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Rolling the dice in Vegas
Seeking the South in the Southwest
The Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium starts one week from today, so you’ll find me in Oxford, Mississippi, which counts as the American South by just about any definition. But the group this year is asking “Where is the South?,” a question I’ve tried to answer in my capacity as columnist for SFA’s Gravy quarterly by going west, north, and east in search of it. The first installment in that series is reprinted below: To purchase a print copy of the Summer 2023 issue, or another edition, visit Hub City Press. And come say hi in Oxford!
Buffets may be passé in Las Vegas, but casual gamblers still want to taste all the world has to offer. So now, instead of steam-table stations, the ritziest casinos open restaurant “concepts,” with each featured global cuisine claiming its own name, menu, and dining room.
At MGM Grand, toward the south end of The Strip, meal options include Hakkasan
Restaurant for Peking duck, Grand Wok Noodle Bar for pad Thai, and—since June
2022—Nellie’s Southern Kitchen for biscuits, pulled pork, and fried catfish.
The second location of a Belmont, North Carolina, restaurant created by The Jonas
Brothers’ parents, Kevin and Denise, Nellie’s is a sit-down tribute to Kevin’s
grandmother. “She was one of those special people who had a way of showing love
through cooking,” Kevin told a PBS North Carolina crew. In Vegas, diners are
greeted by a floor-to-ceiling painting of Nellie Jonas, with a skillet hanging from her
waist and cotton adorning her hair.
While I’ve never ordered a plateful of pinto beans and cornbread in Vegas, I went to
Nellie’s to test a theory.
This year, the Southern Foodways Alliance is taking on the question of “Where is the
South?,” acknowledging that the old boundaries established by politicians and
breakfast preferences no longer capture the region and its character. With
demographics shifting and economies changing, it’s become harder to define this
place by latitude and longitude.
A decade ago, when I became food editor of the newspaper in Charleston, South
Carolina, and fielded calls about where to buy soup bunch and how to pickle
Jerusalem artichokes, the city seemed plenty Southern. Within six years or so, by
which time nearly every reader call concerned either cheesesteaks or Chinese food,
I wasn’t so sure.
Maybe, I thought, the South is where you take it. Over the coming year, I’ll be
looking east, west, and north for edible evidence that what we consider Southern is
flourishing under the stewardship of restaurant owners, chefs, and home cooks who
have familial connections or spiritual affinity to the region.
First up, the West, where Nellie’s is furnished with just enough barnwood and
electric guitars to alert guests bound for Grand Wok that they’re in the wrong place.
Beyond those visual signifiers, though, the Southern vibe is weak: Not one of the
restaurant’s listed cocktails is made with brown liquor, and I had to ask the
bartender for hot sauce. Plus, according to online reviewers, there’s too much sugar
in the collards, although apparently the right amount in the tea.
Beyond ingredients, what struck me as off was one of the restaurant’s slogans,
emblazoned on the back of a server’s T-shirt: I’M JUST FAT AND HAPPY!
Forty-two percent of all Americans are classified as obese by body mass index. So
yes, many people in the South are fat. Many people in the South are happy. But
conflating the region with licentiousness and excess—messaging I’ve encountered
at other Southern restaurants outside the traditional South—is a worn-out
stereotype that didn’t make my beans taste any better. (Although at $10 a serving,
they might be the best deal in a town that retired its 99-cent shrimp cocktail fifteen
Seeking another take on Southern cuisine, I took a rideshare away from the tourist
district, leaving behind the ersatz iconic buildings, video display towers promoting
Bruno Mars’ upcoming residency, and billboards offering legal representation to
people injured while searching for dead bodies in Lake Mead. Gritz Café is housed in
a strip mall on the Westside, the historically Black section of a long-segregated city,
its dining room concealed behind a curtained glass door.
It was a cold and windy day when I pulled that door open, so maybe the chatter
rang livelier and the music brighter, in contrast to the dismal weather. But as
restaurant regular Angie Graham said when we met up near the cash register, “It’s
like Atlanta, isn’t it?”
I wasn’t the only one seeking a taste of the South at the butter yellow–walled Gritz
Café, which quoted an hourlong wait when I arrived. Horace and Yolanda Robinson,
who moved to Las Vegas in 2007 to look after Yolanda’s mother, had heard owner
Trina Jiles talking about her restaurant on a local radio station just a few days
earlier. Like me, they were making their first visit.
“I like to eat fish and grits, so I look for places like this,” said Horace, who was a
frequent customer of soul food institution MacArthur’s when the couple lived in
Yolanda, who was going over the menu, nudged her husband. “Let me get the
chicken, and we’ll split,” she suggested.
According to manager Emma Nelson, Jiles opened Gritz in 2008 after learning the
space next to her sister’s cosmetology school was available. (Jiles declined to speak
with me but granted Nelson her blessing to speak on the restaurant’s behalf.)
Nelson credited Jiles’ mother, Willia Mae Chaney, with setting the restaurant’s
Chaney was born in Tallulah, Louisiana, just across the river from Vicksburg,
Mississippi—same as Nelson’s mother, and a sizeable portion of Las Vegas’ Black
community in the 1950s. The exodus from Tallulah was so concentrated that the
Greyhound station there reportedly stopped selling one-way Vegas tickets to Black
people because cotton farmers and mill owners complained they’d lost too many
Lucille Bryant was a contemporary of Chaney’s. In Tallulah, Bryant made five dollars
a week as a domestic for a woman she called “Mrs. Severe.” She said that she did
“everything in her house except slept with her husband,” including—most likely—
preparing dishes that she and Chaney both knew by heart.
In Vegas, Bryant made her living not in the kitchen, but as a hotel maid.
As Bryant told a University of Nevada Las Vegas oral historian, once she moved to
Las Vegas in 1953 and got a job at the Algiers Hotel, “I wrote back and I said,
‘Everybody come on out here. White folks gone crazy. They’re giving us $8 a day for
making a bed and cleaning a bathroom.’” Bryant didn’t need to write twice: She
soon welcomed “cousins galore” and so many neighbors “it was almost like walking
down the street in Tallulah.” When Bryant later got a job as a housekeeper at The
Stardust, her boss was Effie Conway, who had been her fourth-grade teacher back
Bryant had intensely fond memories of meals in Tallulah. She recalled family
suppers of fried chicken, tomatoes, and corn; and “old-fashioned eating” in the
churchyard, with “chocolate cake, coconut cake, chicken and dressing, neck
bones…and barrels of lemonade.”
Nelson, the Gritz manager, never learned her grandmother’s recipe for dressing,
partly because she wanted to believe her grandmother would always be around to
make it. But ways to make smothered chicken and sweet potato pie were handed
down in other families over the years, and the recipes for catfish and pork chops at
Gritz are heirlooms.
“The food is authentic,” Nelson said of the restaurant’s appeal to locals and tourists
alike. She ventured that “what sets it apart is the texture.” By that, she meant
everything is appropriately “crispy.”
My fried pork chop was indeed crispy, and another regular told me he appreciates
that Gritz never undercooks his wings. But I’d wager (hey, it’s Vegas!) that true
Southern food fans—or at least Black members of that group who are aware of the
Westside—are coming for the metaphysical texture, too.
Just as at Nellie’s, there’s a large portrait on the wall at Gritz. But unlike Nellie
Jonas, whose descendants remember her as coming home from work at the textile
mill and making pretty biscuits before combing the cotton out of her hair, Chaney is
depicted as the embodiment of achievement. She represents not the coddling—and
resultant indulgence—at the heart of Nellie’s approach, but the highest of
A respected Westside leader who passed away in 2020, Chaney is pictured with a string of pearls around her neck, and her straightened hair set asymmetrically. She’s wearing glossy red lipstick, a pastel purple suit jacket, and a look that can only be described as astute.
Beneath the painting, Gritz Café has posted an award certificate proclaiming Chaney “Best Mother in the World,” citing her as a source of inspiration and unwavering support, as well as the restaurant’s signature peach cobbler.
What’s clear is Chaney’s portrait stands for community and continuity, values which have a distinct Southern flavor—even 1,562 miles from Madison Parish.