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I haven't spent much time in the Deep South, but maybe I can claim theoretical kinship on account of being born in Little Rock, Ark.

But those very flimsy roots can't be the reason I like Southern cooking. It's more that I love corn, stuff that's cooked in fat, and bacon in anything (except dessert). So when a family member raved about the fried chicken at SoCo (think "Southern Comfort"), I got curious and more than a little hungry.

When I finally paid a visit, I was under- and overwhelmed at the same time. SoCo is small and decidedly unfancy. Food is served on metal tins lined with red and white checked paper that matches the tablecloths and the drinks come in mason jars. It's the kind of place that can't be destroyed by toddlers. But the menu is much bigger than you'd expect from the size of the place, and the portions are huge. On top of that, SoCo has a good lineup of specialty cocktails and is open late on weekends for bar hoppers in need of a sobering snack.

Best of all, the food is quite good and is reasonably priced. SoCo victuals stay true to their Southern roots, from hoppin' John to grits to cole slaw and specialty cocktails with amusing names like Trailer Trash on a Scooter (vodka with red Kool-Aid).

There's a lot to tackle here: eight entrees, five sandwiches, 10 side dishes and several desserts. Factor in that every entrée comes with two side dishes and the permutations are just about endless.

One of the truest and best dishes I sampled was the hush puppies ($6.99), small golden orbs of sweet pepper-studded cornbread, fried to crisp perfection. It's an excellent version of this most Southern staple, crisp outside and tender within, and just the right amount of spicy kick. An appetizer order includes eight of these gems, along with fry sauce, so it's a good one to share with the table.

It's also available as a side dish, along with such stalwarts as collard greens, hoppin' John, cole slaw, and mac and cheese (all $4.49). The greens were my favorite, cooked till the crunch was gone and redolent with bacon and the flavor of smoke. Kids will love the mac, which has just the right balance of cheese and noodle. And the hoppin' John, white rice topped with saucy black-eyed peas, was so hearty even as a side dish that I took half of it home.

Fried chicken isn't hard to find in Salt Lake City: It's become a staple at lots of diners and bars, often served with waffles. SoCo's version can stand up to the best of them. It's juicy inside, even the white meat, with a light crispy exterior subtly flavored with just the right amount of herbs. And it doesn't come off as greasy the way fried chicken can.

Chicken entrées come with either two or three pieces ($14.99 and $16.99) and include (as do all entrées) two side dishes, cornbread or biscuit, and delicious house-made sweet pickles. Both sizes feature white and dark meat, and an extra leg can be yours for $2.49. It's a lot of food for the money.

That chicken is probably the biggest draw at SoCo. But there's other good stuff worthy of your taste buds. The meatloaf ($15.99) is a fist-size portion of perfectly seasoned ground beef that comes slathered with a chunky tomato "gravy" tasting similar to a sauce that could be used for pasta. It was tasty indeed, but the one time I ordered it, the meat was barely lukewarm.

A boneless pork chop ($14.99), pounded thin and fried to a near-audible crunch, comes atop a bed of tangy-sweet red cabbage and apples. It wasn't nearly as juicy as a chop on the bone, but was still moist. The same meat is featured in a po' boy sandwich ($10.99), embraced in a soft but sturdy baguette and slathered with red remoulade. Sandwiches, which also include chicken ($10.99), shrimp ($13.99), catfish ($12.99) and chicken fried tofu ($9.99), come with pickles and one side.

I love cheesy grits, so I had to sample the shrimp and grits entrée ($17.99). Five sautéed shrimp were embedded in a big bowl of grits that were not only cheesy but offered up a hint of garlic. The grits were creamy and rich and made me wish they were offered as a side dish. I only wish the shrimp had been blackened to add some visual interest as well as an extra layer of flavor.

SoCo fills a niche in the city's food landscape. It's good for lunch, takeout or a casual dinner. And the owners are involved in the space under construction just to the south, with a still undetermined menu, that will be a bar and retail outlet for a new brewery.

Service is friendly and usually efficient, but pray you don't get behind a giant takeout order or you may have to wait a while.

So the next time you're in need of comfort food, load up the kids and head to SoCo. If said kids are particularly obnoxious, avail yourself of a Hillbilly Moonrise (moonshine with peach Schnapps, orange juice, simple syrup and soda, $6.99) or some Redneck Punch (vodka, OJ, club soda and Triple Sec, $6.99). On second thought, maybe just leave them home and bring them some mac and cheese.



Food • HH

Mood • HH

Service • Hhj

Noise • bb

This is the place to go in Salt Lake City for Southern comfort food, especially fried chicken with such fixings as hoppin' John, collard greens, cornbread, cole slaw and authentic hush puppies. It's not fancy, but that just means you can bring the kids. Or not, if you'd rather indulge in one of the many craft cocktails. It's open late on Friday and Saturday for late-night snacking.

Location • 319 S. Main St., Salt Lake City; 801-532-3946

Hours • Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, 4-8 p.m.

Children's menu • No

Prices • $$

Reservations • No

Takeout • Yes

Wheelchair access • Yes

Outdoor dining • No

On-site parking • No

Credit cards • Yes