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I am in love with Zax Sauce. So in love that I brought seven packets back from the South. If Zaxby's bottled their sauce, I would order a case.
Zaxby's is a franchised chicken chain that's had enormous growth across the South the past 20 years. The first one opened in Statesboro, Georgia, in 1990, and there are now 500, stretching across the South. There are only two things you need to know about Zaxby's: chicken fingers and Zax Sauce.
The chicken fingers are better than any tenders you will find on any fast food menu. They're white meat, lightly breaded and fried, and they go perfectly with Zax Sauce. This is supposedly a recipe for it. I don't think it's quite accurate, because these ingredients don't match what my taste buds tell me.
To me, Zax Sauce is remoulade – the pink, tangy dressing you find all over New Orleans. You'll see it most often with shrimp. There's a pink (or red) remoulade, and white remoulade. Zax's sauce is a lot like original remoulade, only adapted for its environment. It is just the right consistency – not too thick, not too thin – and coats that chicken in a perfect marriage of smoothness and bite.
It is also good on Zaxby's fries, and I found out you can substitute celery sticks for fries, and dip them in Zax Sauce. I actually think you can dip just about anything in Zax Sauce, and you'd be happy. I tried eating it straight, which is only for diehards, but I wouldn't stop you.
Think of it as the Nutella of the South. Except it's not Nutella. It's Zax Sauce. My happiest day will come when Zaxby's makes it to Michigan. Until then, if you want to impress me, don't send flowers. Send me some Zax Sauce.
He owns Hot and Hot Fish Club, in Birmingham, Alabama, and he's in the forefront of a legion of chefs across the Deep South who are turning out some of the finest food in the United States. In turn, these top chefs and their restaurant owners are directly linked to the wealth that is resulting from the auto plants in their midst.
The Luxury South existed in pockets before the auto industry arrived. There have always been elite schools, like Old Miss, Vanderbilt and Tulane, and sprawling homes and plantations everywhere from Savannah to Mobile. But the critical mass of car plants has provided new opportunities for the South to attain its own luxury status.
The evidence is most visible in two places - Greenville, S.C., near BMW's only American plant, and in the Birmingham area, where Mercedes-Benz built its sprawling factory in Vance, AL.
Turn down Main Street in Greenville, and you'll find an array of bars, restaurants and hotels that would seem right at home in any upscale American city. They sit just a short walk from Fluor Field, where the minor league Greenville Drive play in a stadium modeled after Fenway Park.
Among the team's long list of corporate sponsors is the BMW Performance Driving School, which is just across the road from the gleaming white factory that BMW opened here in 1994.
On my trip through the new industrial South, I drove more than 4,000 miles, visiting 10 cities and nine factories in 10 days. The scenery ranged from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Gulf Coast, from live oaks to pines. Along the way, I sampled gourmet cuisine and boiled peanuts, gas station cuisine and outstanding fast food. Here are my top 10 tips for planning your Southern road trip.
1) Be ready for weather extremes. Southern heat is muggy and it continues into the fall. The cool air that marks a summer or fall morning in many parts of the country just isn't there. It starts hot and gets hotter and danker until, crash! there's an afternoon thunderstorm – or worse. My trip took place just two weeks before Hurricane Isaac, and as the storm hit, I checked the map to see how my towns made out. None of the factories were damaged, but there has been flooding, power outages, and plenty of downed trees. Isaac aside, you might want to front load your driving so you're off the road by about 4 p.m., just so you won't have to pull off and wait it out, the way I had to more than a few times. And keep an eye on radar: I was driving between Memphis and Tupelo in May when a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere (my flight from Detroit to Memphis had been smooth as silk).
2) Think about staying in a central spot. Since I was visiting the new industrial South, it made sense to use Birmingham, AL, as my home base for several nights during the trip. I took road trips of an hour, two hours, up to four hours from there, but it was nice to unpack once and sleep in the same place a few nights in a row. You might pick Atlanta or Mobile or Nashville, and go off on short trips from either place. Believe me, there's plenty to see, and it's nice to have a hotel staff welcome you back at the end of the day.
If you're not from the American South, you probably have an image of it in your head. It might have squealing pickup trucks and Daisy Dukes. Or hoop skirts and cotton plantations from "Gone With The Wind." Maybe the streetcars of New Orleans, or the twang of Paula Deen.
What if I told you that the American South has become a land of opportunity, where people no longer have to leave home to find their fortunes? What if you knew that more than a third of all the cars sold in the United States are made there? And that its population is no longer just white, black, and Hispanic, but European and Asian?
In August, I traveled 4,000 miles over two weeks across the New Industrial South. I plotted a road trip that took me to all the car and truck plants between Mississippi and South Carolina that have been built in the past two decades. I talked to autoworkers and managers, chefs and mayors, university officials and farmers, wait staff and retirees.
And I came away thinking that people up north have no idea what's happened below the Mason Dixon line. Thanks to the auto industry, and everything that came with it, the South is full of cities where there's been growth, where people buy new cars and homes, and send their kids to new schools and to play on new skate parks. Towns have new city halls. Instead of selling the past, economic developers are salivating over a new future.
If you only visit one of these places, say, Birmingham, Alabama, you see some of this, but not all of it. Driving the entire region, however, fills in the picture in a complete way.
Over the next weeks, we'll be exploring the impact of the South's new industry in "The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial South." We'll have lots of tips to help you plan your own southern road trip.
Most of all, we'll provide impressions. And this was my main one.
Traveling the Southern Road made me think this is what it must have been like in Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh for our parents and grandparents. While those cities are striving to write their next chapters, you can go see the story of the new American economy playing out right now, all across the South.