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

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

Poe’s Tavern – Sullivan Island, South Carolina

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Poe’s Tavern in Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina

Had Edgar Allan Poe, the legendary writer of tales of mystery and the macabre, been born in modern times, he would likely have been recruited by the notorious National Security Agency (NSA), not to spy on Americans, but to work in its cryptography department.  While Poe didn’t invent cryptography, he certainly popularized it in his short story The Gold Bug, the most popular and most widely read of Poe’s works during his lifetime.  In the story, he used a substitution cypher to reveal the location of treasure buried by the infamous pirate Captain Kidd, estimated by the narrator to be worth a million and a half dollars.

The setting of The Gold Bug is Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina where Poe had been stationed for thirteen months while serving in the Army.  Described as “a laid-back, sun-splashed playground for residents of the Lowcountry,” Sullivan’s Island had a significant impact on Poe’s life, providing the setting for at least three of his stories.  It’s only fitting therefor that Sullivan’s Island is home to a very popular eatery and imbibery named for the enigmatic writer.  

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One of the lively dining rooms at Poe’s Tavern

As you cross over the white picket fence onto the restaurant’s patio, look down and you’ll see an ornate gold bug inlaid onto the concrete preceding the steps into the restaurant.  Look to your left and you’ll espy a thin mesh resembling a spider’s web extending from the corner of the roof to the fence.  Everywhere you turn, you’re reminded that Poe’s Tavern was named for a one-time Sullivan’s Island resident.  Step into the tavern and the sullen, sunken eyes of the abstruse one gaze down upon you from dozens of caricatures and paintings.  In the restroom, walls are papered with Poe’s writings.

Perhaps indicative of my advancing geriatric progression (but more likely attributable to avaricious hunger after wandering around Fort Sumter), I didn’t immediately notice all the scantily clad feminine pulchritude on the premises.  Poe’s Tavern is a very popular hang-out for nubile young sun-worshippers and brutish troglodytes either ogling them lustily or attempting to win them over with such sophomoric displays of their “manhood”  as uttering obscenities and belching loudly.

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The grim, somber countenance of Edgar Allan Poe is everywhere

Youthful clientele aside, Poe’s Tavern is actually very highly regarded for its culinary fare.  In 2012, Southern Living magazine named Poe’s one of the best purveyors of great burgers in the Carolinas.  Not surprisingly, all burgers are named for the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.  You can, for example, order The Gold Bug, the Amontillado, the Pit & The Pendulum and the Tell Tale Heart.  All burgers are half-pound of certified Angus Chuck beef, ground in-house and cooked to order.  Best of all, they’re charbroiled which imparts a high quality flavor and texture.

Southern Living magazine recommended the Annabel Lee, a burger topped with a Charleston style crab cake and fresh vegetable Remoulade sauce.  This is a very audacious burger in that it forces two dissimilar elements–beef and crab–to coexist.  It’s been my experience that such forced relationships don’t often work well.  Past experiences be damned!  This is an outstanding burger.  It’s skyscraper tall with both the beef patty and the crab cake both being thick and tall.  You’ll either have to mash down on it or unhinge your jaw in order to take a bite; don’t dare eat the crab cake separately!  Both the beef and the crab cake are moist and delicious, as delicious a surf-and-turf combination as you’ll find anywhere.  Forget mustard, ketchup and mayo.  The vegetable Remoulade sauce is all you need.

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The Annabel Lee (Charleston style crab cake on top with fresh vegetable remoulade sauce) and marinated bacon-bleu cheese coleslaw

All burgers and sandwiches are served with your choice of hand-cut French fries, potato salad or marinated bacon-bleu cheese coleslaw.  Opt for the latter because everything goes better with bacon or bleu cheese.  Together they’re an unbeatable combination especially if salad cream is used only lightly. The coleslaw is fresh and crisp. 

May is National Hamburger Month.  To celebrate the momentous month in 2014, Business Weekly “conducted painstaking journalistic research to figure out the very best burger in every state, from mom-and-pop joints to celebrity-chef restaurants and everything in between.  The Palmetto State’s very best burger was the aforementioned Annabel Lee.  No surprise there.

Edgar Allan Poe’s favorite food was reputed to be lasagna, but had he tried the burgers at the tavern named for him, it’s likely the Annabel Lee would surpass lasagna in his estimation.  It’s a memorable burger!

Poe’s Tavern
2210 Middle Street
Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina
(843) 883.0083
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Annabel Lee with Marinated Bacon-Bleu Cheese Coleslaw

Poe's Tavern on Urbanspoon

Hominy Grill – Charleston, South Carolina

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The world-famous Hominy Grill

In May, 2011, Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine invited some of the most prolific culinary bloggers across the country (including yours truly) to a culinary “throw-down” of sorts. We were asked to provide a fun and humorous argument as to why our particular regional cuisine reigns supreme. Why, for example, is New Mexican food better than Cajun food in the Louisiana Bayou, barbecue in Texas or Pittsburgh’s old world cuisine? We were asked to put on our best used car salesperson hat and sell our region hard. 

It certainly wasn’t difficult to sell the incomparable cuisine of my beloved Land of Enchantment.  In fact–and this won’t surprise any of my readers–the biggest challenge was the magazine’s imposed limit of 500 words.  For me that’s sometimes just an intro.  At the risk of immodesty, my feature on New Mexico’s “chile country” provided the most persuasive arguments  though that may not have been the case had a blogger representing Lowcountry cuisine been invited to the throw-down. 

Two minutes after this picture was taken, every seat in this dining room was occupied

Two minutes after this picture was taken, every seat in this dining room was occupied

Far be it for me to back down from a challenge so just what is it about Lowcountry cuisine that leads me to believe it might have an advantage–maybe even several advantages–over New Mexican cuisine.  For one, no other cuisine has the depth and breadth of influences found in Lowcountry cuisine.  While New Mexican cuisine is the synthesis of Spanish and Native American culinary traditions, Lowcountry cooking combines strong African (slaves and their descendents) and Caribbean influences. Lowcountry cuisine is rich in seafood diversity–crabs, shrimp, fish, and oysters–and of course, barbecue. 

From its onset, Lowcountry cooking has practiced farm-to-table principles, relying  on fresh, high-quality, local ingredients: seafood caught in briny waters, livestock raised in its verdant pastures and produce grown in the area’s distinctively fecund soil.  For generations of cooks and chefs in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, farm-to-table isn’t just a slogan or aspirational movement, it’s how cooking has always been done.   Moreover, Lowcountry cooking is done by hand with a meticulous attention to detail. New Mexican cuisine, we must admit, was once rooted in true farm-to-table traditions, but has moved away from them over the years.

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Steaming cup of coffee and cup of she crab soup

From 2009 through 2010, Lowcountry chefs in Charleston garnered the James Beard “Best Chef of the Southeast” award for three consecutive years, a feat only one other culinary region (New York) has accomplished.  Among restaurants featuring New Mexican cuisine, only Mary & Tito’s Cafe and The Shed have earned James Beard awards, both selected for the “Americas Classic Award” which honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.”  No chef plying his or her art exclusively with New Mexican cuisine has ever won.

Robert Stehling, owner-chef of the Hominy Grill was the first of the three contemporary high priests of Lowcountry cuisine to earn the James Beard award.  Remarkably, he did so by serving classic Lowcountry cooking–including breakfast–in a very modest restaurant setting.  There is nothing pretentious, avant-garde, or high-end in Chef Stehling’s approach.  If anything, his approach to Lowcountry cuisine is very down-to-earth, simple and straight-forward.  His exceptionalism is in just slightly upscaling the way Lowcountry moms and chefs have cooked for generations.

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Charleston Nasty Biscuit with fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese & sausage gravy

Far from being housed in a stately Southern manor, the Hominy Grill is located in a circa 1800s edifice that formerly operated as a barbershop.  It’s reputedly one of the toughest tables in town to snag and not just because of the James Beard notoriety.  The Hominy Grill has been featured on a Food Network special hosted by Alton Brown honoring “America’s ten best regional classics.”  Rachael Ray came calling for her $40 A Day series.  So did Adam Richman for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man Vs. Food program.  Anthony Bourdain stopped by when taping No Reservations for the Travel Channel.  You get the point.  Celebrity anointed restaurants tend to attract teeming and hungry masses.

Arriving half an hour early on a calm Sunday morning made me first in line on a queue that would eventually stretch along the sidewalk.  Despite two dining rooms and a patio for delightful al fresco dining, the Hominy Grill isn’t especially commodious, but it is extremely well-staffed and efficient.  Orders are taken and delivered quickly.  You won’t even finish your first mug of coffee before your food starts to arrive.  The coffee, a special Hominy Grill blend, is amazing–so much so that I’m borrowing from Coffee Review: “Remarkable aromatic balance and big, suavely sweet acidity make this a remarkable blend despite its relatively light body and short finish. Dark chocolate, aromatic wood, tart, cherryish fruit carry from aroma through cup with poised authority.”  It’s truly one of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever enjoyed.

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Chocolate Pudding

The Hominy Grill blend coffee is served steaming hot unlike the tepid blends New Mexican restaurants tend to serve.  It’s a perfect accompaniment to a steaming bowl of she crab soup.  Yes, she crab soup.  Since you might be curious as to how one can tell “he” from “she” crabs, the telltale sign is the eggs from the female crab which give it a unique flavor.  Considered one of Charleston’s signature dishes, she crab soup is a wonderfully light yet creamy elixir flavored with sherry complemented by chives and brimming with crab.  When my Kim accuses me of being crabby, I’ll forever think of this magnificent soup.

One of the Hominy Grill’s most famous dishes goes by the head-scratching name “Charleston Nasty,” a misnomer if there ever was one.  This sinfully rich, traditionally made and absolutely delicious entree should be called “The Charleston Awesome.”  The Charleston Nasty showcases the seasoned pork sausage Chef Stehling makes from scratch every morning.  The sausage is crumbled onto a pan then sauteed with onion and bell pepper.  A little flour and chicken stock finished with a smidgeon of heavy cream and you’ve got the gravy which is slathered on a mile-high biscuit bisected by a Southern-fried (in a skillet) chicken breast topped with shredded Cheddar cheese.  This is a breakfast sandwich for the ages!

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Sunflower Toast and Raspberry Jam

Invariably, on the rare occasions in which we visit Chinese restaurant buffets, my very favorite item is the  chocolate pudding.  That’s an indictment on how bad Chinese buffets tend to be because the chocolate pudding (forgive me Bill Cosby) is extremely pedestrian.  When Food Network glitterati Alton Brown mentioned on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” that his favorite chocolate dessert was the chocolate pudding at the Hominy Grill, I knew this was not the chocolate pudding of Chinese buffets.  Brown called it “the cashmere of chocolate pudding,” as apt a description if there ever was one.  Made with Callebaut dark chocolate and vanilla bean-soaked Bourbon then topped with homemade whipped cream, it’s a very adult chocolate pudding.  It’s dense with an intensely dark chocolate addictive flavor.  Chinese buffet chocolate pudding just won’t do any more. 

Seeing raspberry jam within easy reach among the condiments at my table meant toast was a must-have.  The challenge was in selecting the bread canvas for the raspberry jam: white, wheat, rye or sunflower.  Sunflower, not often found in the Land of Enchantment, was a no-brainer.  It was also a great choice, a terrific landing place for the homemade raspberry jam.  The jam was very much reminiscent of Heidi’s, a New Mexico institution.  That means it was great!

Admittedly, Lowcountry cuisine has a lot going for it with exemplary restaurants such as the Hominy Grill garnering legions of fans. It would have been easy to make a case for Lowcountry cuisine reigning supreme among all regional cuisines, but my heart and appetite will forever remain loyal to the incomparable cuisine of the Land of Enchantment.

Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Avenue
Charleston, South Carolina
(843) 937.0930
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: She Crab Soup, Charleston Nasty Biscuit, Chocolate Pudding, Sunflower Seed Toast and Raspberry Jam

Hominy Grill on Urbanspoon

Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

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Melvin’s Legendary B-B-Q in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

In a 2007 pageant, Miss South Carolina Teen became a YouTube sensation after butchering the answer to a question about U.S. geography. Within three days, the video clip had attracted nearly 3.5 million views.  The befuddling question she was asked was “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the United States on a world map.  Why do you think this is?”  Her now famous response:  “I personally believe the U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh…people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and…I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., err, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our…”

When I told family and friends about my plans to vacation in Charleston, South Carolina, some of their responses may have validated Miss South Carolina’s contention that U.S. Americans don’t have maps…”Where’s South Carolina?”   “Why would you visit South Carolina?”   Other friends who know me very well and understand my single focused “live to eat” approach to life reasoned that Charleston must have some fabulous restaurants.  That’s an understatement!  From 2008 through 2010, Charleston chefs earned three consecutive James Beard awards, a feat heretofore accomplished only by chefs at the Big Apple.   They earned the “Academy Award of food” equivalent by using high quality local ingredients as Charleston’s chefs have done long before “farm-to-table” became the de rigueur buzzword and modus operandi of restaurateurs everywhere.

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The main dining room at Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q

Charleston is not only the epicenter of a robust farm-to-fork Lowcountry cuisine movement, it is a preeminent practitioner of the pursuit of porcine perfection.  Rather than hold fast to sacrosanct traditions, Charleston is open-minded and tolerant of new-school variations (okay, so maybe it’s not that revolutionary to see pork chopped into chunks instead of delicate strands).   Despite that “progressive” attitude, one tradition not tampered with in Charleston is that pork reigns supreme throughout the Carolinas.  Locals will argue that “barbecue pork” is redundant because barbecue is pork!  Sure, barbecue restaurants may include chicken, smoked turkey and even brisket on their menus, but pork is king in all its forms: pulled, chopped, sliced, shredded, ham, whole hog, half-rack and full-rack.

One of the Charleston area’s most venerated barbecue restaurants is Melvin’s Legendary B-B-Q whose legacy and traditions have been rooted in Charleston’s barbecue scene since 1939.  In some respects, you may feel you’ve warped back in time when you step through the doors.  Melvin’s is not exactly what you’d term as nouveau, not that it matters once you bite into those pork ribs.  A line-up of bottled soft drinks holds court on the counter where you place your order.  Radar O’Reilly would be happy to see Nehi sodas are available.  So is the best cherry milkshake you’ll find anywhere.  If you’re so inclined, you can also find out from posted flyers on the wall when the next patriotic meeting will be held.

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How long has it been since you’ve seen some of these sodas?

Melvin’s menu is a pantheon of pork, but it also offers chicken, brisket, turkey and a phalanx of burgers the envy of burger purveyors everywhere.  In 1999, none other than Emeril Lagasse called Melvin’s cheeseburger “America’s best.”  Similar sentiments were also expressed by Jimmy Buffett, himself a renowned connoisseur of burgers.  It may take a clothespin clamped around your nose to order a burger because the pervasive bouquet of hickory smoked meats will envelop you the second you walk in.  Those beguiling aromas are a siren’s call for barbecue aficionados.  For me, the Carolina style dry ribs beckoned most enticingly.  Dry means the ribs are slathered with a rub of sundry spices.  It’s really the choice which makes most sense because on every table, you’ll find two sauces.   That means you can have ribs three ways–with a dry rub and with each of the two sauces.

Since it’s been established that pork reigns supreme in the Carolinas, the most contentious debate in the Carolinas is to sauce or not to sauce.  The answer, of course, is sometimes you feel like sauce and sometimes you don’t.  At Melvin’s, you can have it your way every visit (forgive me for the three cheesy cliches in a row).  The Carolina style ribs are terrific every way you have them.  The mustard barbecue sauce (called “Our Golden Secret”) is considered the gold standard among South Carolina’s mustard-based sauces.  It’s an amazing sauce with tart, savory and just slightly piquant (cayenne?) notes.  The “Southern Red” sauce, based on apple cider vinegar, also has tart, savory and piquant notes, but differs greatly from the Golden Secret.  Both are exceptional as is the dry rub.

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Half rack of ribs with two sides: macaroni and cheese and onion rings with cornbread. Two sauces seen in background

There are seven ribs on a half rack, each one very meaty and larger than most pork ribs.  They’re not the “fall off the bone” variety, but they’re also not beef jerky-like in texture.  A rib plate comes with cornbread and your choice of two sides.  One of the most popular sides are the golden onion rings, available in quantities of one or two.  Though those quantities may seem small, each onion ring is roughly the size of a donut with a thick coated batter some may find off-putting.  The macaroni and cheese is a bit on the dry side, but it’s much better than the “Kraft dinner” to which American children are subjected.

As you wait for your number to be called, you’ll want to peruse the condiment bar not only to provision yourself with plastic cutlery and napkins, but to stock up on peppers, relishes and pickles.  They may not last until your order is ready for pick up.  Each table includes a roll of paper towels and you’re going to need several of them. 

The Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge

The Arthur Ravenal Jr. Bridge

Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q may not be the first restaurant a visitor to Charleston will visit if the purpose of the visit is to explore the city’s culinary heritage, but you can’t have a total picture of an exceptional culinary city without sampling Carolina style barbecue.  Besides that, the drive across the Arthur Ravenal, Jr. Bridge from Charleston to Mount Pleasant is spectacular.  So is the barbecue at Melvin’s.

Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q
925 Houston Northcutt Blvd.
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
(843) 881-0549
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Half Rack of Ribs, Onion Rings, Cornbread, Cherry Milkshake

Melvin's Southern Barbecue on Urbanspoon