Before I could take a bite of the open-faced tomato sandwich at Rising Son in Avondale Estates, Kathryn Rouse looked over from the cash register and mentioned, “You know, those tomatoes came from our yard.”
The deep, dark red slices were from an heirloom breed called Cherokee Purple, she said, and the bright orange slices were, hold on, she couldn’t quite remember. Kathryn looked down the bar and saw her husband, chef Hudson Rouse, working on some inventory sheets. “Honey, what do you call the orange tomatoes?” she asked.
He took a sip of coffee before saying, “Golden Jubilee.”
That’s the way things go around here at Rising Son, a family affair helmed by a husband-and-wife team who leave their homespun touch on everything from the heirloom tomato sandwiches to the meat-and-three meals served on vintage cafeteria platters.
When I did take a bite from the tomato sandwich, it was everything I ever want from that classic Southern combo: deeply ripe and unadulterated tomato, creamy but tangy mayo, and crunchy, simple toast.
This charming new addition to Avondale Estates is tucked into a location in the Tudor-style downtown previously occupied by the Bishop, which shuttered late last year. By the looks of it, they changed little from that rather polished renovation. The interior design has the common touches of a contemporary gastropub (Edison bulbs, tufted leather, industrial metal chairs), but the menu reads Southern diner.
Rising Son, perhaps, owes a little debt to Home Grown, where Hudson ran the kitchen before he and Kathryn went out on their own. The success of that beloved diner proved that affordable, simple meat-and-three cooking can be lightly updated and still draw big, broad crowds in Atlanta, a fact that has clearly not been lost on Hudson. Rising Son’s menu can look a little similar, in places, to Hudson’s previous employer. Of course, it’s not like Home Grown invented serving fried pork chops with collard greens and creamer peas on the side, either.
This town is more than big enough for the two of them. Whereas the charms of Home Grown sometimes lean toward Paula Deen-esque indulgent comfort food, Rising Son is putting the flavors of fresh, local produce in the foreground.
Summer is a great moment for that kind of indulgence. Tomatoes show up not only sliced on that toast, but also cooked down into a rich, thick gravy perfect for cornbread dipping or diced atop eggs and breakfast tamales or fried in green medallions. Lady peas come shucked fresh from the shell. Watermelon slices make for a sweet, palate-cleansing finish to a meal, but the pickled rinds also show up on a plate of battered and fried chicken livers.
Speaking of fried, Hudson has his technique perfected here. Whether you’re ordering fried trout or chicken or Vidalia onions, the batter here comes out dark golden brown and shatter-crisp, flecked throughout by a generous seasoning of black pepper. The most indulgent options might be the chicken-fried steak, whose crisp batter holds up admirably under a pile of sautéed onions, or the “spicy chicken sammy.” For the sandwich, two fried fillets of chicken breast are tossed in a Sriracha-based Buffalo sauce and topped with a ranch-dressed handful of arugula. A soft, toasted bun and a few pickles make it perfect.
Not everything is quite so perfect. The smoked brisket, unfortunately dry the day I ordered it, won’t be winning barbecue competitions anytime soon. On occasion, the impulse to pack vegetable flavor into a dish can backfire, like a recent cucumber salad that had enough fennel to make licorice candy. But those missteps are few and likely to be less as the ever-changing menu continues to be refined.
No matter what you order, the house-made sodas make for an excellent complement. Kathryn holds up her side of the culinary team by combining strong, clean herbal and fruity flavors: apricot mint, lavender lemon, cucumber lime. She cut her teeth making sodas for Todd Ginsberg’s General Muir and Yalla restaurants. They serve cocktails, too, which might come in more handy now that Rising Son added dinner hours just this week.
At its best moments, Rising Son hits what I think defines Atlantan food. That’s not just because Hudson sources so many ingredients from nearby, like pork from Riverview Farms and fruits and veggies from Finch Creek Farm, though that helps. It’s also because the menu is affordable without being cheap, broad without pandering, and clever without ignoring the classics. The meat-and-three menu has always been about having something Southern for everyone. Rising Son does exactly that.
At a recent lunch, I brought a friend who enjoyed his meal aside from the renovated, polished interior inherited from the Bishop. “It’s too nice,” he said, laughing, knowing it was a silly thing to say. It won’t be new-looking forever. In a few years, Rising Son should be as well-worn and comfortable as the classic dishes coming out of the kitchen. Bet on it, this place will be around for a long time.
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