I have admitted before that I have a special fondness for Southern cooking, as I do for Southern things in general (and I don't mean Southern California). For decades, I have made a habit of seeking out restaurants in San Diego with authentic Southern cuisine. I am delighted to report that I found one. Magnolias Authentic Southern Dining in Market Creek Plaza in Southeast San Diego comes as close to being down home as anywhere I have found in this town.
Cooking is an art form, and like any art form, good cooking comes from a good artist. Magnolias' owner and chef, Bessie Johnson, is just that. I felt rather ignorant to learn that Johnson, who has been cooking since childhood at her mother's restaurant down home in Louisiana, has been running restaurants in San Diego for 20 years. She previously operated Bessie's Garret in La Jolla and another establishment by the same name in Encanto. I never had the pleasure of eating at either of those, but judging by my experience at Magnolias, I bet they were outstanding.
Magnolias is a great big place. The main dining room can seat a whole bunch of hungry, happy people and is brilliantly festooned with Louisiana décor. There is also a private dining room that looks ideal for special events, and a back patio that would be mighty nice on a clear autumn night. The seating is comfortable, the service charming. So much for the obligatory stuff.
Magnolias is about food and the food is really, really good. It was so good, I'm glad I took my friend Russell, who is not only from the South, he's also, well, a big fat guy, which is fortunate because I went a little wild and ordered way more than I could eat. Russell helped. Thanks, Russell.
We started with the Bayou Sampler ($19.50), an assortment of lightly browned fried oysters, buffalo tenders, crab cakes and fish. It would have been enough by itself, but we went boldly forth and got some real food. He had the Catfish Po' Boy ($10), a light filet on a baguette with all the fixings.
I had the fried pork chops ($13) and, as my father would have said, they were hard to spit out. I could eat pork chops every day. I love pork chops. I have woken up from a deep sleep dreaming of pork chops. The pork chops of which I dreamt were not quite as good as the ones at Magnolias. The presentation alone made me tear up with nostalgia. The blend of seasonings in which they were dusted was bold, but subtle enough to allow the untarnished flavor of fried pork to work its magic on the palette. Sides of hush puppies and black-eyed peas were uncommonly good accompaniments.
Sadly, even with Russell's formidable assistance, I just wasn't able to try everything I wanted. When I go back I am definitely getting the Crawfish Étouffée, and I might also try the Jus' Chitterlings and/or the Red Beans and Rice. There are still several items on the lagniappe menu ("lagniappe" is Louisiana French for "a little something extra") that I didn't get around to, in particular the Collard Greens and Fried Okra. I suspect one had best sample both of those.
I'm not big on dessert. I don't believe in saving room. But if you're the kind who likes a little something after a lot of something, you might enjoy the Sweet Potato Pie or the Peach Cobbler.
One last thing I will say about Magnolias-there was a time not too long ago when I would not have accepted a dinner invitation to anywhere in Southeast San Diego even if it included free lobster tail and a date with Gina Gershon. I was a bit hesitant even last week. But Market Creek Plaza is a nice development in a part of town that is truly beginning to climb out from under the rubble of its rocky past. I was encouraged. The weight of neglect by the affluent decision makers that lies so heavily atop this city's forgotten neighborhoods is a burden not easily shaken off. Southeast San Diego is doing so admirably.
So go to Magnolias Authentic Southern Dining for the food and take time to appreciate the neighborhood. I think the neighbors would appreciate it.
Magnolias is open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday from noon to 8:30 p.m. and
Tuesday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Entrées range from $9 to $14.