Soul Food at Jestine’s Kitchen – Charleston, SC

Like barbecue, meatballs, and a number of other family recipes, fried chicken is a sacred thing.  Everyone has their favorite, whether it be from a local eatery or from their own recipe box.  I try not to limit myself to a single “best ever”, but my short list definitely counts Jestine’s Kitchen, in Charleston, among the top three.

Just as with Wild Wing, we made it a point to hit up Jestine’s Kitchen when we found ourselves back in Charleston.  It is, quite simply, the best place in town for straightforward soul food along the lines of collard greens, grits, fried okra, mac and cheese, red rice, and fried chicken.  There are other offerings, as well, blue plate specials bringing the best of daily available ingredients to the table.

By way of background, Jestine Matthews was born in 1885 and lived to be 112.  She worked as a laundress and housekeeper in Charleston, eventually finding herself in the employe of the Ellison family.  She became lifelong friends with the family, and the Ellison’s granddaughter, Dana Berlin, founded Jestine’s Kitchen with the family recipes that were handed down through the generations.

Meals at Jestine’s Kitchen start with a basket of freshly baked cornbread, accompanied by a bowl of butter that’s swimming in honey.  True Southern cornbread is only slightly sweet, with a rough quality that puts its overly sugared, cakelike Northern counterpart to shame.  Service, as you would expect from an operation as personal as Jestine’s, is quick and personable – everyone loves working here, and it shows.

We both ordered the fried chicken plate, and split an order of the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer.  As is the case with many Southern culinary practices, fried green tomatoes takes something that is ostensibly healthy and transforms it into a gut busting artery clogger, by dredging it in flour and frying it in a substantial amount of butter.  The result – tender green tomato slices, sweet on the inside and slightly crispy on the outside – are worth writing home about.

The fried chicken plate at Jestine’s Kitchen is no joke.  Accompanied by two sides of your choice, you are presented with nearly a half-chicken’s worth of parts – a breast piece, a leg, and a wing or two, that almost make you regret having ordered an appetizer.  The chicken is molten hot, having emerged from the oil only moments before hitting your table, making you wait a little longer than you are accustomed to before digging in.  But, after dutifully picking away at your sides (the wonderful fried okra, which is an acquired taste for some, and the sticky, gooey macaroni and cheese), you finally experience fried chicken nirvana with your first bite.

As all remarkable fried chicken should, the coating on these pieces shatters into little bits when you bite into it, yielding tender and moist meat.  You move from the dark meat, the leg, to what is usually the challenging part, the white meat, to find that this preparation is impeccable.  This is what fried chicken should be, always.  As intimidating as the initial presentation seemed to be, in short order you find yourself facing an empty plate.

Now, usually, after such a grand meal as this, one would seek to retreat to a state of moderation and ask for the check.  But, given that this was our first return to Charleston, and Jestine’s Kitchen, in over ten years, it was unthinkable to consider leaving without ordering the Coca Cola Cake.  To make a long story short, Coca Cola cake was born out of World War II, when shortages of sugar compelled home bakers to substitute Coca Cola in their recipes.

The cake, served with a chocolate frosting and some whipped cream, is an eye-opener for anyone who’s never had it before.  The Coca Cola lends a different kind of sweetness to the dessert, one that is more subtle than cakes that use white or brown sugar.  This is probably why the cake goes down so easily after such an epic meal.

Having gotten to Jestine’s Kitchen early, by the time we left there was a line of about a dozen people that had formed outside.  The restaurant has such a good reputation, and is so highly regarded both locally in and guidebooks, that arriving during the primetime lunch hour usually means waiting outside (the place is too small to have an indoor waiting area).  The line moves quickly, though, and there is a large fan installed to help folks withstand the Charleston heat and humidity.  Whatever you do, though, don’t leave the line and go elsewhere, because Jestine’s Kitchen is certainly worth every bit of the wait.