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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.

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