I had been dillydallying around for weeks, with every intention of getting up to the Dallas area to visit chef Tiffany Derry’s promising new restaurant, Roots Southern Table, which had opened in June. Then, on the morning of October 12, as I was idly checking the New York Times website, I saw, to my utter horror, that the paper had included Roots on its list of fifty American restaurants it was excited about. Dammit! I fumed. Now I’ll never get a reservation!
I toggled over to Roots’ website to assess the damage and found, miraculously, that the news hadn’t gone viral yet and reservations were still available not too far in the future. True, they were at five o’clock, but beggars . . . you know the rest. And that’s how, on successive nights a couple of weeks later, two groups of friends and I found ourselves parking for free and walking a few dozen steps to the front door of Roots. That sort of convenience is one of the distinct pleasures of early dining at a restaurant located twenty miles north of central Dallas in the satellite city of Farmers Branch.
We settled in and perused the menu, which was delivered by an affable, mask-wearing server, then found ourselves overhearing a few nearby conversations. The chitchat revealed that other guests had known about Derry ever since her 2010 stint on season seven of Bravo’s Top Chef (the spunky Texas contestant took fifth place overall, and her quips and easy laugh won her the Fan Favorite award). I suspected that a few of the people in the room might have visited Private Social, the swanky Dallas restaurant she co-owned from 2011 to 2013. But I felt sure that far more of them had chowed down on her famous duck-fat-fried chicken at Roots Chicken Shak, her pandemic-proof fast-food stall, with locations in Plano and Austin.
Roots—the full-scale restaurant, not the chicken joints—turns out to be an inviting place to spend an evening. It’s not quiet when it’s full, but it’s not any noisier than most restaurants these days. It’s also not as folksy as I thought it would be. Given the name, I had expected farmhouse furniture and dish-towel napkins. Instead, it’s upscale in an easygoing way, with marble-patterned white tabletops; spare, attractive slate-gray chairs; and a graceful charcoal sketch of a woman’s profile hanging near the entrance. The only details that looked remotely country were small glass milk bottles on each table, filled with fresh flowers.
Another server showed up shortly to take our order, and we got busy staving off hunger with the first item in the Down Home Roots appetizer section of the menu: cast-iron cornbread. Each cakey golden panful was crowned with a deeply browned crust anointed with a drizzle of that staple of Southern cooking, Steen’s cane syrup. The stone-ground cornmeal is sourced from Homestead Gristmill, in Waco, and the dish was accompanied by a dollop of strawberry-rhubarb preserves. I spread some on a moist square, but I found I preferred the bread with just a swipe of the mesquite-smoked butter.
As anyone who eats out often (or owns a restaurant) knows, a few strategically chosen words on a menu can make a dish. At Roots, I’m guessing, the name “My Mother’s Gumbo” is the restaurant’s key to success (I’m kidding, but not much; Derry says the gumbo has generated “the most press I’ve ever seen”). The bowl that was set before us lived up to its promise. It was rich with filé and finely chopped okra and aswirl with bits of dark-meat chicken, succulent shrimp, a dainty crab leg or two, and Zummo’s smoked sausage (produced in Beaumont, where Derry grew up; the rest of her extended clan lives in the Baton Rouge area, two and a half hours to the east). The gumbo was thinnish, its roux dark (“but not as dark as New Orleans–style,” Derry says). As for the dish’s name, she says, her mother has always been the designated gumbo maker at family gatherings because “her recipe just hits the flavor every time.”
By that point, we had checked off two of the menu’s four Down Home options, so I ordered a third: fried shrimp and grits. I have one word to say about that: Whoa! Well, actually, two words: Whoa! and Wow! At first, I thought the server had accidentally brought us hush puppies; the shrimp had been chopped fine, rolled into small, chunky balls along with jalapeño-cheese grits, battered, and then fried. Accompanying them was a robust tomato-and-sausage dipping sauce (oddly called a stew). A few bites in, it struck me that the oozy, compulsively edible morsels bore a suspicious resemblance to arancini, Italy’s famous fried rice-and-cheese balls. When I asked Derry, she said, “Exactly.” She had given the Italian specialty a Southern makeover.
Over in the Modern Roots section, one more starter caught our eye: black-eyed-pea hummus. Remember that craze a few years back for “beets three ways” or “chocolate four ways”? (Pastry chefs in particular were besotted with the idea.) Derry has applied the notion to black-eyed peas. Part one is a lively vinaigrette-dressed salad of whole, tender black-eyed peas (an homage to our beloved Texas caviar). Part two is a smooth tahini-and lemon-rich hummus of pureed peas (I thought it was milder and smoother than all but the best versions of the real thing). Part three is a collection of crispy pea fritters. Derry explains that they’re her version of akara, the tasty little fried street-food cakes that originated in West Africa and have now spread to the Caribbean and many other parts of the world. (“We soak and blend the peas with onion and a little Scotch bonnet pepper, then scoop out the dough like doughnut holes.”)
Somehow, the appetizers were just making us hungrier, so it seemed like the right time to check out Derry’s two most famous dishes—fried potatoes and family-style fried chicken, both cooked in duck fat. (“I order fat by the vat,” she says.) They came sizzling hot from the fryer, and the chunky pieces of chicken in particular were a hit with those in our group who are connoisseurs of deep-fat frying. (Me, I’ll stick with old-school panfrying.)
If you do indulge in the fried chicken, try to save a little room, because some of the most impressive cooking occurs with the frequently changing lineup of entrées. Sea scallops, gently caramelized top and bottom, all but shimmied when I jiggled the plate. A friend’s halibut filet flaked into silken snow-white shards. There was a tender culotte steak (another name for top sirloin cap), and rosy, jerk-seasoned lamb chops that were punchy with allspice, thyme, and a variety of other herbs.
The nicest surprise was the bounty of beautifully fresh vegetables, fruits, and nuts that came with every entrée, either alone, in a medley, or as a condiment. The abundance was so impressive that after our two dinners at Roots I looked at the menu and my iPhone pictures and made a list of what had appeared on our plates. Are you ready? Potatoes, baby turnips, crowder peas, black-eyed peas, cucumber, celery, sweet corn, tomatoes, green bell pepper, chile pepper, radishes, mushrooms, lima beans, okra, spring onions, pickled peppers, rhubarb, strawberries, sweet potatoes, mango, pecans, and greens galore. Oh, and tons of onion and garlic for seasoning. Even more impressive than the sheer quantity was Derry’s rejection of the region’s traditional practice of cooking vegetables to death and her commitment to giving each one the respect it deserves.
The word on Tiffany Derry is that she’s the queen of duck-fat-fried potatoes and chicken. And she is. The two dishes have been eaten by thousands and carried her through good times and bad. But with the opening of Roots Southern Table, she has definitely moved past the deep-fat fryer. After engaging in some extensive globe-trotting, she’s taking Southern cooking to places it hasn’t been before, as well as places essential to its origins. She’s drawing on and transforming recipes from Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean, and beyond and reminding us how very global Southern cooking was in its early days, when slaves and immigrants poured through New Orleans and spread their cooking traditions throughout the region. With her free-range imagination and business savvy, Derry’s well positioned to step from the local onto the larger culinary stage, making Roots a destination not just for people in the area but for travelers from across Texas and beyond.
Roots Southern Table
13050 Bee, Farmers Branch
Opened June 18, 2021
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “When the South Meets the World.” Subscribe today.