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

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