In 2010, Josh Ozersky barreled into Portland looking for the culinary equivalent of Sleater-Kinney. He ate until he “writhed in pain” over 36 hours, then eloquently regurgitated the experience in Time magazine, proclaiming the food in Portland “so good it will literally make you sick.” He loved the city’s embrace of extreme comforts, “cooked for foodies by foodies,” and, of course, the monumental portions. In December 2014, he made it official: Portland became Ozersky’s home base while he roamed the country as Esquire’s food correspondent. It was a beautiful but brief love affair: five months later, at age 47, Ozersky died, suddenly, shockingly.
As a newcomer, Ozersky had one pervasive anxiety: Portland wasn’t his place. He didn’t know the streets. Might he miss something great? For weeks he prowled, searching for true Ozerskian moments—honest Americana and lard-core to the bone—to fuel his legendary essays and anti-modern food screeds. He found it in a just-opened Southern diner in Northeast Portland. An e-mail barely contained his excitement: “You must eat at Muscadine immediately. It’s definitely the best fried chicken I’ve had outside of the south, at least when taken with the gravy. Everything there is awesome.”
The décor at Muscadine consists of little more than treasured sacks of White Lily flour, dog-eared cookbooks, and a kitchen full of very engaged crockpots. Smoked onions pummel the air; regulars attack a pork fritter nearly the size of a wrestler’s thigh. At last, Ozersky was home. And the guy who lived to share his discoveries got his wish: in October Muscadine made Esquire’s 2015 list of “Best New Restaurants in America.”
He’s in my head every time I sit there. I want to rip through the fried chicken and share wild-eyed yelps of glee, the only legitimate response to its utter perfection inside and out. The meat is ambrosial, dark-only and juicy as all get out, and the crust is unlike any I’ve tasted: crisp skin (think the best part of Thanksgiving turkey) beneath a flaky layer of super-crunch. It’s like fried chicken pastry, all of it loudly crackling upon engagement. You can’t go wrong. Order buttermilk style or the fiery Nashville Hot, glazed in homemade lard and cayenne—what happens when granny goes Mean Girls.
Fried chicken is the choice centerpiece of Muscadine’s “Meat + Three” plate, a checklist of Southern desires culled from heirloom ingredients and catfish-country recipes. Wise ordering will land you a pile of criminally creamy grits, full of rugged tooth and copious corn flavor, and the sausage gravy could make anything better, even water. But collard greens best encapsulate the cooking of Mississippi-born owner-chef Laura Rhoman: simple food, laborious as possible. (Even the condensed milk is homemade.) The greens are slow-braised and folded like napkins, the onions perfumed over pecan wood, the pork stock simmered down to a moment of clarity. Testify. Other pleasures: golden pads of fried catfish or Low Country chicken curry, an oozy landscape of gravy lakes, sweet spices, and sprawling over-easy eggs. So far, the only potholes are in the oven, where biscuits go leaden and corn bread finds no nuance.
When Esquire dropped its Best New Restaurants list in October, Rhoman—suddenly minted as one of the country’s best new chefs—was nowhere to be found. A sign on the door said it all: Muscadine was closed for 10 days “to attend the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Miss.” Did Rhoman consider hustling back from the geeky heritage food gathering to serve the inevitable crush of curious newcomers? “Absolutely not,” she bristled in her deep Southern drawl when I asked. “It’s not about networking; it’s for people who love Southern food and want to preserve it.” Somewhere, Josh Ozersky is smiling.