What’s simpler than a hush puppy? Make cornmeal batter, drop it in hot oil and call it puppy love.
Like most simple things, though, it’s all in the details. Is it white cornmeal or yellow cornmeal? (Both have their place.) Was the oil old or off? (Oh, you can tell.) Are there little extras, like onion or corn kernels? (Acceptable, but if there’s too much stuff, you can slide into fritter territory.)
With that list of criteria in mind, I went out to try eight promising Charlotte hush puppies. Results: Five were solid, two were forgettable and one was ... disappointing.
Note: I make no claims that my favorites are “the best” hush puppies: The only way to pick “the best” is if you try every possible puppy in a six-county region. But I’d say the ones at the top of my list are darn good puppies.
Haberdish, 3106 N. Davidson St.: Hush puppies with sweet tea butter, $5. If they hold fish fries in heaven, the hush puppies will come with sweet tea-flavored butter. The puppies here are equally righteous: Light and crisp outside, with a fluffy interior flecked with green bits of scallion. You get a generous serving of eight, enough to share with the table.
Mimosa Grill, 327 S. Tryon St.: Stuffed hush puppies, $14 (dinner only). I usually oppose frou-frou hush puppies. (See the definition of simple, above: Cornmeal, hot oil.) But Mimosa’s fancy version is a winning argument for frou: You get two halves of a baseball-sized hush puppy shell, hollowed and filled with a creamy, oniony sauce floating with succulent chunks of rock shrimp and crawfish. It’s like redneck fondue.
Midwood Smokehouse, multiple locations: $2.50 for a side serving. If you want simple, perfect pups, get these golden puppies with nicely craggy crusts and light texture. The portion is generous, with 14 or 15 pups of all sizes. No dipping sauce, beyond ketchup or barbecue sauce.
Pinky’s Westside Grill, 1600 W. Morehead St.: Crab puppies, $5.75 for 13. While some crab-flavored hush puppies can get too close to crab cakes, Pinky’s are truly hush puppies with crab stirred in. Even the crust is feathered with browned crab shreds. Each is large enough to be a couple of bites, served with a dip that’s like tartar sauce crossed with ranch dressing.
The Diamond, 1901 Commonwealth Ave.: $1.95 for four, $4.75 for 12. The puppies are as classic as the place, with a very crunchy crust, a little sweetness and emphatic cornmeal flavor. The dipping sauce calls itself cocktail sauce, but it’s not red, it’s mayo-based with flecks of grated carrot and black pepper.
Meh: Not bad, not great
Bar-B-Q King, 2900 Wilkinson Blvd.: $2.95 for six, $4.95 for 12. Such a luxury, to pull up to the speaker at this classic drive-in and have someone bring a cardboard boat of hush puppies out to your car. Sadly, these had oily crusts and the centers didn’t have much flavor. I’ll stick with the Westside Burger.
Sauceman’s, 228 West Blvd.: $3 for 6. Several sources had recommended these, but they suffered from a lack of flavor. Save your appetite for the warm pork rind machine.
Dogwood Southern Table, 4905 Ashley Park Lane: Crab & Andouille Hush Puppies With Peppadew Relish and Basil Aioli, $12. What’s right here? The puppies have good crab flavor. What’s wrong: First, the serving size (four tiny balls, each barely a bite, with a pile of undressed greens in the middle). Second: No visible peppadew relish (if it was in the batter, it was indetectable). Third: A scant dab of aioli under each, apparently just to glue them in place. It was a doggone shame.