Now They Do Chicken Right

Southern Oven gives KFC, and even the revered Casa Orinda, a run for their money.

Patricia Griffith has a way with a deep fryer that makes your heart swell. Her fried catfish comes apart in such moist flakes that you want to handle it like a newborn. Yet the seasoned cornmeal crust is a solid shell, crisp from start to finish — and doesn’t leave a drop of oil on the plate. If she can do that to catfish, just imagine her fried chicken.

Obviously, Southern Oven Baking Company doesn’t just do cakes and pies. Though it does cakes and pies. The eighteen-month-old bakery and restaurant is Walnut Creek’s only true Southern restaurant. KFC doesn’t count.

In 2002, owner Patricia Griffith was hunting for a career that would allow her to raise her kids and her bank balance. She started out baking her grandmother’s recipe for monkey bread for some friends. She began selling it at the Concord farmers’ market, and soon expanded to four more markets. Then Whole Foods began carrying the bread. By January 2004, Griffith was looking for a large production kitchen when she stumbled upon the Tice Boulevard location. It had a dining room in front, so Southern Oven the restaurant was born. It’s now open for lunch and dinner five days a week.

Southern Oven is a cheery little bakery box of a cafe, tiled in wine and peach linoleum, with a blackboard listing all the regulars and specials and a glass case stocked with slices of pie. The waitstaff, who range from timid to chipper, are uniformly friendly. And Griffith is the kind of host who will sit down at your table for a spell and call you an old-timer on your second visit.

The place has only one thing working against it: location. Unless you were born and bred in Walnut Creek, finding Southern Oven requires MapQuest plus a copilot with a working sense of direction. Griffith has opened the restaurant in the suburban equivalent of a shack on the edge of town: a strip-mall-slash-office-park that you can’t enter from the main road. If you live anywhere east of Oakland’s Southern Cafe, though, the pilgrimage is worth it. Rather, the caramel pecan pie is.

Griffith offers a short, homey menu with à la carte, dinner, and senior portions. It includes a few light notes — meal-size salads such as fresh tuna on baby spinach — as well as classic Southern dishes and enchiladas, which I couldn’t get any of my dining partners to try. They were too focused on the fried catfish and chicken.

I’m now going to make an audacious pronouncement. Some Contra Costa-ites might even call it heretical: Southern Oven’s fried chicken is better — and cheaper — than Casa Orinda’s. For one, it’s moister. Just as she does with the catfish, Griffith knows just when to lift the chicken out of the fryer so that when you bite into each piece you come away with tender flesh. Plus she dredges the skin thickly in spices and lightly in flour, so it doesn’t fry up into stiff, thick wrinkles but a thin, succulent crust. Although my friends and I couldn’t finish our sizable meals, we made sure we peeled every piece of that skin off the chicken.

The nonfried New Orleans-style entrées still need tweaking. The flavor of Griffith’s jambalaya was superb, sustained by the shreds of poached chicken, melted onions, and red and green bell peppers that snaked through the rice. A low, lingering heat emanated from slices of spicy sausage. But the dish had been made with too much liquid, so by the time the rice absorbed it all the grains had burst and turned to mush. I also couldn’t get behind the red beans and rice because of the very same sausage. A friend with roots in New Orleans quibbled with the addition of tomato to the cooking liquid. That didn’t bother me, because the dish had so much presence — it didn’t taste heavy or starchy for a second — but that sausage, a processed hot link rather than a chunky homestyle kind, did.

Every dinner comes with Griffith’s trademark monkey bread — eggy, semisweet pull-apart rolls that disappear quicker than you’d like. You also get two sides with the dinner-sized meal, and the menu contains a whole list of them. To quote Mick Jagger, you can’t always get what you want. But greens, these you need. On one visit the collard greens were merely pretty good. But on another night they were everything a vegetable should be, especially when you stew it with cured pork. On that blessed night, chunks of fatback in the pot coaxed the greens into shaking off their peppery, bitter overtones.

You need the yams, too, braised and slathered in a cinnamon-coconut syrup that counts as your predessert dessert. Ditto the off-menu macaroni and cheese, baked the right way with big, loopy elbows, cheesy cream sauce, and a crust of cheddar. Though the potato salad has newfangled touches like red bell peppers to spruce it up, it needed a little more old-timey mayonnaise to win my heart, and all the fluffiness had been nuked out of the mashed potatoes. If guilt doesn’t keep you from accompanying your fried chicken with a side of crunchy, walnut-sized hush puppies, order two sides. Think of them as an appetizer.

I don’t know if your family is like mine or if this is simply a Midwestern thing, but you should watch my mother at the end of dinner. As the prospect of dessert looms closer, she gets more and more animated, like a cokehead on a flight to Bogotá. Sitting across from Southern Oven’s dessert case all throughout my meal, I rediscovered whose genes I carried. I stopped eating my entrée halfway through just to fit sweets in.

You couldn’t parody names like Sock-It-to-Me Cake and Bertha Mae’s Seven-Up Cake. They’ve got to be authentic. And good. The sugars crystallizing on the edges of the Seven-Up cake, a dense pound cake baked in a bundt pan and drizzled with 7-Up frosting, formed a sublime crust. Slightly moister on the inside was a Sock-It-to-Me Cake, a tender-grained bundt cake with a streusel swirl of nuts and brown sugar. The only real disappointment was a sweet-potato mini pie whose crust didn’t get prebaked, so it ended up soggy. We ate the spicy, creamy filling like a pudding, scraping every bit from the edges of the crust. The problem was fixed in a slice of full-sized pecan pie, giant pecan halves suspended in a not-too-sweet blend of corn syrup and caramel. And if you spot the caramel rum cake on the blackboard, shot through with nuts and moistened with dark rum, make it a priority.

When you finally make it out of Southern Oven all sugared up on lemon chess pie and monkey-bread pudding, drive away fast. You’ve got maybe fifteen minutes of wide-eyed clarity before you crash, and you want to be as close to home as possible before descending into that lonesome postcarb valley.

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