Southern Comfort

Article excerpt

It used to be that western Pennsylvania residents had to hop on a plane to Savannah or Memphis to experience authentic tastes of the South.

T.J. Thomas is determined to change that. A former defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the team's Super Bowl heydays in the 1970s, he is sharing the culinary roots of his Georgia upbringing at a casual-dining site -- Red, Hot & Blue, A Southern Grill & Bar -- at The Waterfront, in West Homestead.

"We call it FESH -- Fabulous Experience of Southern Hospitality," says Thomas, who introduced Applebee's restaurants to Pittsburgh in the late '80s. Red, Hot & Blue is another national chain, with franchises across the country.

Thomas, a Macon, Ga., native, says his initial goal with this restaurant is to educate folks about authentic Southern cookery -- not just the stereotype barbecued ribs, fried catfish and creamy coleslaw.

"It's a lot more than that," he says. "For us, it's all about the sides and the vegetables. And the difference is how we prepare them."

Under its Southern Entrees category, the menu lists a Southern Vegetable Plate -- among the offerings are green beans, a vegetable medley, fried okra, red beans and rice, potato salad and baked potatoes (white or sweet).

Thomas says that some of his employees had never tasted properly prepared Southern collard greens.

"In Southern cooking, there are three things that define everything: collard greens, mac 'n' cheese and corn bread, and sweet tea to chase it all down," he says.

Sweet tea is a Southern phenomenon -- iced tea sweetened with granulated sugar or a sugar syrup that can be flavored according to a restaurateur's whim. Red, Hot & Blue serves it in 32-ounce individual "pitchers." Like sugar, it's addictive.

What separates Southern food from soul food?

"It becomes soul food when you put the 'luv' into it," Thomas says, grinning. "It's not something everyone has. We know how to do it here."

Thomas -- who played in three Super Bowls -- has nary a stove in the restaurant's kitchen. He relies on a huge state-of-the-art oven called the Rational Combimaster -- referred to affectionately by staff as "Chef Rashun" -- that cooks, steams and fries food according to internal temperature.

"It takes the human error out of cooking," says Thomas. "We can cook everything in here, even add moisture back to food."

Red, Hot & Blue, which opened in late March, also has a smoker, turning out succulent chicken, turkey and beef brisket that can be shredded for "pulled" sandwiches or to accompany a salad. The brisket flavors the restaurant's chili.

Thomas serves pork in two barbecue styles -- Memphis and Carolina -- and features St. Louis-cut ribs. A variety of sauces on the tables gives patrons a chance to sample -- Mojo Mild BBQ, Sufferin' Sweet or Hoochie Coochie Hot. …