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Review: The new pop-up restaurant brings all the comfort of Southern food to Duke

The Spring semester is here. Duke students are rushing, starting new classes and living in tents in Krzyzewskiville.

In these trying times, we could all use some comfort—and the new pop-up restaurant at the Chef’s Kitchen aims to deliver just that.

The pop-up restaurants’ menus come from "requests from customers and current national menu trends,” Robert Coffey, executive director of dining services, wrote in an email. Past options included a precursor to Sazón, whose Latin American food proved so popular that it opened as a permanent restaurant in the Brodhead Center this year.

The current pop-up, called AMCO, is a “build-your-own American comfort food concept” that will stay in place until Feb. 15, according to Duke Dining’s website.

I tried three of the protein offerings, four of the side items and the fritters. I then assigned each dish a score between one and 10 in the areas of flavor and comfort. This "comfort" factor was a product of several things—whether the dish felt authentic, whether it had personal touches and whether it was simple and tasty enough to serve as a pick-me-up on a bad day.

If I had to recommend a single meal combination, I would choose the braised beef with the grits and macaroni—really, please don’t miss the macaroni. If you’re feeling indulgent, add the apple fritters as well. 

Herb butter sautéed shrimp

The sautéed shrimp, a Southern classic, is a solid choice for your protein. Out of the three proteins I tried, it had the strongest flavor and was bathed in a delicious sauce with a slight peppery kick to it. Unfortunately, the amount of salt in the dish became overwhelming after a few bites.

If you want to add an extra Southern twist while taking the edge off of the saltiness, you can pair the shrimp with the stone-ground grits. 

Flavor - 7.5

Comfort - 8

Overall - 7.5

Boylan cane cola braised beef

This entrée is simply delightful. The beef is succulent and bursting with flavor. The soda marinade is an authentic, homey touch that pairs well with side items like the grits and the mac and cheese.

Flavor - 9

Comfort - 9

Overall - 8.5

Tea-brined fried chicken tenders

There are few foods more American or more comforting than good old fried chicken. It was a little disappointing, therefore, to find that AMCO’s fried chicken tenders are nothing to write home about. Although they were juicy and hand-breaded, they simply didn't have a substantial amount of flavor. Other menu options are not only healthier but also taste better. If you do have a craving for chicken tenders, just make sure to use salt and ketchup to amp up their taste. 

Flavor - 7

Comfort - 8

Overall - 6.5

Stone Ground Adulah Grits

As a native North Carolinian, part of my Southern upbringing was learning how long it takes to cook grits and exactly what good grits taste like. Therefore, I feel that I am qualified to say that AMCO’s grits are a more-than-satisfying take on the classic staple. The grits are cooked with just the right amount of cheese, and the stone-grinding leaves a slightly coarse texture that makes them feel authentic and fresh. 

Flavor - 8

Healthiness - 7

Comfort - 8.5

Overall - 8

Charred Brussels Sprouts

I have always found Brussels sprouts to be an interesting food item. Although bad Brussels sprouts can be truly disgusting, if done correctly (read: fried, preferably with bacon), this unassuming vegetable is crispy and flavorful.

AMCO’s offering falls somewhere between these two extremes. Their Brussels sprouts are nice and crispy, avoiding the stomach-turning sogginess of many Brussels sprouts. However, they are barely seasoned and, therefore, end up tasting rather bland. Without any distinct flavor, they are missing the homey touch that makes some of the other menu items so good. 

Flavor - 4

Comfort - 5

Overall - 6.5

White-cheddar Mac

By the time I tried the mac and cheese, I had eaten large portions of three full-sized meals, and I was starting to enter a food coma. AMCO’s macaroni snapped me out of my reverie, and I quickly devoured the entire portion.

The cheese is creamy and delicious, and the noodles are cooked to perfection. There is neither too much nor too little cheese. It is as good as any restaurant-made macaroni and might even rival your grandmother’s homemade version. 

Flavor - 10

Comfort - 10

Overall - 8.5

Yellow cornmeal waffle

It might be a betrayal of my Southern roots, but I must admit that I had never eaten a cornmeal waffle before I wrote this review. My first experience with one was interesting. I found that the cornmeal waffles do not have that much flavor, in part because they are not fluffy enough to absorb syrup. Although I appreciated the inclusion of homemade butter with my waffle, I will stick with traditional waffles in the future. 

Flavor - 6

Comfort - 8

Overall - 6.5

Apple fritters

This was the last item that I tried. However, like the mac and cheese, it was good enough to make me want to finish the whole thing. The apple fritters are cooked to perfection, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. There are chunks of real apples baked into them, a touch that is authentic, tasty and helps me justify devouring dessert after eating three lunches. 

The outside is caked in cinnamon, and the fritters are served with a delicious caramel dipping sauce. The only area in which the fritters fall short is healthiness. Not only are they not a "diet food," but after finishing them, you might be tempted to order more. 

Flavor - 9.5

Comfort - 9

Overall - 7