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Southern comfort

Taking its name from western movie star John Wayne and its culinary inspiration from the South, Duke’s Southern Kitchen offers classic regional specialties just like Grandma used to make.

Marion Robert Morrison, perhaps better known by his stage name, John Wayne, was the biggest box office draw of all time. The larger-than-life actor epitomized rugged masculinity and became an enduring American icon, often playing characters with questionable values. He also came to represent the South and the West in his movies, often camping out with his horse and dining on traditional chuck wagon fare.

The South also inspired Tulsa restaurateur Tim Baker. Remembering road trips taken to the Carolinas, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana with his family as a young man, he wanted to bring the classic Southern cuisine he tasted to Tulsa. His restaurant, Duke’s Southern Kitchen, was to become not only a glossary of Southern cooking but also a shrine to Mr. Wayne, aka “The Duke.”

When you enter the restaurant, you have the choice of going straight to the large bar area or into the wide-open dining room. While the space is pretty new, the décor’s aim is to take you back in time.

Whether it is an old Hollywood men’s club (the large, dark and cozy bar area is lined with portraits and movie posters of “The Duke” himself) or a diner in Dixie (the entrance resembles a barbecue shack you might find next to a Southern railroad crossing), Duke’s definitely sets the mood.

The menu is loaded with dishes your grandmother probably made for supper — that is, if your grandmother lived in the South. Think regional specialties such as pulled pork from the Carolinas, battered shrimp from the Gulf Coast and spicy Cajun etouffée from Louisiana.

For starters, my husband, Tate, and I shared an order of fried green tomatoes topped with lemon-basil aioli and crumbled fresh goat cheese ($7). The rich cheese and dressing were nice foils to the crisp and tart tomatoes. Other popular starters include fried okra and hoecake sliders with pulled pork (both $6). We also chose to go tag team on a bowl of gumbo ($5/$9) and a classic wedge salad. It was evident that the smoked chicken gumbo was started with a rich, dark roux and the holy trinity  — sautéed onion, celery and green pepper — the building blocks for a good pot of gumbo.

The chicken was tender and the rice blend added nice texture to a bowl of soup that could easily have been bland and boring. I could have eaten a whole pot, and I mopped up the remains with some good crusty bread. Maybe next time.

The Avery Island wedge ($6), named for the Louisiana home of Tabasco sauce, was a nice spin on the original wedge — tender Bibb lettuce replaces bland iceberg and is topped with a tart and rich buttermilk blue cheese dressing, cornmeal croutons and spicy Tabasco-fried onions.

My family has deep roots in Mississippi, and I remember eating fried chicken hot from the cast-iron skillet at my grandmother’s home. Duke’s offers up its version, possibly the most popular item on the menu, steaming hot and super crispy, paired with classic mashed potatoes, Bourbon cream gravy and green beans.

Baker’s intent was to serve classic dishes that have been kicked up a notch or so but retain their identity. This fried chicken would make my ’Nama proud, although we weren’t crazy about the gravy. On a past visit, I very much enjoyed the shrimp and grits ($17), served with roasted hominy and red pepper succotash. Other popular entrées include the classic blackened redfish ($17), which chef Paul Prudhomme made famous back in the ’80s, as well as fried catfish ($13) and rock shrimp and andouille sausage etouffé ($15).

After much debate, Tate settled on a fried shrimp po’ boy ($9). We both thought this could have been much better — the shrimp were tiny and relatively flavorless and the soft bread fell apart. We’ve both had better versions in which simple usually means better — fresh, plump shrimp; crusty bread; and classic dressing (mayo, lettuce, tomato and a bit of Tabasco). Other sandwich choices include a fried green tomato BLT ($7), barbecue pulled pork sandwich ($9) and a Dixie burger smothered with house-made chili and cheddar ($8).

The family-friendly joint also features live music in the main dining room on Friday and Saturday nights. Follow the curved staircase upstairs for a second full bar, more dining space (including “Duke’s Table”) and a private dining room.

Desserts are not to be passed on — classic offerings, such as bread pudding, pecan pie and cobbler, are all made in-house and are delicious.

Neither one of my grandmothers is still living, which makes me sad on many levels, if not the most important — to be able to sit around the family table and enjoy their cooking. At least I know there is somewhere right here in Tulsa where I can go and feel right at home.

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