern hospitality with heaping helpings expected at church fellowship suppers and picnics. We hadn’t been in our Ocean Springs home for a day before our neighbor Donna Pace welcomed us with a vinegar pie. If the food doesn’t win you over, the genuine hospitality and warmth of the citizens of the South most certainly will.
Fond memories of Southern hospitality bubbled up when we drove up to Bucket Headz, a Southern restaurant on Louisiana Blvd which opened its doors in October, 2015. Even without “Southern Home Cooking” subtitled on the marquee,” we knew that a restaurant named Bucket Headz had to be a Southern restaurant. What we didn’t know until walking in was whether or not “Southern home cooking” also meant “soul food.” What’s the difference? San Jose University explains that “While not all Southern food is considered soul food, all soul food is definitely Southern.” Differentiating between the two can be complicated.
According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States. In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements. Though still most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”
Bucket Headz is a family-owned and operated business grounded in Southern cooking traditions, described on the restaurant’s Web site as “no fancy frills, just good ol’ down home stick to yo ribs cookin’ just the way our Granny use to make it.” The name Bucket Headz, by the way, is a family nickname—what the family patriarch calls all of his grandkids. Step into the restaurant’s homey confines and you’ll find it readily apparent that the owners are a Godly people. Aphorisms attesting to their faith are splayed on the walls as are kitchen implements hung for decorative purposes.
Air Force pride is also on display in signage indicating Bucket Headz is a veteran owned business. Owner Malaika Marks served for four years, while her husband, stationed at nearby Kirtland, has four years to go until he can retire. Malaika’s mother, a delightful “Okie from Muskogee” who helps out at the restaurant, is also an Air Force veteran. During her four-year stint Malaika would bake cakes for General officers, a precursor to her launching Trinity’s Custom Cakes when the family was reassigned to Kirtland. On display in a bakery case is some of her handiwork, including a cake you’d swear is one of Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22 sneakers.
The family’s Southern heritage has its roots in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Florida and…Chicago (where Malaika’s husband is from). Hospitality is part and parcel of your dining experience as you’ll read in the motto “Come in as a customer, leave as family.” You could also reword that motto to read “Come in hungry, leave full and happy.” In addition to such Southern soul favorites as catfish, chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, smothered pork chops, wings and macaroni and cheese served in more ways that you thought possible, Bucket Heads offers daily specials Monday through Friday. Thursday’s ox tail special is reputed to be exceptional.
27 February 2016: As you’ve read (perhaps ad-nauseum) on this blog, one of the foods we’ve missed most from our days in the South is catfish. Most of the catfish we’ve had in New Mexico is so desiccated we wonder if it’s been battered in sawdust. Bucket Headz knows how to prepare catfish, serving lightly breaded, golden-hued filets that are moist, tender and absolutely delicious. Your best bet is the two catish and two sides option. Make those sides fried okra and fried pickles, both as good as you’ll find anywhere in Dixie. The catfish is served with a terrific tartar sauce we practically ignored because of the buffalo-garlic sauce served with another entrée we ordered. The accompanying corn bread relies on sweet niblets of corn for its sweet flavor, not on sugar. It’s a moist corn bread baked “hoe cake” style meaning it’s flat (similar to a pancake).
27 February 2016: Described as “the big brother of po’boy,” the Big Boy has nothing to do with a restaurant of that name. The Big Boy is a behemoth sandwich in which two catfish filets are crammed between a sandwich roll where they share space with a handful of shrimp as well as lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. You can apply as much or as little of buffalo-garlic sauce as you’d like. This sauce packs a bite and has enough garlic to ward off a family of vampires (that’s a good thing unless you’re into Twilight). The shrimp are lightly battered and so fresh, they snap when you bite into them. The Big Boy, much like its little brother the po’ boy, bespeaks of the fine sandwich traditions of the South. Instead of the usual sandwich sides, ask for the red beans and rice, the best we’ve had outside New Orleans, so good you’ll want a second bowlful.
27 February 2016: During our eight years in Mississippi, we never ran into anyone who didn’t think Kraft’s version of macaroni and cheese was a travesty. Mac and cheese is always homemade south of the Mason-Dixon line and it’s usually much better than you’ll find north of that demarcation. Obviously recognizing that people are passionate about their macaroni and cheese, Bucket Headz serves it in two unique ways. One is a mac and cheese stuffed burger you’ll have to open wide to bite into. The other is Fried Mac n’ Cheese Balls. Served four to an order, these golden-hued orbs are crispy on the outside and ooey-gooey on the inside with lots of cheesy flavor. These, as a Southerner might say, are to die for.
30 March 2016:“There is no dish which at the same time so tickles the palate, satisfies the appetite, furnishes the body with nutriment sufficient to carry on the physical requirements, and costs so little as a Creole Gumbo. It is a dinner in itself, being soup, piece de résistance, entremet and vegetable in one.” That’s how author William Coleman described gumbo, the spicy, hearty, flavorful dish enjoyed throughout the Gulf Coast…and now Albuquerque. The version offered at Bucket Headz is better than many we enjoyed in New Orleans. The swimming pool sized bowl (described by my friend Bill as “a vat”) in which the gumbo is served will feed a small family. Brimming with vegetables, chicken and Andouille sausage in an addictively spiced broth atop rice, the steaming hot bowl is amazingly delicious. Every spoonful is a pleasure trip, the type of which you’ll want to repeat frequently. Though there are a number of hot sauces on your table, it’s a true testament to this gumbo’s greatness that you won’t even be tempted to add more heat to this just right elixir.
30 March 2016: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver is a believer in the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. As he perused the Bucket Headz menu, it was the two photographs of the Bucket Burger that snared his attention. He was intrigued at the notion of a mac and cheese stuffed burger and even more pleased that he could design the burger to his liking with a variety of standard fixin’s and fixin’s for a slight additional charge. Sr. Plata’s masterpiece included lettuce, grilled onions, mushrooms and a fried egg—toppings which increased the girth and volume of this behemoth burger from a half-pound to well over a pound. Not for the faint of heart or calorific underachievers, this burger is as flavorful as it is large. The mac and cheese, stuffed inside hand-formed beef patties, provides the cheese element that makes it a cheeseburger and the element of nostalgia that makes mac-and-cheese a childhood favorite for children of all ages. The mushrooms are fresh, not out of a can. The burger is served with Texas-sized fries about as big as a stick of firewood.
30 March 2016:As she had during my inaugural visit, the delightful Malaika stepped away from her busy kitchen to meet and greet as many diners as time permitted. One of the guests with whom she visited looked very familiar, but it wasn’t until we were leaving that we noticed it was Daniel “Pepper” Morgan, the pitmaster extraordinaire at Pepper’s Bar-B-Q & Soul Food. In that one table at that precise moment, there was more culinary talent than anywhere else in Albuquerque and we were honored to share in conversation with them.
7 April 2016: Oxtail is to the South what menudo is to New Mexico. Some people love it and others can’t stomach the notion of eating it (you can probably guess in which camp I stand). Oxtail is exactly what its name declares it to be: the tail of an ox. It’s officially classified as offal similar to other organ meats and sweetbreads. As with other offal, the preparation of oxtail probably arose from the tradition of trying to use every part of every animal butchered. At Bucket Headz oxtail is available only on Thursdays and if you don’t get there early or pre-order, chances are there won’t be any left. Served over a bed of rice and a brown gravy, oxtail far from off-putting. In fact, it’s absolutely delicious, so much so my friend the Dazzling Deanell Collins declared the version at Bucket Headz to be better than oxtail she had in Spain (where amusingly it is known as osso bucco). It’s better than any oxtail we enjoyed in Mississippi, too.
15 April 2016: My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott has visited most of the barbecue joints Texas Monthly has anointed as the Lone Star State’s best. He’s also perfected the low-and-slow smoking techniques used to prepare mouth-watering barbecue at home. As such, he’s got some serious barbecue creds. You can’t pull the wool over his eyes. Within a couple of bites he can tell you exactly how a meat was smoked. You won’t find a smoker out in back of Bucket Headz, but Ryan quickly discerned the inimitable redolence of low-and-slow smoking on the Flintstonian pork ribs he enjoyed. An order will bring you three meaty ribs with a lacquered-on sweet and tangy sauce. The meat isn’t “fall-off-the-bone” tender, but barbecue aficionados know it’s not supposed to be. Rather, the meat has just a little bit of “give” which means it’s smoked to perfection.
15 April 2016: Ryan has been known to tell me “where to go” on several occasions, but that’s only where to go to find great wings. Only my friend Ralph Guariglio in Ahwatukee, Arizona and maybe an ornithologist or two know as much about wings as Ryan. About the only thing he can’t tell you is the name of the chickens who gave themselves up so we could enjoy their delicious appendages. When Ryan raved about the buffalo garlic wings at Bucket Headz, it was a certainty that they’d be superb. They are! These wings are huge, obviously coming from chickens who kicked sand in the face of smaller fowl. Malaika fries them to a golden hued crispiness then slathers on the buffalo garlic sauce which has both the kick of buffalo sauce and the pungent heat of garlic. The wings are meaty and delicious, as good as wings can be. On the day Ryan and I visited, a table of six Air Force enlisted men put away some eighty wings. They made me proud to have served in the world’s finest Air Force.
15 April 2016: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” may never forgive me in that I got to visit Bucket Headz on a day in which chicken fried steak with two sides was the special of the day. Sr. Plata loves chicken fried steak even more than he loves his truck and that’s a lot of love. While most chicken fried steak is good, it doesn’t always have a lot of personality and often the personality it does have is gleaned from artery-clogging gravy. Malaika imbues her chicken fried steak with lots of personality, what might be called “sass” in the South. The breading she uses is impregnated with Cajun spices which will give you an immediate kick. The peppery white gravy lends its own sass to the tender breaded cube steak. The perfect side and a wonderful foil for this personality blessed chicken fried steak is sweet potatoes, the very best I’ve ever had. They’re buttery, sweet and rich, so good you’ll wish you had a sweet potato pie to go with them.
27 February 2016: You won’t find better desserts anywhere unless you go online to Trinity’s Custom Dessert Studio where Malaika’s handiwork is on display. Her repertoire of postprandial deliciousness includes such Southern favorites as sweet potato pie and red velvet cake, the latter being the best we’ve ever had. Sinfully rich and sweet, it’s also ogle-worthy (but won’t be for long as you’ll want to dive into it quickly). The cinnamon rolls are the size of bricks and as tasty as any you’ll find in the Duke City. The operative word here is “cinnamon” and there’s plenty of it though not nearly as much as there is icing. The interplay between the two is as harmonious as music performed by Musica Antigua de Albuquerque.
One visit to Bucket Headz probably won’t cure you of any ill perceptions you may have about Southern cuisine, but this is not a restaurant to which one visit will suffice. Bucket Headz could easily become a habit.
600 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2016
1st VISIT: 27 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Red Velvet Cake, Cinnamon Roll, Catfish, Fried Macaroni and Cheese Balls, Fried Pickles, Fried Okra, Big Boy Sandwich, Red Beans and Rice, Hoe Cakes, Gumbo, Oxtail, Sweet Potatoes, Chicken Fried Steak, Buffalo Garlic Chicken Wings, Pork Ribs, Macaroni and Cheese, Church Punch