I’ll give it to Tony Brusco and Jesse Rogers — they know how to sell a restaurant.
Brusco, the CEO of South Mountain Creamery, has been promising a “farm-to-fork” restaurant in downtown Frederick since last September. Head chef Rogers came in promising a Southern-style meat and three — defined as a restaurant where the customer picks one meat from a daily selection of three to six choices and three side dishes— with Southern comfort food served off cafeteria trays. The promise of fried pork chops and blackened catfish, plus South Mountain’s locally made ice cream, was like a siren’s cry piercing the hearts of Frederick diners.
In this case, Brusco and Rogers deliver. There are other restaurants in town with great Southern cooking — Serenity Tea Room, Hootch & Banter and Family Meal all spring to mind — but Hometown Harvest is the only one doing it without the veneer of fine dining. Or, to put it less pretentiously, it’s one of the only spots in the county with Southern cuisine for less than $12 a plate. It’s fast, too, which is still noteworthy in downtown Frederick. Come in, pick up and tray, and pick a protein from one of the stainless steel warming trays. There’s at least half a dozens sides, too, from collard greens to sharp and creamy mac and cheese.
What you don’t want to miss are the restaurant’s yeast rolls, airy and golden under a healthy sprinkling of coarse salt. They come with a side of butter, if requested, but they’re light and flavorful enough to nosh on their own. If there’s any indication of an invested kitchen, to me, it’s a good bread, a side that’s often outsourced or bypassed entirely. At Hometown Harvest Kitchen, it’s good enough to base a meal around.
The collard greens are another sign that the kitchen knows what it’s doing. Every bitter note from the famously pungent greens is braised out behind the scenes, leaving a deeply flavorful side dish with a nice hint of heat (courtesy of some finely chopped chili flakes). They’re a perfect foil to a plate of fried pork chops, pounded thin and fried to a crunch. Top with hot sauce and close your eyes. You can almost imagine you’re in Rogers’ native Nashville.
The restaurant is leaning hard into the fast casual model, with an efficient ice cream bar and counter service helmed by a good-humored team of college kids (my apologies to our attendant, who handed out samples of a delicious étouffée without a single person ordering it. I blame the heat.). But it still sneaks in some Southern hospitality, from the server clearing our plates about as fast as we could finish them to the woman at the ice cream counter who insisted that I try at least six different flavors.
It makes it easy to forgive any missteps, which are few and far between. The worst I can say is that a select few dishes are a little boring. That mostly applies to a side of sauteed green beans, nicely crisp and a slightly acidic but also under salted and a little oily. The herb-roasted chicken was perfectly cooked and perfectly moist, but I couldn’t taste many of the seasonings that gave the dish its name.
What certainly wasn’t boring was a pitch-perfect pile of Hoppin’ John, a classic Southern side dish made with fluffy rice and black-eyed peas. Onion, celery, and crunchy bell peppers — the Cajun trinity — infused their flavors in the dish. The tender peas were perfectly balanced by snappy diced carrots. It was one of the best vegetable-based plates I’ve eaten in a while, second only to the kitchen’s vibrant asparagus tart. The vegetarian entree featured nicely crisp asparagus spears co-mingled with bites of tangy feta. The baked flatbread — admittedly a little floppy from its time in a chafing dish — also supported a load of tender tomatoes and kalamata olives with a smattering of crisp red onions. The harmoniously flavored dish was a lone departure from a menu stocked with Southern staples.
There were plenty of other winners to gush over. Tender smashed potatoes with a gentle twinge of Old Bay, for instance, or a creamy side of macaroni and cheese accented by two types of South Mountain cheddar. A tailored list of local craft beers. But what’s attracting more attention is the restaurant’s ice cream menu, especially the small bevy of boozy milkshakes. I tried a peppermint chocolate version with a buzzy blend of local ice cream and vodka. All I can say is, look out Family Meal. You have some competition on your hands.