Chef Isaac Toups is perhaps best known for his appearance on Top Chef season 13, and if you watched the season you’ll know that he’s New Orleans through-and-through. The Louisiana native and Emeril Lagasse protégée’s six year-old flagship restaurant, Toups Meatery, is one of the most popular restaurants in town, and his follow-up, Toups South, was one of 2016’s most hotly-anticipated openings (he runs both restaurants with his wife, Amanda). We recently had the opportunity to visit Toups South at the invitation of the restaurant, and our meal was a celebration of creative and comforting Southern fare.
Toups South is located inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, separated by a curtain but still very much its own space. Ceilings are high and the space is industrial, but a lively bar (with a bar itself dating from the 1800s), an open kitchen with a chef’s counter, big windows letting in plenty of natural light, and a seriously low-key vibe give the restaurant an almost homey air.
When we arrived for lunch, we were greeted by Amanda, who walked us through the menu and was a gracious and gregarious host. After a creatively-named cocktail (try the Make Me Say Hmmmm, with Plymouth sloe gin, Suze, watermelon, basil, and hibiscus tea; or the Porkchops and Applesauce, with pork-washed whiskey, apple, and aromatic bitters), we dove into the menu, which is an unabashed ode to meat (especially pork), classic Southern ingredients, and big, bold flavors.
If there’s one fact that can sum up the ethos of Toups’ menu, it’s that there’s not one, but two variations on fried pork skin on the menu: cracklins, big hunks of skin-on belly that have been deep-fried and dusted with a proprietary spice mix (above); and pork rinds, which arrive warm and airy, dusted with the same addictive blend. “Smoke sticks” were also supremely porky, thin spicy sausages served sizzling in a cast-iron dish.
Large Gulf shrimp were grilled and served head-on atop creamy andouille-studded grits, topped with tangy, chunky chow chow.
The signature appetizer is the sourdough biscuits, big and fluffy and rich and buttery and deeply burnished, with a slight sourdough tang. Smearing it with the crab fat butter served alongside may be gilding the lily, but it also elevates this biscuit to one of the city’s best bites of food.
The burger is topped with bacon, bourbon barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños, and aged cheddar, and the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich is topped with braised greens and Gruyère; both were outrageously delicious.
The cooking may be big and bold, but it’s not indelicate: a salad of jumbo lump crab and sliced grapes, tossed with coconut lime dressing and served with a pile of lettuce wraps and a sprinkle of espelette, was downright dainty. (Don’t forget that Toups honed his chops at some of the city’s top fine-dining restaurants and was nominated for the James Beard Award in 2014 and 2015.) We would have loved to have tried the restaurant’s signature entrée, a high stack of fried pork chops for two served with pickled summer squash, coffee aïoli, and white bread, but by this point our stomachs were full to the point of nearly bursting.
A meal at Toups South is a cacophony of flavors, all of which ring familiar but are prepared and presented in ways I’d never seen before. This type of big, bold, unabashed Cajun revelry can be experienced at a handful of restaurants in New Orleans, like Jacques-Imo’s, but not at nearly as many as you’d expect; even fewer have the immediacy and grandiosity of Toups’ signature vision. Toups South is a welcome addition to the city’s dining scene, and a noble steward of letting les bons temps rouler.
The meal that was the subject of this review was provided at no cost to the writer.