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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
207 Rutledge Avenue
Charleston, South Carolina
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: She Crab Soup, Charleston Nasty Biscuit, Chocolate Pudding, Sunflower Seed Toast and Raspberry Jam