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Gullah Cuisine – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

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Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

No culinary tour of South Carolina’s Lowcountry would be complete without sampling Gullah cuisine at least once.  In the Lowcountry, Gullah represents several things: people, culture and language.   As a people, the Gullah represent a distinctive group of African Americans living along the island chains and coastal plains which parallel the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The Gullah people are directly descended from the  thousands of slaves who labored on the rice plantations in the moist, semitropical country bordering the South Carolina and Georgia coastline. 

Because of their relative isolation, the Gullah have managed to preserve their dialect and culture more completely than virtually any other group in the country.  Where Gullah culture is most in evidence is in the foods of the region.    Gullah cuisine reflects the rich bounty of the islands: crabs, shrimp, fish, oysters as well as vegetables (greens, corn and tomatoes).  Rice is omnipresent, served at nearly every meal.  You can’t really say you’ve experienced Lowcountry cuisine unless you’ve had Gullah cuisine.

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Chef Charlotte Jenkins

It’s often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Because the original Gullahs had very few cookware provisions, many of the dishes they prepared were cooked in one large pot. Fish, poultry and meat were cooked together with rice, vegetables, peppers, potatoes and/or legumes to create stews and soups still served today. Meats, fish and poultry were also smoked over an open flame, advancing the development of barbecue techniques still in use. Traditional Gullah cooking uses a special spice blend similar to Cajun seasonings in their assertiveness.

It can also be said that without the presence of the Gullah culture, there would be no Lowcountry cooking; it would all be Southern cooking. To the Gullahs, preparing and sharing food has always meant more than sustenance. Preparing and serving meals was often almost ritualistic in nature, feeding the soul as well as the body. The Gullahs describe their cuisine as “food that speaks to ya.” It certainly did speak to me!

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Cornbread with butter

The epicenter of contemporary Gullah cuisine lies just east of Charleston in the burgeoning hamlet of Mount Pleasant.  That’s where Chef Charlotte Jenkins plies her creativity, serving the best Gullah-soul food in the country.  That’s not just my opinion.  Southern Living magazine, Gourmet magazine, The New York Times and a phalanx of other publications have said so as well.  Chef Jenkins is a peripatetic presence at her restaurant and is as friendly as can be.  When she asked to see the photograph I took of her, she intercepted my “you’re very photogenic” response, replacing “photogenic” with “cute.” I’ll grant her that.  She is very cute.

Chef Jenkins had to surmount humble origins to achieve the acclaim she has earned.  She learned to cook Gullah the way her mother, grandmother and all other mothers that preceded her–by working alongside one another.  The work ethic and discipline she learned from her upbringing prepared her well for more regimented training at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston where she learned to adapt healthful elements into traditional recipes.  She launched Gullah Cuisine in 1997.

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Charlotte’s She Crab Soup

While pondering the menu, a single cupcake baking cup nestling a sweet crumbly cornbread with butter was delivered to my table.  It’s as simple and no-frills as cornbread can be, but that purity is what makes it so good.  The only thing wrong with the cornbread is that two or six more weren’t brought to my table.

If it’s sexist to admit preferring she-crab to he-crab, picture me a male chauvinist pig.  A week in South Carolina has left me besotted with she-crab soup.  Made from crab stock, blue crab meat, heavy cream and most notably, crab roe then finished with a splash of sherry, it’s a Charleston specialty.  The “she” portion of this soup, of course, is courtesy of the female crab roe.  Charlotte’s she crab soup is unctuous and replete with blue crab.  The sherry is discernible with its crisp, sweet, spicy and refreshing properties. 

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Smothered fried chicken with collard greens and red rice

Daily specials are priced ridiculously low, especially considering the quality and portion size. Great fortune smiles upon diners when smothered chicken is served. This isn’t a de-boned chicken breast out of a bag.  It’s a whole, moist thigh with an attached wing.  White meat a plenty is just below the surface of a thin-crusted skin.  Smothered means gravy and though thin, this brown gravy is flavorful (corn bread would have been useful here).  The collard greens and red rice are excellent, too.

The dessert menu lists only five items, but savvy diners stop reading after bread pudding. This is no pedestrian bread pudding. It’s in the pantheon of great puddings I’ve ever had, in no small part due to its simplicity. Served hot, it’s stuffed with spiced peaches and punctuated with raisins.  The spiced peaches are a revelation, pairing wonderfully with a soft, spongy bread.

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Bread Pudding

American cuisine owes much to the Gullah culture.  So much more than Southern cuisine, soul food and even Lowcountry cuisine, it’s great cooking incomparably exemplified by Chef Charlotte Jenkins.

Gullah Cuisine
1717 North Highway 17
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
(843) 881-9076
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Smothered Fried Chicken, Bread Pudding, Collard Greens, Charlotte’s She Crab Soup

Gullah Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Magnolias – Charleston, South Carolina

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Magnolias on a rainy Charleston afternoon

Some four million visitors flock to Charleston, South Carolina every year.  Charleston is the beguiling Southern charmer, a siren which lures guests with its storied history, artistic communities, architectural styles (which range from antebellum to art-deco), pristine beaches (on ninety miles of coastline) and, of course, incomparable Lowcountry cuisine.  Known as the “Holy City” because of the prevalence of churches on the city skyline, the sub-sobriquet “foodies’ heaven” is fitting; however, as songster Steve Miller reminds us in his hit tune Jet Liner, “You know you got to go through hell before you get to heaven.”

A great number of Charleston’s very best restaurants are clustered around the historic district, an area several  times larger and much more crowded than the Santa Fe Plaza.  Getting there is akin to being on a parade route, one with dozens of stop lights.  Arriving is only half the challenge.  Finding an empty parking spot is comparable to finding a car with working eight-track player.  You’ll drive around in circles for a while before finally wandering further out.  When you finally locate that elusive parking spot, you now have to traipse that much further on uneven cobblestone walkways to the restaurant while heat and humidity (or often the case, rain) sap you of energy and enthusiasm.  A restaurant had better be good for what it puts diners through to get there.

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Sourdough bread with a whipped butter

Located in the very heart of the historic district and situated in the site of the original customs house, Magnolias is worth the frustration and the trek. Open since 1990, it is one of the South’s most revered destinations for upscale Southern cuisine, a culinary approach it calls “Uptown/Down South.”  Magnolias is credited widely with helping spur the creative use of fresh seasonal bounty that sparked a revolution in Lowcountry cuisine.  Roadfood founder Michael Stern says it best: “…this restaurant has set standards of classic down south food served with uptown panache.”

A classically elegant fine dining restaurant combining true Southern flair with Charleston charm, Magnolias lives up to its name.  Though too early in the year to imbibe the sweet fragrance of blossoming magnolias, I could still appreciate the glossy leaves someone else would have to rake when they fall.  Freshly cut magnolia branches in clear vases festoon the main dining room and large paintings of magnolias hang on the wall.  An elevated horseshoe-shaped bar with tall stools provides the best vantage point if you’re into people-watching.  The most obvious observation may be that everyone is dressed better than you are.  South Carolinians are remarkably fastidious and ridiculously thin considering almost everything they eat is made with cream and butter.  Hmm, can their svelte physiques possibly be attributed to walking long distances from parking spots to restaurants?

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Blue Crab Bisque
fresh chives

The nattily attired wait staff is professional and on-the-spot with recommendations based on your taste preferences.  While you’re contemplating the menu and the day’s specials, a small loaf of sourdough bread with  a housemade whipped butter arrive, nestled in a white linen napkin.  The sourdough is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.  Because it’s such an excellent bread, it may be a challenge to save a slice or two for dredging up some of the wonderful sauces that will soon decorate your plates.

In that my stay in the Palmetto State was so relatively short (one week), I made it a point to consume as much blue crab bisque as possible. Yeah, that’s the reason.  It has nothing to do with the fact that blue crab is one of nature’s perfect foods (just ask Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate). Magnolias version of blue crab bisque may be the best I’ve had.  It’s served steaming hot and has a rich creaminess redolent with delicious crab meat.  Larry will probably attribute their deliciousness to the fact that these blue crabs migrated from Maryland.

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Down South Egg Roll

Perhaps the most famous (featured even on Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine) appetizer on Magnolias menu is the Down South Egg Roll, a crispy egg roll engorged with spicy tasso (a smoked ham), minced chicken and collard greens served with a moderately piquant red pepper puree, spicy ground mustard and topped with a sweet peach chutney.   These egg rolls have replaced the fabulous duck egg rolls at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro as my very favorite.  The key to maximizing their enjoyment is to ensure every sauce is represented on every bite though these egg rolls are fabulous even sans sauce.

Magnolias is open seven days a week and serves lunch every day but Sunday from 11:30AM to 3:45PM.  Brunch is served on Sundays.  There are significant commonalities between the lunch and dinner menus–not only in the starters, salads and soup menus, but even among the Down South Entrees.  This is a very welcome departure from fine-dining restaurants who demote lunch to overly expensive sandwiches.  One traditionally Southern entree which should be served for every meal (and even snacks) is fried chicken.  Magnolias is among the very best I’ve ever had, on par with Stroud’s in Kansas City.

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Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast
cracked pepper biscuits, mashed potatoes, collard greens, creamed corn, sausage-herb gravy

To honor my Kim, I ordered her very favorite foods, all served on one entree.  Picture a cold December day as the Dallas Cowboys are squandering yet seemingly insurmountable lead to lose another game.  My solace is buttermilk fried chicken, mashed potatoes,  gravy, biscuits and creamed corn.  These comforting foods are all available in one plate at Magnolias.  The buttermilk fried chicken breast is absolute perfection, a large de-boned chicken breast marinated overnight in buttermilk then deep-fried to a golden hue.  The mashed potatoes are partially covered (not submerged as is my preference) with a sausage-herb gravy.  Two cracked pepper biscuits, creamed corn and collard greens round out this plate (and my belly).  This is comfort food at its very finest. 

Dessert (which I ordered only as a public service should you ever need to know what to have) is limited to six items plus a number of ice creams.  Being limited in number is certainly not synonymous with lacking in deliciousness.  The Southern Pecan Pie is fantastic courtesy of South Carolina grown pecans, a bourbon caramel sauce and a topping of vanilla bean ice cream.  As with most pecan pies, this one is almost preternaturally rich, but so addictive, you can’t stop eating it.

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Southern Pecan Pie

In 2010, Charleston was named America’s “Friendliest City” by Travel & Leisure Magazine Two years later, it garnered the magazine’s number one spot for “Fine Dining Restaurants.” Magnolias ranks with the very best restaurants in Charleston, serving memorable meals that beckon for a return visit someday soon.

MAGNOLIAS
185 East Bay Street
Charleston, South Carolina
(843) 577.7771
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 26
COST: $$$
BEST  BET: Blue Crab Bisque, Southern Pecan Pie, Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast, Down South Egg Roll

Magnolias on Urbanspoon

A Taste of Soul – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

A Taste of Soul Restaurant on San Mateo

1 think it is important to point out that barbecued ribs,
black-eyed peas, grits, and collards may,
in fact, be a choice dish to many black Americans.
But it also sounds pretty darn good to me, a white man.
I grew up on soul food. We just called it country cooking.
My grandmother cooked it. My mother cooked it
.
- Lewis Grizzard

American writer and humorist Lewis Grizzard, a fiercely proud Southerner, delighted in assailing Yankees, liberal politics, feminists and political correctness.  It was the latter which rankled his ire and prompted a rather incisive diatribe from which the above quote is taken.  Grizzard, who even named his beloved Labrador “Catfish,” rose up in defense of barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas, grits and collards when they were pulled from the menu of an automobile plant in Illinois because of complaints that these dishes stereotyped “black dining habits.”

Having lived in Mississippi for eight years (1987-1995), I can attest to the fact that these dishes stereotype the dining habits of most Southerners, not specifically those of black diners.  Those dishes were inculcated into our dining habits, too…and we didn’t care if the name on the restaurant’s marquee read “soul food,” “Southern food” or “country cooking.”  All that mattered is that these dishes were hearty and delicious.  Almost invariably they were.

The interior at Taste of Soul

There are several things about living in the Deep South we don’t miss in the least: the oppressive humidity; evacuating our home every time a hurricane approached the Gulf, and not knowing what, if anything we’d come back to; the scarcity of green chile…  What we have missed immensely is the excellent soul food and its plenitude.  Here, with apologies to Lewis Grizzard, I actually distinguish “soul food” from “country cooking.”  The difference, we found was sometimes attitudinal…and yes, racial.  Not racist!  Racial! Soul food reflects the cultural spirit and culinary traditions of black Americans.

In the fifteen years since our return to the Land of Enchantment, we’ve seen the much ballyhooed launch of several promising soul food restaurants only to be left disappointed scant months later when those restaurants closed.  For the most part, these restaurants served very good to excellent soul food, at least one restaurant being on par with some of the best we experienced on the Gulf Coast.  Considering the Duke City’s broad-minded acceptance of diverse culinary cultures, it’s always surprising…and sad, to see soul food restaurants go by the wayside.

The "Mess-Around-Basket" (Half Order) - 1 fish, 1 chicken, 6 fried oysters, fried pickles, French fries

When Shannon McKigney, a New Orleans native, gave Albuquerque’s newest (as of July, 2010) soul food restaurant a rousing endorsement, we had to try it.  Like me, Shannon doesn’t mind waiting for food to be prepared from scratch if the wait proves worthwhile.  In her estimation, the food at the aptly named “A Taste of Soul” is “totally worth it.”  A Taste of Soul cafe is situated at the former home of Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant, a magnificent shooting star which fizzled away much too quickly, but left an indelible impression.

A Taste of Soul is a family-owned and operated cafe with Alvin Bailey at the helm.  Before striking out on his own, Alvin  spent the better part of two decades working at several hotel restaurants including the Pyramid and Hotel Albuquerque.  Originally from Texas, he prepares some of the very best home-cooking style soul food we’ve had in fifteen years–and that includes soul food from several highly regarded  soul food restaurants in Las Vegas, Nevada and Chicago.  Alvin told us there’s more to come.  He plans on introducing soups and gumbos to the menu over time, describing them as mouth-watering.

Tasty Chicken and Waffles--Fried chicken and home-made buttermilk waffles

The restaurant’s mission statement, printed on the menu, should heighten your expectations: “We put our hearts and soul into the food and service that is provided.”  Isn’t that an approach every restaurant should take?  Service is cordial and accommodating, friendly without being obtrusive.  Alvin’s lovely better half is A Taste of Soul’s hostess and ambassador, a gracious lady who makes all guests feel welcome.   The ambiance is also quite welcoming, starting from the cranberry red exterior that makes the restaurant very conspicuous in an earth-tone dominated street.

Signage on the roof is nondescript, while signage on an exterior wall depicts a mammy, the most enduring racial caricature of African American women.  The interior walls are also cranberry as are the table cloths, atop of which are  condiments which grace many a Southern table: ketchup, Trappey’s hot peppers, barbecue sauce in a plastic squeeze bottle and McIlhenny brand hot sauce.  A wooden planked floor painted beige lends a creaky character.  Only about a dozen tables adorn the restaurant, but they’re well-spaced for privacy.

Mac-N-Cheese

A Taste of Soul is open six days a week: Tuesday through Sunday and features daily soul soup specials ranging from meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes on Tuesday to smothered oxtails with rice, greens and black-eye peas on Sunday.  All daily specials come with cornbread or white bread and a beverage–either tea (sweetened or unsweetened) and Kool-Aid.  There are only ten items on the menu, all prepared to order so it will take time for you to be served.  The kids’ menu includes a free drink or a scoop of ice cream.  A number of side orders and a la carte items are also available.

Hearty appetites will gravitate to “The-Mess-Around-Baskets,” available in half-order or full-order sizes.  The full-order, we were told, feeds three or four people.  A half-order would easily feed two.  The half-order includes one fish (either catfish or red snapper), one piece of chicken, six fried oysters, fried pickles and French fries.  The platter is brimming with delicious fried goodness, but also includes sliced dill pickles, onion slices and a hot Louisiana cherry pepper.

The catfish is sliced into several long strips (they must start with a very large catfish) and coated in a light cornmeal batter. The golden-hued batter provides a textual contrast to the light, flaky catfish which maintains a nice juiciness despite being fried and battered. The chicken is moist and delicious, surprisingly meaty considering the piece I got was a rather large wing. The fried oysters are crunchy on the outside and explode with characteristically briny flavor within, just the way oysters should taste. Fried pickles are a Southern delicacy and an acquired taste with a delicate coating complementing the tangy dills. The mountain of fries is best eaten when dipped in a ketchup-hot sauce mix.

Peach Cobbler

Perhaps the most popular soul food combination across the fruited plain is the marriage of crispy, Southern-style fried chicken with waffles draped in maple syrup and butter.  A golden, orb-shaped waffle sliced into four pieces, has just a slight crunch that belies a silken texture.  The syrup, flavored with butter and vanilla, is served warm, covering an already warm waffle with even more comforting heat. The combination of sweet and savory makes for an excellent meal, better than an entree and dessert pairing.

From the single items menu, a real winner is the Mac-N-Cheese, a bowlful of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, a complete antithesis of the popular child’s favorite that comes from a box. This Mac-N-Cheese is served hot, but not quite bubbly so you can dig right in. It’s a melt-in-your-mouth macaroni and cheese dish that exemplifies the best of “down home” mac-and-cheese with none of the pretensions high-end restaurants like to add.

The dessert menu features peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, banana pudding and a green chile apple pie.  The peach cobbler is fabulous, some of the very best we’ve had in the Duke City.  It is served warm and is redolent with the spicy fragrance of cinnamon and cloves.  The crust is buttery, fluffy and light while the peaches have a fresh and moist deliciousness.  The cobbler is neither too sweet nor is it replete with pectin.    The foundation of the sweet potato pie is a light, flaky crust.  The sweet potato pie is very nicely sweetened with just a hint of nutmeg.  Served warm, the only way to improve it would have been with a dollop of vanilla ice cream for which I forgot to ask.

Sweet Potato Pie

Famished masses longing for a taste of soul food will find none better than at A Taste of Soul!  This is a crowd-pleasing, appetite satisfying restaurant that will hopefully be making Duke City diners smile for a long time.

A Taste of Soul
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 September 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken and Waffles, Mess-Around-Basket, Sweet Potato Pie, Mac-N-Cheese, Peach Cobble

A Taste of Soul Cafe on Urbanspoon