First Dish: Sugar Jam, The Southern Kitchen

Nikki BuchananApril 30, 2021
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Photo by Nikki Buchanan 

 

Sugar Jam, The Southern Kitchen is the inevitable next step for pretty Dana Dumas, who began baking sugar cookies with jam for friends and co-workers when she worked for NASCAR back in the early aughts. Their effusive praise encouraged her to start selling her cookies at farmers markets when she moved to the Valley with her husband over a decade ago, opening her own bake shop near Scottsdale Airpark in 2011 and moving to this location to operate a full-blown Southern-inspired restaurant earlier this year.

Her new place is simultaneously classy and cute, featuring wood floors, brick walls, cool chandeliers, a big, comfy-looking bar, a patio and, of course, a bakery case filled with her famous cookies and pies. More café than bistro, it exudes a homey, welcoming vibe — aided and abetted by Dumas’ dad (a former restaurant owner himself), who serves as good will ambassador, greeting and chatting up customers.

 


Photo by Nikki Buchanan 

 

The menus — lunch, weekend brunch, dinner and vibes (a shorter Saturday night menu for a night of live entertainment) and supper — feature Southern classics, including smoked pulled pork and brisket sandwiches, fried chicken, fried catfish, po’ boys, chicken and waffles, gumbo and shrimp and grits. On any given day, you’ll find a good selection of individual pies in the bakery case, including cherry, apple, caramel apple, apple crumb, chocolate pecan, bourbon pecan and sweet potato. If you’re hankering for a whole pie, you’ll want to place an order 24 hours in advance.

I’m here for basics, given how difficult it is to find Southern cooking in Scottsdale (LoLo’s is the only place I know of), zeroing in on fried chicken, a thigh and a drumstick, that arrive golden brown, crispy and piping hot, emitting steam as I bite into that juicy drumstick. It’s not as crunchy-craggy as the chicken at LoLo’s, which is merely a comparison, not a criticism. This is good stuff. I’d swear there’s sugar in the seasoning rub, which naturally adds the faintest hint of sweetness. A tender buttermilk biscuit, split, buttered and browned on the griddle, just begs for adornment, maybe strawberry jam or gravy (coming back for some breakfast-y version of that, pretty sure). Because this plate is a bit spartan ($7.99), I’ve tacked on a side of collard greens, which is probably the smartest thing I did all day. They’re excellent — tender, soupy with pot liquor, faintly spicy and redolent with garlic, the best collards I’ve had in years ($4.95).

 


Photo by Nikki Buchanan 

 

Now if only the burger were that successful! Billed as a “Taste of Scottsdale Winning Burger,” it’s a messy, glorious-looking amalgamation of grilled ground meat, smoked pulled pork, peppered and smoked bacon, Monterey jack, caramelized onion, and chipotle barbecue “kicker sauce,” all stacked on a toasted brioche roll. On this day, however, the burger patty is overcooked and dry, the pulled pork a bit dry as well. It tastes pretty good, but it’s not what it ought to be ($14.95).

A fried catfish po’boy, standing so tall that it’s absolutely daunting to eat, is more successful ($12.99). Sugar Jam gets lots of little things right, buttering and toasting all its buns (including this one), layering the sandwich with fresh-looking romaine and tomato, and dredging the delicate catfish nuggets in cornmeal so that they come out ultra-crispy and flavorful. It’s a pity there’s not more chipotle tartar remoulade on the bread. And in a perfect world, Sugar Jam would also offer a catfish plate for lunch. They’re already frying it for the po’ boy, aren’t they?

 


Photo by Nikki Buchanan 

 

Southerners have never been afraid of mayonnaise, as is evident from Sugar Jam’s mayo-laden, faintly sweet potato salad (too bad the spuds are faintly undercooked), but as much as I love cheese, I can’t work up any enthusiasm for the mac & cheese here, the pasta so overcooked it has fallen completely apart, making the dish a gummy glob of blandness.

I’m not deterred. The menu is big, and there has been enough exemplary stuff to bring me back for more — the brisket, the fried chicken wings with Grand Marnier French toast with rum pecan syrup and vanilla butter, the smothered chicken and the shrimp and grits. Ironically, my friend and I are too full for Dumas’ legendary sweets. We’ll have to come back for those, too. After all, sugar is her jam.

15111 N. Hayden Rd., Scottsdale, 480-948-6210, sjsouthernkitchen.com

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