Butcher & Bee – Charleston, South Carolina

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Butcher & Bee, a very unique and special sandwich shop and more in Charleston, South Carolina

I’m not a sandwich store that only sells turkey sandwiches.
I sell a lot of different things.
~Lady Gaga

You might expect that a restaurant selected for inclusion on a list of “The 21 Best Sandwich Shops in America” would have a signature sandwich, its chef d’oeuvre.  Pittsburgh’s Primanti Brothers, for example, is known for its pastrami and cheese sandwich. The Darwin Cafe in San Francisco is famous for its roast beef sandwich.  Every sandwich shop on the list exalting the best sandwiches from sea to shining sea has its magnus opus, a masterpiece for which it is best known.  All but one, that is.  The sandwich recommended at the very first sandwich shop on the list is “whatever’s available.”  It speaks volumes about that sandwich shop. 

The Butcher & Bee is unlike any stereotype or template of any sandwich shop you’ve ever frequented.  It doesn’t subscribe to boring and homogeneous conventions such as serving the same things day after day.  From the exterior, it’s relatively humdrum, unadorned by neon spangled signage, flash or panache.  Its most telling feature may be the lines of people snaking out the door.

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The one room Butcher & Bee restaurant

Step inside and even Better Homes and Gardens would be challenged to describe Butcher & Bee’s “decorative style,” a mishmash of eclectic and rustic meets thrift shop and tractor supply store.  Every table is different, but not as different as the chairs.  How different? How about tractor seats, bar stools of varying heights and styles and wheeled contrivances that defy description?  After placing your order at the counter and settling your tab, it’s up to you to find a seat.  It might behoove you beforehand to scope out seating  that’s both comfortable and utilitarian as well as diners with whom you share a table who appear friendly and welcoming. 

Suspended from high ceilings are cupboards stocked with preserves, farm-to-table bounty from local farms.  The menu hangs on the wall by the front (and only) entrance (and egress).  Hand-scrawled in chalk, it lists all featured fare for the day.  Savvy diners know they should visit Butcher & Bee’s Facebook page before visiting the restaurant because the day’s menu is posted there.  It’s not an overly ambitious menu in terms of size, but what it does offer may lead to the question “this is a sandwich shop?”

The Butcher & Bee menu on Friday, April 18, 2014

The Butcher & Bee menu on Friday, April 18, 2014

The restaurant’s operational statement reads “At Butcher & Bee, we lovingly craft sandwiches using time-honored preparation techniques. We source the finest local ingredients the region has to offer, our ever-changing menu is both adventurous and familiar.”  There’s that word again–sandwiches.   It doesn’t take much study to see the menu lists only a handful of sandwiches.  For Butcher & Bee to be acclaimed one of the best sandwich shops in the fruited plain says a lot about those sandwiches.

In a spirit of true inclusion, vegans and vegetarians should enjoy the menu as much as carnivorous types.  On the day of my visit, there were at least as many salad choices (and a vegan sandwich) on the menu as there were sandwiches.  In a head-scratching moment as inexplicable as the popularity of Justin Bieber, this restaurant essayist visited one of the 21 best sandwich shops in America and ordered…hold on to your seats…larb.  Yes, larb. Gasp!

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Larb

Larb is a very popular “cooked salad” typically found on the menu at Thai and Lao restaurants, not sandwich shops.  It’s essentially a meat dish, most often made with minced or ground meat with healthful elements of a salad.  Butcher & Bee’s larb is made with grilled chopped beef, mint, cilantro, Thai chiles, greens, lime juice and fish sauce.  To declare it the very best larb I’ve ever had probably still doesn’t justify not ordering a sandwich.  I can’t even use fasting and abstinence on Good Friday as an excuse because the grilled beef on the larb was so…meaty.

The dessert menu listed only two items, the most farm-to-table sounding of the two being strawberries and cream.  Strawberries grow throughout South Carolina are are always the first fruit to ripen in the spring.  That accounts for the freshness of these fresh and luscious strawberries which didn’t taste as if they’d been sweetened artificially.  The thick, slightly sour cream was a perfect foil for what has become my very favorite spring fruity indulgence.

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Strawberries & Cream

Butcher & Bee may not have the venerable pedigree and gentrification of its Peninsular neighbors, but in fewer than three years in business, it’s made a name for itself and now has a nation-wide reputation.  Whether or not it has one of the twenty-one best sandwiches in America will have to be determined by someone smart enough to actually order a sandwich.

Butcher & Bee
654 King Street
Charleston, South Carolina
(843) 619-0202
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Larb, Strawberries & Cream

Butcher & Bee on Urbanspoon

EVO – North Charleston, South Carolina

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EVO (Extra Virgin Oven), one of the very best pizza restaurants in America

America is a pizza obsessed nation.  Ninety-three percent of us consume at least one slice of pizza per month and collectively, we each eat some 46 slices of pizza per year.  According to Pizza Magazine Quarterly, the pizza industry’s number one business magazine and web site, there are nearly 70,000 pizzerias in the United States (or about as many pizzerias as Santa Fe, New Mexico has residents) to sate our love of pizza.  Almost two-thirds (or about 46,000) of those pizzerias are independently owned and operated.

With such a large number of pizzerias serving the pizza loving public, creating a list anointing the best pizza or any number of best pizzas in the country is an audacious endeavor (just try picking the definitive pizza in the Duke City).  Even defining the criteria for designating the best pizza is a plucky proposition considering the tremendous differences in style between purveyors of the sacrosanct pie.  In September, 2012, The Daily Meal recruited an august panel au courant with all things pizza and asked them to compile a list of the best pizzas across the fruited plain. After much deliberation and trimming, five spots were allotted to each of seven regions.

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The EVO dining room

Because the list of America’s thirty-five very best pizzas includes such paragons of pizza perfection as Pizza Mozza (#25) and Pizzeria Bianco (#26), two transformative pizzas reviewed on this blog, the list has great credibility with me.  Charleston’s contribution to the list is EVO which was rated number thirty-two on the list, placing it in very exclusive company.  Now, Charleston is world renowned for its incomparable Lowcountry cuisine and some of the best seafood in the country, but pizza?  

Yes, pizza and it’s not solely the Daily Meal who holds EVO in such high accord. In 2011, USA Today asked local experts to name just one great pizza parlor in each state and the District of Columbia.  The one pizza from South Carolina singled out was none other than EVO.  Not to be outdone, the Food Network’s Cooking Channel highlighted EVO’s Pistachio Pesto Pizza as one of the ten best pizzas in the fruited plain.

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Perhaps the reason EVO is so highly regarded is because it subscribes to many of the tenets which make Lowcountry cuisine so highly regarded.  That means seasonal produce from local farmers to give its guests a fresh and fabulous farm-to-table experience.  A whopping eighty-five percent of the locally sourced ingredients come from within a twenty mile radius of Charleston. Reading the ingredients on the salad menu is like perusing the vegetable line-up at a farmer’s market.

EVO, which isn’t Rachael Ray misspelling one of her cloying catchphrases,  actually stands for “Extra Virgin Oven. EVO’s pizzas are prepared in the namesake wood-fired oven which renders a perfect Neapolitan-style crust, thin and light yet formidable enough to hold up against a cheesy blanket and generously applied ingredients.  At 800 degrees, your pizza is ready in less than two and a half minutes.  The cornicione, an Italian term for the “lip” or puffy outer edge of the pizza is soft and chewy. Best of all, the pizza has the flavor and aroma of just baked bread with the char marks aficionados love.

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Assorted housemade pickles, bread, housemade pimento goat cheese

EVO eschews the rubbery out-of-a-bag glop the chains use, preparing and pulling their own mozzarella twice daily.  The pizza dough is also made twice a day and all breads are baked on the premises (or rather in the EVO bakery directly behind the pizzeria).  All soups and sauces are prepared slowly and with a lot of care and attention.  Add the term “house-made” to describe the restaurant’s sweet sausage, aioli and dressings.  You can taste the difference.

If freshness has a flavor, you’ll find it in a steaming bowl of EVO’s roasted carrot, ginger and apple soup garnished with toasted pistachios and creme fraiche.  If she-crab soup wasn’t already the signature dish of Charleston, this soup would be a good candidate for that distinction.   It’s an absolutely delicious soup.   The combination of roasted carrots and apples makes sense in that the carrots provide a pleasant sweetness and the tangy apples serve as a bit of a foil for that sweetness  The ginger lends just a bit of assertiveness while the ground toasted pistachios provide a savory quality.  Texturally, the soup has a thick, creamy but not gloppy consistency.

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Pork Trifecta: Red Sauce, Housemade Sausage, Pepperoni, Bacon, Mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano

My week-long visit to the Charleston area left so many aspects of Lowcountry cuisine unexplored that another visit or more is a must.  It took a visit to EVO for me to take in two other Southern staples: housemade pickles and pimento cheese, an appetizer served with the restaurant’s fabulous bread.   The housemade pickles include pickled green tomatoes and fresh cucumbers, both of which are spectacular.  Pickling isn’t necessarily intended to render vegetables lip-puckering tart.  Mission accomplished. Both tomatoes and cucumbers are crisp, fresh and pickled just enough to accentuate their natural flavors without obfuscating them.

Even better is the housemade pimento cheese.  If South Carolina’s nickname wasn’t “The Palmetto State,” it should be “The Pimento State.”  Pimento cheese is revered in the deep south, but nowhere more than in the Carolinas.   Although Cheddar is the traditional foundation for most pimento cheese spreads, EVO occasionally throws a curve ball by using goat cheese to which “personality” is added via cayenne pepper and finely chopped cherry peppers (pimentos).   The pimento spreads easily on the bread, but if you eat the entire loaf, you may not have room left for the pizza.  That would be criminal. 

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Sprecher Root Beer served on a Mason jar

As chronicled in my review of Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q,in South Carolina pork is king.  That doesn’t apply solely to barbecue.  EVO’s signature pizza is the magnificent Pork Trifecta, so named because it’s  topped with housemade sausage, bacon and pepperoni, three ingredients only a cardiologist (and the Child Bride) wouldn’t love.  This is pork candy for the rest of us, the true trifecta of porcine perfection and it’s better than I could possibly describe it.  Available on an eight- or twelve-inch size, it’s also topped with red sauce, the house pulled mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano, all in perfect proportion.

Whether or not EVO belongs on the pantheon of America’s thirty-five very best pizzas is debatable. It’s certainly among the five best pizzas I’ve ever experienced. So many great pizzas, so very little time…that’s the problem with trying to rank and rate the very best.

EVO
1075 E Montague Ave
North Charleston, South Carolina
(843) 225-1796
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pork Trifecta; Roasted Carrot, Ginger and Apple Soup; Assorted housemade pickles, bread, housemade pimento cheese

Evo Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Gullah Cuisine – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina (CLOSED)

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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
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

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