Category — Travel

The Best Southern Breakfast Ever – Charleston’s Cafe, Mount Pleasant SC

This is the best breakfast I’ve had in the region, ever. Housemade corned beef hash, topped with perfectly fried eggs and accompanied by creamy grits and a buttermilk biscuit.

October 15, 2008   Comments

Fried Seafood Platter at Hyman’s Seafood, Charleston SC

Roughly counterclockwise – a ball of Mac and Cheese, fried shrimp, deviled crab, fried oysters, and the best hush puppies ever.

Another quickpost from the road.

October 15, 2008   Comments

Meat, Meat, and Three – Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson, NC

Experimenting with the Wordpress app on the iPhone.

An amazing barbecue lunch in North Carolina. Onward to Charleston!

October 11, 2008   Comments

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.

August 21, 2008   Comments

On Fire at the Wild Wing Cafe – Charleston, SC

Yes, I’m getting around to trip updates from the Charleston excursion.

If there’s ever a mecca for wing eaters, it’d be the Wild Wing Cafe.  At any given moment, Wild Wing has over 30 different types of wings, ranging from five or six different heat levels of your standard buffalo wing, to alternate flavors such as Thai, Lemon Pepper, or Garlic.

Wild Wing also lays claim to one of my favorite appetizers, the Hot Shot, which is what you see pictured above.  A basket of Hot Shots, along with an introductory beer, is the preferred way of slipping into a meal here.  Served piping hot straight from the fryer, hot shots are similar to fritters and consist of spicy sausage, cheese, and batter-of-some-sort, rolled into balls and fried crispy.  All of this is served with a dipping sauce that looks like a tub of melted margarine with some lemon pepper thrown into it (which is probably exactly what it is).  It’s the finest appetizer of its kind.

Coming to Wild Wing immediately after checking in at the hotel, we were fortunate to find ourselves arriving on Wild Wednesday, which is their way of saying ‘2 for 1′ on the wings.  Charleston is, after all, a college town, so there’s lots of deals to be found that are appropriate for a college student’s budget.  We each ordered a dozen, with two varieties per order for a total of four flavors.  The hardest thing about coming to Wild Wing is figuring out which kinds you want.  We ended up getting Gold Rush, Garlic! Garlic! Garlic!, Lemon Pepper, and CHINA SYNDROME.

Gold Rush and Lemon Pepper have been our favorite flavors since well before we were married, so it was a no-brainer to order them.  The Lemon Pepper is exactly as it sounds – the wings are tossed in a light margarine coating, and then liberally sprinkled with lemon pepper seasoning.  They aren’t spicy, but they sure are tasty.

The Gold Rush, which is my pick, is a tangy, slightly spicy, slightly sweet sauce.  The menu describes it as honey BBQ with a kick, but the flavor is more subtle, less cloying than your typical honey barbecue flavor – and I think the barbecue in this case may have been mustard-based.

So that brings me to the China Syndrome story.

I have quite a tolerance for heat.  For some time now, I’ve maxed out on the heat level at Hooters, and their 911 wings don’t affect me at all.  Everywhere I go, I tend to order the hottest level of wing that is on offer, and, for the most part, I am rarely impressed.  So, when it came time to order a typical straight buffalo wing at Wild Wing, well, I went for China Syndrome.  On the menu, it’s two steps above the typical ‘Hot’, and two steps below what the restaurant calls Braveheart.  When our food came out, it’s the first one that my fingers went for, and I promise you, I will never, ever order that flavor ever again.

I have been defeated by a buffalo wing.  Here’s the thing about the wings at Wild Wing – they aren’t served covered in sauce, like you’ve seen in other places.  Here, what seems to be happening is that the cooks fry the wings, toss them in sauce, and then pop them into the oven for a bit, so that the sauce bakes onto the wings.  The sauce still comes off on your fingers, but they’re a little neater.  So, with the China Syndrome, what I discovered that evening is that the wings actually had red pepper flakes baked into them, and that’s what made all of the difference.

My mouth was on fire in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Bhut Jaloki Incident, which I have yet to tell you about.  Beer, as quenching as it may be, was no match for the pain and fury that my body was experiencing.  So, with that one wing, my entire meal was put on hold while I waited for the effects of the China Syndrome flavor to subside. I’m never doing that again.

August 7, 2008   Comments

Nick’s Original Roast Beef – Springfield, PA

I’ve only recently discovered the joy of drinking beer.  About fifteen months ago, I enjoyed my first glass of Yuengling, and a large part of that experience is due to the wonderful mess that you see pictured here.

This, my friends, is the roast pork sandwich at Nick’s Original Roast Beef in Springfield, PA.  If you’re wondering about the roast beef, it looks largely the same and is just as addictive.

Nick’s is the place we always go to for lunch when we are on our way to the airport, whether to fly out or to pick someone up from out of town.  Located about five minutes off of I-476, it’s about 20 minutes away from Philadelphia International Airport, and where else can you get a decent quick lunch with that degree of convenience?  Not Center City, that’s for sure.

Nick’s has been around for over 60 years, with the original location still in operation in South Philly and the Springfield spot open for 10 years.  We’ve been to both, and the experience is identical – go to whichever is closest for you.

As with most institutions, there’s a way of ordering your food at Nick’s that makes it possible for any one person to order a pork or beef sandwich that’s a good variation on the one being eaten at the next table.

First, let me lay down the basics.  At their essence, a sandwich at Nick’s is a stack of meat on a kaiser roll, with gravy.  Ordering it as a ‘combo’ just means slapping a slice of provolone on it.  Then it gets more complicated from there.

Overboard, which is how we like it, is with extra gravy.  Not just a small dollop, mind you.  I’m talking a sandwich that is so literally soaked in gravy that the bun just barely holds together.  Yes, it sounds disgusting until you try it.  The opposite of Overboard is Wet, which means less gravy (but, why?).

Operation means digging out the excess bread from the bun so that it doesn’t interfere with the meat, cheese, and gravy.

On the Outs means the inclusion of the crusty bits of beef from the outside of the roast, in other words, the best part, where the vitamins are, etc.

A Topper is a small portion of sauteed broccoli rabe, which, if you’re eating roast pork, is probably required by law.

The last bit of advice I have to give is this – get the gravy fries.  They’re perfect fries to begin with, but you throw some meaty gravy on them, and they become something else entirely.  What’s happening in my mouth?  Something wonderful.

And, as you may expect, all of this pairs brilliantly with beer.  We had tried a few beers here and there in the past, but it was this one singular moment last year, with this one beautiful mess of a sandwich, where everything clicked and beer suddenly made sense.

And, once I get around to offloading the camera, I’ve got a slideshow where beer is making a lot of sense to me.  Lots and lots of sense.  As you can tell, I’ve started my Charleston trip recap, starting with the place we ate right before leaving town.

July 10, 2008   Comments

There’s No Place Like…

I’m going to take the unconventional route here and start my updates with the end of our trip.  I’ve got lots of pictures that need to be loaded from the camera, and lots of words that need to be loaded from my head.  It’s going to take some time to sort through.  Please bear with me.

It’s absolutely wonderful to be back home after five nights away.  Last night was the first “normal” night that we’ve had since last Tuesday (and maybe Tuesday doesn’t count, either, because we were packing).  The fridge and cupboard are fairly bare, but I was able to put together something resembling dinner – a sauteed chicken breast, some barley, and a bag of peas that I found in the freezer.  It’s welcome relief from vacation food.

Speaking of which, you’re probably curious about our Southern Culinary Adventure.  All will be revealed in due time, but off the top of my head I can tell you that it involves wings, ribs, barbecue, fried pickles, fried shrimp, hush puppies, boiled peanuts, ham, beer, beer and more beer, and the best cornbread recipe we’ve ever had, so good it’s bumped my tried-and-true recipe from our barbecue lineup. 

And, oh yes, pimento cheese.

So, I’ve got all of that to talk about, plus the continuation of the Talulah’s Table series coming up, plus preparations for the Big Pig Gig 2008.  Stay tuned.  Stuff’s happening.

July 9, 2008   Comments

Off to Charleston

I met my wife for the first time in Charleston, South Carolina fourteen years ago.  We loved the town so much that, two years after that, we held our wedding there and made everyone fly in for the ceremony (we were, after all, in a long distance relationship and not only was Charleston beautiful, it was also neutral territory).

Since that time, we’ve only been back to Charleston once, and that was several years ago.  Even then, we could see the town beginning to change – at its heart, Charleston is a college town filled with small, independently owned shops that compete for space with majestic homes and hotels.  But on that visit, we saw that some of the shops on King Street were starting to yield to nationally recognized franchises like Starbucks.

We’ve got a small list of spots that we want to hit, some of them old standbys and others that have cropped up in the intervening years of our absence.  The very first thing on the list is the Wild Wing Cafe, which takes the concept of a college town buffalo wing joint and turns it up to 11.  Then there’s Jestine’s Kitchen, a small soul food restaurant that serves up killer chicken, fried green tomatoes, and Coca Cola cake.

As it turns out, Robert Stehling, this year’s winner of the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast region, is in Charleston, cooking at Hominy Grill.  I spent yesterday afternoon studying the menu, and it all looks awesome.  Reservations were easy to come by.

So, we’re getting on the plane tomorrow and won’t be back until Monday.  If I have internet access in the hotel, I’ll try to post content from the road.  Otherwise, it’ll just stockpile on my hard drive and updates will resume a week from today.  Given that I can’t do many of these places justice without pictures, I may decide to wait anyway.

If I’m really motivated, I’ll create a Twitter account for The Best Food Blog Ever and give quick updates with my greasy buffalo wing and fried chicken coated fingers.

UPDATE: I was, in fact, really motivated and now have a Twitter account for The Best Food Blog Ever.  It’s over on the column to the left.  Twitter updates will show up here, and you can click on the little RSS icon to subscribe to the Twitter feed.

July 1, 2008   Comments