I've been a fan of Paula Deen's since I first saw her make real comfort food loaded with real butter and other things delicious. There was just something about her Southern charm mixed with a good knowledge of how to cook down-home favorites that made me want to jump through the TV and join her in her kitchen.
Technology hasn't gotten us to that point yet, so I did the next best thing and made the drive to Cherokee, N.C., to get my first taste of Paula Deen's Kitchen, which opened at Harrah's casino earlier this year.
When I was in Cherokee a year ago, the expansion that Harrah's was undergoing was amazing. Paula's Kitchen is just one of many additions, but it was the only one I really cared about, so getting there was on my year's bucket list. I will say it was with some hesitation, though, as the reviews I read online were pretty dismal.
One said there was no chicken in the chicken potpie; another said the fried chicken was way too greasy; and another said that if Deen would come to the restaurant, she would be ashamed to have her name attached to it.
There were a couple of good things said about the place, such as the good waitstaff and fun tables with trivia games to play while waiting. And some said the food was good.
Not knowing which to believe, I decided I needed to check things out for myself.
I ordered three of Deen's signature items: fried chicken, mac-and-cheese and braised collard greens.
The white-meat chicken was hot, crispy and perfect. However, the one piece of dark meat I tried had enough grease to lubricate the wheels of the slot machines nearby.
The mac-and-cheese was creamy but a little bland. Salt and pepper helped the taste, though sharp cheddar would have made it much better.
The collards were outstanding -- right up there with Deen's standards.
Even if Paula Deen's Kitchen isn't quite meeting expectations, the addition of the restaurant enhances the entire Cherokee experience. And there's so much more than gaming. The drive across the Cherohala Skyway from Tellico Plains, Tenn., over to Robbinsville, N.C., is a must if you've never done it.
The scenery from thousands of feet in the air looking down over the mountains is unforgettable. The drive took about an hour longer than the more direct route along the Ocoee River and on through Murphy, N.C., but the Cherohala Skyway is worth the extra time it takes.
As for Cherokee, the proud story told through the dramatic "Unto These Hills" is well worth seeing. The fishing is good in stocked streams. Sequoyah National Golf Club, with views across the mountains, is a must for golfers. Even if you don't play, it's worth a visit.
Harrah's brought many changes to Cherokee without overwhelming the scenic nature of the area. The casino/resort is tastefully done, with architecture that conforms to the surrounding mountains. While you're there, see what you think of Paula Deen's Kitchen.
Ever since trying Hardee's chicken tenders and realizing they were the best I've ever had in a fast-food restaurant, I wondered when they would put them on a sandwich. Now they've done it, and if you haven't tried one, I suggest you should. They are remarkably delicious, and you can order them made-to-order with nothing more than a bun, or, go ahead and pile on lettuce and tomato, plus a little mayonnaise if you can afford the extra calories.