Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
CHICKEN AND BEER: It might seem a little confusing that a fried chicken restaurant out of Chattanooga advertises Delta hot tamales on its exterior and has a bluesy, juke-joint atmosphere, but the owners hail from Mississippi originally, which explains where Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken (1120 Baxter St., 706-850-3092) is coming from.
Even if you wander in at 11 a.m., with the sun blazing outside, having just come from the family-friendly environs of the ACC Library across the street, Champy’s feels more like a bar than a restaurant. The waitresses are uniformly cute and wear short shorts. The lighting is dim. Beer signs abound, and every inch of the interior is covered with something or other—mostly brew and music memorabilia. The restrooms are literally wallpapered with LP jackets, many of which are awesomely entertaining. But just because the outside promises 40s doesn’t mean you can’t take the kids; they’ll eat a lot of what’s on the menu.
I have had better fried chicken than what Champy’s cooks fresh to order, but I have also had much worse. Slightly peppery, it comes either plate-style with baked beans (much too sweet), coleslaw (nothing to write home about, but fine) and white bread or à la carte, in quantities of eight, 12, 16 and 20 to feed a family (or a football team), or as individual pieces.
The pricing can be on the high side, especially should your child con you into ordering a single wing ($2.75!), tender (ditto) or breast ($4.50). Hushpuppies, at 65 cents each, come off like a bargain. A small order of green beans raises eyebrows at $2.99 for an itty-bitty container. Better to sub in different sides with the plates for a smaller fee or focus on the mains. None of the sides, including the potato salad sprinkled liberally with spices, is all that good, anyway.
Champy’s does make excellent hot wings that hint of smoked paprika. Not soaking in sauce, they are meaty, spicy without being too much so and have flavors beyond capsaicin. The chicken, as established, is a big step up from fast food and most meat-and-threes, where it has been sitting around in a steam tray, although it is not on par with that at Weaver D’s.
Finest of all, and the reason you really may want to check out the restaurant, are the Mississippi Delta hot tamales. At $10.99 for six or $21.50 for 12, and no other options, it can seem like a big leap of faith, but Champy’s is the only place in Athens serving the regional specialty, and they are tasty: tightly pressed, steamy little pockets of protein encased in soft starch. Served with slaw and a couple of packets of saltines, they are simple and warming.
Champy’s also fries pickle spears, jalapeños, french fries, green tomatoes, catfish and chicken livers. Vegetarians will find little they can eat. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner every day, has the promised 40s, does catering and has live music.
BBQ: The tiny space next to Jimbo’s convenience store has been a series of barbecue places since Ronnie B’s closed some years back. The most recent to move in is Porkhouse BBQ (699 Baxter St., 770-365-9092), which is run by the folks who owned the Jefferson House Restaurant over in Jefferson.
When the proprietor admitted that he’d never made BBQ before, I may have raised an eyebrow. That said, two of the four meat options are rather good. Pork may be king in Georgia—and it’s half the name of the restaurant—but it’s merely fine, not exciting. The ribs are badly under-seasoned and over-blackened. But the brisket is very nice, with a beautiful layer of fat just under the crust, and the smoked chicken is even better. The rub is apparently made by competition champion locals, and the ‘cue is emphatically not out of a crockpot. Sauce comes on the side, as it well should, and the XXX hot will sear your taste buds off.
The fried okra, available as a side, is good, as are the corn nuggets, both of which might come straight off the Sysco truck but are a nice change from the usual slaw, beans and potato salad, all of which are also available and are well put together. My salt tooth might wish for a little more aggressive seasoning in the latter three items, but those watching their sodium intake will be happy. The stew is finely milled and among the better offerings in the genre in town.
Porkhouse offers a lunch special of pork sandwich, slaw, chips and a drink for $6.99 ($5.99 for students). It has big dill pickles as a side, sells Moon Pies by the register and has limited seating but does take-out speedily. Open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m.–7 p.m., it makes use of Square to take credit cards (a real boon to the small restaurant industry in general), and the folks who run it are just as pleasant and eager to converse as they can be.