Monday, December 22, 2014

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner - Wayside Takeout

The idea was to impress the girl.  Not just any girl, mind you, but the girl to whom I had, this last summer, professed my truest love.  Because this girl (whom we’ll yet call X) was traveling from Chicago see me and discover all that is great and good about my hometown-for-now of Washington, D.C.  This trip would effectively be her first visit to D.C. in over twenty years, and it was up to me to present D.C. at its capitol best—its coolest museums, its finest restaurants, its hippest watering holes.  All in the span of a way-too-brief forty-eight hours.

What to do.

Planning X’s first twenty-four hours in D.C. was a no-brainer:  there would be a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, followed by Chef-pal Hamilton Johnson’s five-course tasting menu at Vidalia, followed by cocktails composed by master-mixologist and friend, Jeff Faile, at Partisan, in Washington’s newly reminted Penn Quarter.  The day would be perfect.  Pure magic.  One for the ages.  This much I knew.  But how could I possibly improve on this?  How could I best such fun? 

I had my doubts.  I had a beer.

Then I had my answer.

We would avoid D.C. altogether. 
Instead, I would offer X Virginia in its purest form, the Virginia we, here, dream about:  a rolling October’s drive through horse country.  Autumnal foliage.  Golden, sun-dappled light.  Wood smoke in the air.  I would offer a glorious, two-hour drive down to Monticello to there mutually delight in Mister Jefferson’s hilltop home, and all the views of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia those splendid gardens and grounds would surely afford.

So we went.  To Monticello.

To here and now undertake any discussion on the confoundingly contradictory nature of Thomas Jefferson (as we know it) is a fool’s errand in the extreme, with the subject being too highly nuanced to be sufficiently redressed in this silly little blog about food (buy me a beer, however, and I’ll speak ad infinitum on the syntactical shell game the estate’s docents deploy when describing Jefferson’s relationship with slave and lover, Sally Hemmings).  Suffice it to say that X and I had a perfectly delightful time marveling at the apotheosis of Virginia’s greatest mind.  The Colonial-era technological marvels atop Jefferson’s desk.  His books.  His gardens.  The dumb waiter he built specifically for wine.  Pure genius.  All of it.  But these delights were expected.  It was Thomas Jefferson, after all.  What X and I found so extraordinary was what happened just after we left Monticello. 

Because lunch happened.  That’s what.  And not just anywhere, boy-o, but at Charlottesville’s truly remarkable Wayside Takeout.

Wayside Takeout is an aberration in the current zeitgeist of culinary branding, which demands every purveyor of truly authentic regional cuisine—be it a long-cherished, deeply-enshrined area institution, or a tarpaper shack on the side of the road—incessantly remind its eaters of just how truly authentic its food really is, until the meaning of “authenticity” becomes lost in that linguistic funhouse of Derridaian post-structuralism found in food media and Yelp reviews.  Wayside is different.  It’s refreshingly—almost shockingly—old school.  Because Wayside’s décor maintains a classic, dino-era theme that has nothing to do with food.  Walk into Wayside, and you’ll see counter staff and cooks alike festooned in t-shirts of Cavalier orange.  Gaze upon its walls and you’ll see it papered with every manner of school banner, team calendar, and greater campus announcement, as if Wayside had been commandeered and annexed as outpost of the University of Virginia’s Student Union.  It’s not until you notice what’s offered on its letter-board menu behind the counter that there is any indication of Wayside’s deeply serious culinary intent.  Fried chicken.  Fried clams.  Fried livers.  Sides galore.  This profusion of Tidewater classics will be a familiar gastronomic litany to anyone who has visited Virginia, to be sure, but what’s not mentioned on the menu, and what X and I discovered upon ordering our own shared five-piece box, is that everything at Wayside is fried-to-order.  Fried.  To.  Order.  No pre-cooked yardbird.  No heat lamps where flavor crawls up to die.  Not here.  Here, you order.  They cook.  In that order.  And when you are served, moments later, your chicken arrives perfectly moist, perfectly crispy, and most importantly, having magically attained, for this eater at least, that death-row-last-meal state of absolute culinary perfection.

X and I sat in a booth with our chicken, our Cheerwine, our hushpuppies, our two sides of greens and slaw, and there we quietly devoured our food in the kind of happy and stunned silence that attends all truly great meals, where no one is compelled to speak because there simply are no words, and where only a quick smile is required to convey one’s own deeply satisfied culinary bliss. 

The importance of fried chicken to American gastronomy, in general, and to African-American foodways, in particular, can hardly be overstated.  Frying was used as the primary method of preserving chicken by generations of African-Americans, particularly those traveling across the segregated American South.  Fried chicken eaten cold—as it would have been eaten by entire populations of hungry travelers denied access by Jim Crow to white-owned restaurants—is the best and truest measure of its greatness, I believe.  So X and I ordered an extra piece of chicken to take with us on the road, and headed back home.  Hours later, just before midnight, and after the chicken had endured miles of travel and a stint in my fridge, we shared that piece, in the space on the bed between us, still in its paper box.

And it was freaking great.

That the good people of Wayside Takeout fry and serve chicken with all the quiet and masterful reverence the dish deserves speaks admirably of them.  That they fry chicken so well and with absolutely none of the pretense that usually accompanies such culinary greatness, is nothing short of miraculous. 

Go there.  Order the five-piece box.  Order some Cheerwine.  And share it with the person you love.  She just might be impressed.  Maybe.

 Your links:  Wayside Takeout:


Post Script:  For the record, our meal at Vidalia was a minor masterpiece of gastronomy, and our         cocktails at Partisan were pure genius.  Hamilton Johnson and Jeff Faile are incredibly gifted at what they do, and I am honored to bathe in their light.  -C         

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Barbecue at Night - Petersburg & Saucy's

Pity the Old Dominion.  In the world of food, Virginia is, and remains, that middle child of culinary accomplishments, that long-suffering Jan Brady of gastronomic provinces that necessarily (if haplessly) occupies that contiguous and fixed line of demarcation between itself and the far, far more celebrated gastronomic triumphs of North Carolina.  Because North Carolina boasts two of the most lauded of American culinary achievements—its eastern-style, whole-hog, vinegary barbecue goodness, and its (almost) equally great Lexington (aka Piedmont) shoulder-only, catsup-in-the-mix style found in its central and western counties—Virginia, poor, poor, Virginia, is remanded to the loneliest of familial exiles of watching its closest, Southern sibling garner the kind of acclaim that have made its own attempts at barbecue greatness seem knock-kneed, ham-fisted, and altogether foolish for the trying.  So great is the disparity between these two respective reputations—Carolina and Virginia—that Virginia might easily be forgiven if it suddenly and collectively abandoned the business of barbecue altogether and endeavored to refashion its own culinary identity through the appropriation of some entirely alien food form like, say, fish tacos or deep fried Mars bars; anything to remove, even conquer, the ever-persistent Marsha, Marsha, Marsha aspect of its relationship with the supremely superior-in-every-way barbecue of North Carolina.

And yet, in its never-ending, and seemingly Promethean quest for parity in barbecue achievement with North Carolina, some of Virginia’s finest culinarians doggedly persist.  Some who fight the good fight.  Some like the good folks of Saucy’s Walk-Up BBQ in Petersburg, Virginia.   

For Saucy’s and me, this was purely a chance encounter.  For on a very recent return from North Carolina barbecue country (a trip of mine which featured beautifully triumphant visits to the highly celebrated—and deservedly so—Parker’s Barbecue and Bob Ellis’ Barbecue, both of Wilson, North Carolina) I stopped for gas in Petersburg, thirty miles south of Richmond, and there, amid the gas fumes of the Shell station, and badly flickering florescent lighting, just happened to catch the slightest whiff of wood smoke and melting pork fat on the wind, that olfactory signature of my own culinary nirvana.  So around Petersburg I drove, windows down, face out the window, pursuing the smell of dripping pig through its Southern streets like a madman, wet with fop sweat, jonesing for his culinary fix.

Located in what the parlance of our times calls a “transitional” and “mixed use” neighborhood of actual working industrial warehouses and now-former industrial warehouses-turned-yuppie-filing-cabinets, Saucy’s is itself a post-industrial architectural marvel of erstwhile-shipping-container-turned-restaurant, and it was lit, the night of my visit, like some beacon of culinary hope against a darkness purely post-apocalyptic in its depth, and almost Jarmusch-like in its lunar, last-man-left-on-the-moon sense of desolation.  Barbecue being the most collaborative and convivial of American cuisines, it was strange to arrive in Saucy’s gravel lot, plunged into darkness, and so very and palpably alone.  But on exiting my pickup (because that’s how we roll these days, yo), I discovered a smoker, two of them, in fact, loaded with pork shoulder and brisket, and nearby, piled against the back wall of the restaurant, stacks of hickory and oak.  Better still was the greeting I received from the lone Saucy’s employee:  spritely, verging on the ebullient, like some last survivor of the End of Days, blissfully unaware the world around her has forever turned to ash.  I nodded hello and smiled back. 

Saucy’s succeeds by offering only what it does well:  pulled pork, brisket, chicken, ribs.  These are your only options for protein.  Sides are equally (re: wisely) utilitarian in scope:  potato salad, cole slaw, and a sweet, three bean salad.  Because the barbecue purist knows better than to require anything more than the possible addition of greens.  My own order was unimaginative in the extreme.  But that was the point:  it would, I knew, reveal Saucy’s ability—be it nascent or inept—to rival the efforts of their culinary brethren in that ever-so-close, and yet oh-so-far-away Carolinian south.

I ordered what is inarguably gold standard of the mid-Atlantic barbecue world:  a pulled pork sandwich, topped with slaw.  It arrived straight-backed and immaculate as a preacher on Sunday, and as the pure, Aristotelian form of what every barbecue sandwich, everywhere, should aspire to be.  But what the sandwich delivered, flavor-wise, was purely Virginian in all aspects.  It borrowed little from Carolina, east or west, nor from Texas, nor from Kansas City or Memphis in any of its approach.  The pork was singularly Old Dominion through and through: a slightly tangy tomato sauce, perfectly complimented by the considerable smoke of the meat, which, in turn, was expertly offset by the pleasing acidity of the cole slaw.  A magnificent little sandwich.  For Virginia.  For Carolina.  For anywhere.  Truly good barbecue.  But here, in this post-apocalyptic industrial darkness of the Petersburgian night, a sandwich of this savor seemed almost miraculous.  The pork was good, deeply and deliciously good, and I left Saucy’s, and its city of Petersburg, truly convinced that Virginia does have a dog in this barbecue fight.

To think this contest over barbecue supremacy just might be far from decided is a novel idea to any barbecue enthusiast who has believed the results have long been determined.  But maybe not.  Maybe Virginia has something to say, something of importance, after all.  And if the cuisine coming from Saucy’s is any indication, Virginia cooks just might be at the vanguard of this push from the north.  Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.  And Carolina, you’ve been served.   

Your link:

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chicago - The Two-Lunch Layover

Let’s imagine you’re traveling through Chicago, and let’s imagine you’ve become stuck.  Be it by the caprice of some always-sudden and unfailingly massive Midwestern thunderstorm, or the inevitable voyager’s travail of traveling through the world’s seventh busiest airport only to find that air traffic is tangled—yet again—with all the algebraic complexity of a Gordian knot, there you are, in some soul-crushing O’Hare International lounge area, seated directly under a television monitor, loud with that now-ubiquitous-in-airports CNN broadcast, and adjacent to that inexorable won’t-stop-crying newborn, with five hours of daylight to burn before the next available flight is able to carry you back home.

Were you elsewhere—Denver, Detroit, Dallas even—I’d declare your situation beyond remedy, without hope, and direct you to the nearest airport bar, where you might repair to a booth of worn Naugahyde, ply your doom with few warm, flat, and way overpriced pints of Sam Adams Light, and wallow in that unmistakably existential let’s-open-a-vein variety of despair endemic of any particularly suck-ass American airport.

But you’re not in Denver.  You’re not in Detroit.  You’re in Chicago, boy-o, a veritable wonderland of American gastronomy, where culinary greatness abounds in virtually every neighborhood the city over, and where a traveler exactly like you might hop on the El train, head downtown on the Blue Line, and eat two remarkably delicious meals in the span of a few hours.

Now let’s imagine this traveler is me.

Now let’s imagine this is exactly what I did.

Kinda sorta.

Lunch One – Publican Quality Meats – West Loop

Anyone remotely familiar with Chicago’s dazzling food scene will undoubtedly be familiar with the culinary wizardry of Paul Kahan.  Blackbird, Big Star, avec, and his latest brainchild, Nico Osteria, Kahan has long been at the vanguard of Chicago’s perennially white-hot food movement.  My last trip to Chicago (an impossible-to-believe and way-too-long-ago three years) featured a glorious, deeply memorable meal (the food being as remarkable as the beauty of the woman with whom I shared that table) at Kahan’s fabulous Publican.  So when that same long-time Chicago resident and all-time-favorite dining companion, with whom I dined that night at Publican, and whom I’ll now identify only as X (cuz I’m still mad-crazy-crushing on her, yo) suggested we return to Publican’s lunchier, and far more casual, charcuterie-obsessed sister restaurant, Publican Quality Meats (and just across the street from its flagship), I tossed an imaginary Lipitor and made haste, as they say, for a spike-a-vein kind of rendezvous with the really, really good stuff.  [Reader’s note:  that I was convinced, and bodily, that PQM would be good before I’d eaten there should be indicative of Kahan’s own greatness.  Not to mention I’ve worked with the guy at an annual charity event here in D.C., so I’ve seen him work.  And let me tell you friend-o, his slow-burn thing is something to behold].

And like its sister-restaurant, Publican Quality Meats seats guests at communal tables, picnic style, and elbow-to-elbow with their fellow meat-loving brethren, be they millennials, or nose-to-their-iPhone’s business professionals out for a midday meal.  X and I were seated in the extreme rear of the restaurant and greeted by floor staff with the kind of warmth and hospitality that can’t be faked, ever.  We took menus and decided to spelunk straight down into PQM’s carnivorous little heart:  we ordered their much-lauded Butcher’s Cold Charcuterie Plate.  What we received was a dazzling representation of everything glorious and good in Kahan’s work as chef and proselytizing Pied Piper of how to best eat the nasty bits:  venison salami, whipped chicken liver pate, lamb neck terrine, head cheese pate en croute—a proverbial mix-tape of charcuterie’s greatest hits and all-time classics, each as robust and original as the next. 

Following the charcuterie plate came a sandwich:  Bildt’s Beef, an open-faced and pleasantly imposing edifice of slagel roast beef, farmer’s cheese, and marinated tomatoes on volkornbrot that X and I paired with a side of marinated kale, the sum of which left us deeply sated with that kind of culinary afterglow that charcuterie lovers and offal enthusiasts will well recognize when optimal levels of organ meats and entrails have been calibrated and consumed.  It’s why we eat the stuff.  For that feeling.

That Paul Kahan decided to leave an early career in computer science and, instead, become a chef, suggests, even to this culinary heathen, that the gods of gastronomy will long be smiling on Chicago.  To have a chef like Kahan, so meticulous with his sourcing, so careful in his craft, whose restaurants are breathtakingly consistent in their achievement, and so effortlessly hip, leaves visiting eaters like me with bones of envy lodged in our throats.  Kahan is a treasure, Chicago; take good care of him.

Intermezzo – Nick’s Beer Garden – Wicker Park

The digestif.  That time-honored tradition developed long ago by the French, now sacrosanct ritual of industry careerists, food obsessives, and binge eaters alike, who invoke its charms to best regain metabolic equilibrium—with alcohol—and move one step closer to culinary nirvana.  For my digestif, I returned to Wicker Park, to Nick’s Beer Garden, a place I had frequented twenty years ago, when I lived in Chicago, and would hang out with fellow rockabilly musicians from Hi Fi and the Roadburners and Three Blue Teardrops in their filthy, rat-infested, abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here rehearsal space in the dungeon-like basement of the Flat Iron Building.  But those twenty years have changed Wicker Park in ways that on my most recent visit, made me want to throw up in my mouth.  Gone were the hookers.  The crack heads.  The gang members throwing signs.  Everything that made the neighborhood thrilling was gone.  In its place:  Starbucks, Lulu Lemon, Belly Dance Maternity, and sundry other harbingers of the fast-approaching zombie apocalypse of bo-bo economics.
Lucky for me, one place from the bad old days yet remains:  Nick’s Beer Garden.  When it opened in 1994, Nick’s was, for us broke-ass rockabilly musicians, a friendly (if non-descript) place to down a quick shot of rail whiskey, warm our bones, before moving on to Wicker Park’s occasionally-excellent Double Door, still very much extant, and back then, more our speed with musical lineups featuring bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers, or local greats, the Riptones.
But seeing that Nick’s Beer Garden has managed—for now—to beat back the quickly-rising tide of douchbaggery that’s consumed Wicker Park compelled me to visit.  I sat on a stool, alone (X had something to attend to at her place of business), and ordered the special:  a PBR and shot of rail whiskey.  Total cost:  $5.

If there’s a more two-fisted drinking town in America than Chicago, I’ve yet to encounter it.  I’ve thrown down any number of times in New Orleans and San Francisco, and while my fellow inebriants there might get all the ink and attention on their drinking habits, Chicago, Chicago, dude, with its nearly around-the-clock bar scene and ability for local motorists to purchase, say, liters of Jim Beam while gassing up at the BP, is the tipsiest of these megalopoli.  These Chi-Town tipplers mean business.  They do it hard. 

Of my can of PBR and a shot of blindness-is-a-possibility whiskey, there’s sadly little to report that hasn’t been written before on the subject of drinking in low places.  Suffice it to say that in a life graced with far, far more than my fair share of Willett and Pappy Van, it’s always nice to come home to one’s own humble beginnings and revel in that from whence one first came.  The burn-inducing hooch performed exactly as intended.  It cleared my head, piqued my appetite, and readied me for more. 

Lunch Two – Freddy’s Pizza & Grocery – Cicero

This was X’s idea.   This place.  Beyond glorious.  Beyond good.  Freddy’s Pizza & Grocery:  the apotheosis of neighborhood eating in Chicago and precisely the kind of establishment whose very existence locals will covet and protect with awe-inspiring ferocity lest that variety of must-photograph-my-food-before-I-eat-it eater ever descend, plague-like, with their white belts, their ironic beards, their snarky Yelp posts poised like knives at the ready. 

Because Freddy’s is most emphatically not that kind of place.  It is the kind of place, rather, that begs deployment of that most dangerous word in all of food writing:  authentic.  Italian-American authentic.  Chicago authentic.  Whatever authentic.  It’s insistently and demonstrably the real deal.  Totally legit.  The good folks at Freddy’s are not fucking around, friend-o.  They are not playing “restaurant.”  What they are doing is delivering dino-era, Italian-American classics that are almost without peer in their ability to deliver the kind food seen in the films of Martin Scorsese (think Paul Sorvino cutting garlic with a razor blade in prison; think a bugging-out Ray Liota chopping basil with coke powdering his nose) and that leaves you wondering why you don’t eat red sauce and Italian bread more often.

Enter Freddy’s.  Stand in line.  And prepare.  Because when it’s your time to order, you best be ready to swing for the fence.  Because hesitation of any kind will out you, reveal you as the interloper you are.  Not to worry.  Do what I did.  Confess.  Ask for guidance.  They will take pity.  They will take you by the hand and lead you, Virgil like, through an astonishing variety of in-house, just-made masterpieces in the Goodfella’s-esque gastronomic milieu. 

X and I ordered:  Ricotta-stuffed ravioli in red sauce; Italian sausage with red peppers and rosemary potatoes; an uber-Chicago-like take on cioppino (purists, though, best look away).  All of it dished onto paper plates by the Italian mother you always wanted and never had.  All of it carried outside to the patio and consumed al fresco with the kind of primal, moaning pleasures heard in such non-culinary, non-Scorsese classics as, say, Deepthroat and Behind the Green Door.  Such pleasures were these.  To undertake description of each individual dish would be foolhardy on my part, for the mysteries shrouding the all-too-rare successes of red-sauce gastronomy elude me, profoundly, and often exceed my capacity for culinary comprehension.  Just know that eating food this “local,” this good, with a woman as beautiful as X, and under a highly non-ironic portrait of Sylvester Stallone is, in fact, my idea of this side of heaven.

(Good call, X.  You rock.)

So.  Chicago.  Go there.  Get stuck there.  Eat there.  But you already knew to do this, didn’t you?


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Four Days In Charleston and the New Culinary South

My excuse was the marathon.  Twenty-six-point-two miles through one of the prettiest towns in the American South.  On the morning of my forty-fourth birthday, no less.  I boasted of it.  I told all of my friends.  I dropped the word like loose change on any who might listen.  Marathon.  Three little syllables that evoked cardiovascular health.  Clean living.  A conviction that within the great breast of the world there does not beat the heart of an assassin.  Marathon.  I wielded the word with the blunt-force prodigality of a Soviet propagandist.  Marathon.  Because my real mission was to pursue its opposite.  It’s anathema.  My true aim was gluttony.  Culinary debauchery.  The intemperance of a birthday boy so very deep in his cups.  Because this particular marathon was happening in one of the most interesting—and increasingly important—centers of American gastronomy.


I’ve long been aware (if only too dimly) that something of culinary significance was happening here.  One routinely hears “Husk” and “Fig” bandied around culinary Washington.  So, too, are names like “Sean Brock” and “McCrady’s” well-enough known inside the Beltway.  But there’s also a deep disconnect between the sleepy, Southern Washington of yore, and the city that now more closely resembles its frenetic neighbors to the north.  Culinary Washington is a place of extravagant gastronomic ambition.  Here, chefs use New York as their touchstone.  Or San Francisco.  Chicago, perhaps.  Rarely do District chefs look southward for inspiration.  Even more rarely does the mention of Charleston raise a foodie’s gastronomic mainsail to attention like Momofuku, Alinea, or Per Se might make him pop that proverbial foodie boner.

So it wasn’t until a client’s wedding at Middleton Plantation brought me to Charleston last June, that I divined something deeply important to American cooking was afoot in “Chucktown.”  This I first discovered—quite by accident—in a restaurant named The Macintosh.  Nothing more extraordinary than the desire for a cold, third-shift beer brought a few of my coworkers and me there.  The choice of restaurants was randomly made.  The Macintosh had a bar, we saw.  And food (if a palpable vibe of too-swank-for-industry-types-by-half).  But we were wrung out from our day under the South Carolina sun.  Sweat-soaked to our underwear and desperately in need of beer.  So in we went.  Air conditioning and beautiful people in candlelight as far as the eye could see.  The good folks of The Macintosh showed us to the bar.  They gave us menus.  They brought drinks.  They were extremely nice.  Bar food du jour like burgers and wings were what we had expected, but we were quickly—and all-too-happily—disabused of the notion that anything they offered would resemble the quotidian.  The Macintosh offered—then, as now—a menu both ruthlessly forward-looking, while still evoking all the comforts of the Southern home kitchen.  We fist-bumped to our good fortune, and very nearly ordered the entire menu.  Corned beef tongue.   Bone marrow bread pudding.  Sweatbreads.  Fried pork brik dough.  Grilled deckle.  Rudderfish.  Hot and sour pork belly soup.  Pecornino truffle frites.  Whipped foie gras parfait topped with lardo.  It went on and on and on.  Dish after dish.  Almost three hours of eating.  What started as a quest for beer quickly turned into a meal of epic proportions.  Belts were loosened.  Neck ties undone.  And smiles all around from eaters scarcely able to comprehend the scale of their culinary good fortune.  Something was happening in culinary Charleston, we agreed, something of importance to American gastronomy, something big.

But what, exactly?

Only a return trip of culinary due diligence would provide answers, we knew.  Only an intensive schedule of heavy eating and drinking would reveal the Southern food wisdoms secreted in Charleston’s culinary heart.

So in January, back I went.  By myself.  Because I had my excuse.  I had the marathon. 

Day One - Lunch - Martha Lou’s Kitchen

To discover where a city is going is to first discover from whence it came.  And for culinary Charleston, that place is Martha Lou’s Kitchen.  Foundational.  Elemental.  Iconic.  For thirty years now, Martha Lou Gadsden has been nourishing Charleston—mind, body, and soul—with a culinary playlist of the South’s all-time greatest hits.  Not just soul food, mind you, but veritable gospels and anthems to a tradition of gastronomic greatness which none in the South ever tire of revisiting.  Fried pork chops.  Lima beans.  Cornbread.  Foods of the gods. 

My plane landed at lunchtime.

I drove with my foot on the gas like a man being chased by bees.

Martha Lou’s is, in the parlance of local Charlestonians, a sight.  Think roadhouse.  Think commercial kitchen little bigger than your own bedroom closet.  Think pink, and you’ll have the idea.  But like so many great things, Martha Lou’s is somehow infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.  Sit in the tiny dining room.  Feel the sticky remains of sweet tea across the plastic table covering.  Gaze at the totems to the civil rights era, on the walls, in curio shelves in the near corner.  MLK.  Obama.  Enjoy the unfailingly polite—if deeply curious—are-you-lost-son glances of working-class, middle-aged African-American men, and all memories of “post-racial” America will have left you.  For you, now, are most assuredly situated at the epicenter of the American South, my friend.  Martha Lou’s is all about black culture.  It’s about the celebration of a people—their folkways, their traditions—through a medium that ultimately transcends that which it sings.  Which is why I was made to feel perfectly at home by the lone cook the morning of my visit.  That same lone cook, who was also now doubling as the lone waiter.  And with a half-filled dining room to cook for and serve, a cook who was clearly in the weeds.  Deeply.  But she touched me every time she passed.  My arm.  My hand.  She called me “honey.”  She called me “boo.”  When it came time to order, I forgave her the wait for the way she smiled.  For the way she made me feel like the still point of her turning world.  I ordered.  Soon a Styrofoam plate was set before me.  It brimmed with Southern classics.  Fried chicken.  Green beans.  Collard greens.  Corn bread.  A death-row kind of meal.  The kind of meal one orders before being strapped into an electric chair by some prison warden to be shuffled off this mortal coil.  What made it so extraordinary was not the fried chicken.  It was the sides.  The sides.  To taste them was to win the inheritance of a lineage of black Southern cooks five, maybe ten, generations deep.  In a lifetime of eating beans and greens, I had never tasted anything quite like them.   I slurped.  I sucked.  I tried—and mightily—to tease out and isolate what was going on in my mouth.  Bacon?  Surely.  Cayenne?  Perhaps.  But there was something more at play.  Something at once simple, and extraordinarily complex.  String theory would have been more easily grasped.  Causation in determinism as it relations to the “prime mover.”  Cartesian dualism.  Conceptually, these famously big ideas paled in complexity when juxtaposed with what the fuck was going on inside the potlikker of Martha Lou’s greens.  I had to know.  So I raised my hand.  Impatiently.  Like a schoolboy who has to pee.  And when the cook came over to my table, I asked her.  I asked what, exactly, was the magical ingredient in her greens.  The look she gave me suggested I wasn’t the first to have so badly blundered.  The look wasn’t so much a smile.  It was forgiveness.  Benediction.  She closed her eyes.  Then she opened them, shook her head, and offered to freshen up my tea.

Dinner – Two Boroughs Larder

Carbo-loading is a time-honored tradition among long-distance runners.  The night before a race, we stuff mounds of enriched pasta and red sauce (dairy fat in cream-based sauces famously have runners freckling the walls of the race-course’s port-o-johns) into our gobholes on the theory that foods with low glycemic indices will have little effect—during the race—on our serum glucose levels.  More simply put, the complex sugars in pasta will burn cleanly and act as fuel.  But the idea of sitting down with other runners—usually at picnic tables in a civic area or high school gym—and laboring through a spaghetti dinner prepared by “race volunteers” has always given me pause.  So I bailed on the Charleston Marathon’s kind offer of Chef Boyardee.  Instead, I sought out—and found—the perfect spot to get my pasta on.

Two Boroughs Larder is the kind of place you wished existed in your very own neighborhood.  The kind of place that makes you want to be a restaurant regular.  The kind of place that is also aesthetically antipodal to Martha Lou’s.  Exposed brick walls.  Wood floors.  And the vibe:  utterly unpretentious.  Effortlessly hip. Emblematic of casual dining in the coastal New South.  But for all its easy elegance, entering Two Boroughs Larder is like putting on an old smoking jacket.  It’s like slipping into a warm bath.  It’s comfortable.  It feels right.  I arrived early and sat at the bar.  The menu glittered with gastronomically forward-thinking dishes of perfect proteins.  Black cod collar.  Tuna conserva.  Beef belly tartar.  All delicious-sounding, for sure.  But all of it sadly retrograde for my need for complex sugars.  My bartender understood my runner’s plight and began plying me with a can or three of carbo-dense One Claw Rye Pale Ale, brewed just across the river, in Mount Pleasant, by the good folks at Westbrook Brewing Company.  Soon after came my food.  Not just the food I wanted, but food I really and truly needed.  There was braised baby kale with pepperoncini and garlic.  There were roasted Brussels sprouts with soubise and salumi vanaigrette.  And for my obligatory spike-a-vein-and-give-me-pasta-before-the-marathon dish came their famous Bowl-O-Noodle—that decidedly Charlestonian riff on Taiwanese ramen:  pork confit, house noodles, soft egg, and kimchi, in broth.  Not just any broth, mind you.  Pork broth.  I bellied up to the bar and took a bite.  It was delicious.  But more importantly for the eaters of Charleston, I contend, was the fact that this bowl before me represented the pitch-perfect Southern appropriation of—and response to—the ever-increasing influence of Asian cooking on American gastronomy.  That Two Boroughs would pair house-made, Taiwanese-style noodles with a flavor profile as incontrovertibly Southern as pork broth suggested the apotheosis of fusion cooking in America, and that the American South—practiced for centuries in the assimilation and refinement of profoundly disparate culinary traditions—would be the place where this happened. 


In Charleston. 

Inside a bowl of noodles. 

Day Two – Breakfast

As far as food crimes go, this was my greatest transgression this trip:  a pre-race strawberry “waffle” of wheat flour and honey, carefully calibrated to tweak this runner’s blood sugar without unduly yoking me under, say, an ill-advised sausage patty, or cheesy eggs.  Because the marathoner who consorts with more-than-scant-amounts of fat and dairy before a race is the runner whom you’ll later encounter, on his hands and knees at mile 17, projectile vomiting across the race course, crying for his mama.  I’ve seen that before, and suffice it to say it made quite the impression.  So I forewent the temptations of “real” food until after the race.  Bananas.  Gatorade.  Bagels.  These are the foodstuffs typically (if indifferently) foisted on runners after we’ve crossed the finish line, and that’s precisely what I expected for breakfast upon finishing this marathon.  But not in Charleston.  Not in the American South.  Here, finishers were lavished with morning beer and helpings of shrimp and grits.  Fare proffered as true reward for a race well run.  Fare as proclamation, edict, and decree that in Charleston, what you eat matters.  Always.  Even after a silly footrace.

Dinner - Xiao Bao Biscuit

I slept through lunch.  I slept like the dead.  And when I woke, in the late afternoon, with the last of the day’s light paling across the winter sky, I was ravenous.  Starving.  Donner-Party hungry.  So I took off on foot, resolved to eat in the first place I encountered.  Lucky me.  That place happened to be the extraordinary Xiao Bao Biscuit, just two blocks from my hostel.  Housed in an erstwhile gas station, Xiao Bao Biscuit more fully explores (e.g.: confronts) the ideas of pan Asian influence on Charleston’s local cuisine first posited in my bowl of noodles the previous night.  Xiao Bao bills itself as “Asian soul” food.  It also bills a dish or two on its menu as “kick ass” spicy.  Xiao Bao is all that.  It’s also where flavor lives.  Thai dishes.  Chinese.  Vietnamese.  Each dish an umami bomb set for immediate detonation upon eating.  I sat at the bar, party of one, but flanked on either side by out-of-town runners still giddy with that much-coveted post-race endorphin high.  I ordered the Sichuan ribs.  I ordered Yu Xiang (fish-fragrant Brussels sprouts via done Sichuan style).  I ordered beer.  The woman seated left of me ordered Som Tam (green papaya salad) and Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake), while the group of ladies to my right ordered the lamb belly and Banh He (chive fritter crepe), and soon enough I found myself at the center of an impromptu family-style dining experience.  Plates were passed back and forth.  Forks traveled left and right.  My companions and I ate.  We wiped our brows.  We chugged our beers.  We smiled and laughed.  The food of Xiao Bao was extraordinary.  It was also remarkably intense.  Almost audacious in its dose of seasoning.  An implied “fuck you” to any diminution of authentic Pan Asian flavors, no matter how raucous they might play on the uninitiated palates of local Charlestonians, seemed to be the message encrypted in every bite.  And for all of the happy demands the food of Xiao Bao put on its eaters (the spice level did, I confess, prove too daunting for the woman to my left), nowhere was the implication that the food was trying to be anything it wasn’t.  Nowhere was the whiff of attempted “authenticity.”  Nowhere was there any insinuation that what I was eating was anything other than the product of a few, deeply talented white, Southern cooks riffing—wholly successfully—on an eclectic playlist of Asian B-sides they’d been lucky enough to stumble across in a friend’s garage.  One look at my newest dining companions, and I knew they were thinking the same thing:  that food this exciting, this good, could come from an erstwhile gas station was not insignificant for Southern eaters.

This meant something.

This was big.

Day Three – Brunch – The Taco Spot

There are a few tried-and-true ways runners recover from the rigors of a marathon.  Ibuprofen.  Water.  Ice packs.  Rest.  There is also one particular way a runner can further aggravate the injuries done to him in a 26.2-mile race:  drink a small bottle of Bulleit American Rye.  That’s what I did.  A half-pint of the stuff.  The inevitable hangover that followed was brain searing in its intensity.  Blinding.  Vice-like in its grip.  A self-induced skull buggery of epic proportions.  I’m a drinker, and yet, I had only myself to blame.  The antidote was food, I knew, whose calorically-dense grease content would be directly proportional to the rate of my recovery.  I needed protein.  I needed fat.  Guiding my late-breakfast quest as well was the knowledge that Charleston is full of institutions of higher learning.  Charleston Southern University.  Charleston School of Law.  College of Charleston.  Catering to that post-kegger, don’t-bogart-that-joint, I’m-so-stoned-I-drank-the-bong-water student population are any number of eateries, where the cuisine to the cognitively impaired is always on the menu.  So it was that I found the Taco Spot.  A tiny walkup/takeaway on Coming Street with room enough for hardly more than one ordering customer at a time, the Taco Spot walks that culinary tightrope of Anglo-owned/operated Mexican-style restaurants that try, with invariably mixed results, to be simultaneously progressive and traditional in their approach.  Here, “wraps” are offered.  Pomegranate Jerk Sauce is a component on their Caribbean pico.  Teriyaki appears.  Grilled pineapple basil relish is an option.  My own fish taco came with cilantro soy aioli; my chicken taco was dressed with cayenne ranch.  Hungover as I was, this bothered me, and out of all proportion.  But why?  Had not my most recent meals shown me that Charleston was relentlessly forward thinking in its appropriation of so-called “ethnic” cuisine?  Had I not come to understand that local chefs were happily playing heretic to the old-world orthodoxies of “authenticity?”  And were not the owner/operators of the Taco Spot demonstrating remarkable savvy in tailoring the flavor profiles of their menu to the I-might-be-twenty-but-I-know-more-about-food-than-you-do demographic of collegiate eater?  They were.  What bothered me about my experience at the Taco Spot was not the food, which, on balance, was perfectly fine.  It was something else.  It was how the food was made, and by whom.  For while all of my meals in Charleston had—up until now—been made by professionals demonstrably passionate about striving for culinary greatness, my sock-headed, half-bearded hipster cook (whose response to this appears in the comment section below) at the Taco Spot had assembled—and delivered—my tacos with palpable I’m-too-cool-for-school nonchalance.  He called me “dude.”  He called me “man.”  All in the same short sentence.  And this bothered me.  Because if thirteen years in the food industry has taught me anything, it’s that “cool” has no place in the kitchen.  It’s either go hard, or go home, boy-o.  Because “cool” shows up in cooking as indifference.   Because you can taste it, even in a taco.  And indifference never tastes good.  Ever.

Dinner – The Ordinary

I had no intention of eating here.  That the Ordinary bills itself as a “fancy” seafood and oyster hall initially put the kibosh on that.  “Fancy” being antithetical to my mission as an eater.  But a chance encounter with a fellow traveler changed my mind.  His name was Evan, and I met him in the communal kitchen of the youth hostel at which we were both staying.  He was at the sink, sharpening a CIA-issue chef’s knife on a wet stone with the kind of brooding, stoop-shouldered intensity one sees in ambitious young cooks.  I walked over and introduced myself.  We spoke.  He told me he was from Boston and had been staging in any Charleston kitchen that would have him.  His run of Charleston gastronomic institutions had been impressive:  Husk.  McCrady’s.  The Macintosh.  Evan had staged in them all.  Now, only The Ordinary remained.  And this made him nervous.  Very.  Because the euphemism used around town to describe the chef’s temperament was demanding.  And because the restaurant was new, and his every move would be scrutinized, even if he was working for free.  I told him not to worry.  I told him I had his back.  I told him I would be there to cheer him on.  So the following night, visit Evan at The Ordinary I did.  He was shucking oysters.  He saw me come in, and he smiled.  I waved and took a stool at the bar and did what was expected of me.  I ordered the ordinary:  a weekly, rotating list of daily specials.  With it being Sunday, I was given the fried fish:  a three-course prix fixe (salad, entrée, dessert) paired with a porter of the bartender’s choosing.   Everything I ate was delicious.  And it should have been.  Because it was expensive.  Thirty-five dollars for three plates of food.  Nine bucks for the beer.  Not killer price points in a town where eating can be an expensive proposition, but clearly out of reach of Charleston’s laboring classes.  But that shouldn’t matter, should it?  Pricing at The Ordinary is hardly the point.  The Ordinary is fancy.  It is swank.  It’s Charleston at its upscale best: an erstwhile old bank turned seafood emporium whose aesthetic marches in perfect lockstep with the simple sophistication of its food.  The Ordinary is elegance without the affectation.  It’s culinary refinement without any seemingly requisite foodie nerdism, and altogether a truly lovely place to dine.

Day Four – Lunch – Hominy Grill

I did this on purpose.  I saved Hominy Grill for my last meal in Charleston.  Why?  Because I knew with perfect certainty that my meal here would be among the best of the trip. 

And it was. 

But for none of the reasons I expected. 

Because Hominy Grill is deeply and self-consciously Southern, and their self-mandated mission as culinary curators of locally sacrosanct low-country classics, I anticipated the possibility of it being rife with what local Charlestonians would call cornpone (re: hokey), and what visiting urbanites might recognize as “preciousness” and deem “too-cute-by-half.”  What I found, however, was a cheerfully hospitable neighborhood eatery (clean and well-lit, as they say) whose purveyance of Southern gastronomy strikes, and perfectly, that ever elusive and all-too-rare balance of seeming casual about an otherwise deeply serious, even personal, quest to preserve and prorogate time-honored Southern foodways and culinary traditions.  To discover how well Hominy Grill has succeeded in this mission, I ordered what the Hominy Grill calls their “vegetable plate,” and what the rest of the world calls sides.  Side dishes.  Four of them.  Plus cornbread.  God forbid I should omit that.  Because the word side in Southern cooking is a misnomer, they are hardly that.  They are the very essence of the region’s cuisine and best represent, front and center, heart and soul, the Southern custom of the vegetable being at the center of any Southern plate, with proteins (mostly second-cuts and offal) being used primarily as flavoring agents, or relegated to serving only as a complimentary part of the meal.  The six-ounce chicken breast, the twelve-ounce ribeye:  these are the culinary aberrations wrought by the modern industrial farming complex and a conquering Northern sensibility.  Visit any Southern holiday gathering, any Southern church social, and you will undoubtedly encounter impromptu buffets loaded with a veritable cornucopia of sides rendered with all variety of technique, and in all manner of deliciousness.

So I ordered my four side dishes.   Lima beans.  Field peas.  Stewed okra and tomatoes.  Collard greens.

What to say of these?  I say this:  each side dish was a minor miracle in achieving the sublime.  Each perfectly represented that magic Southern alchemy of teasing culinary magnificence from what one might cultivate in a rural garden and coax out of the hard and unforgiving ground of those hardscrabble, alluvial, coastal flats.  This was food of the profoundly poor, refined by tradition and elevated--by time and technique--to true culinary heights; the perfect summation of all that is immemorially golden and good in Southern gastronomy.  All of that, right there on the table before me, generations of cooking tradition at the tip of my fork.

Not to mention Hominy Grill’s cornbread was among the best I have yet tasted.

So when I next start blathering on and on about training for the Charleston marathon, you’ll know it’s all subterfuge, an act of misdirection, bullshit in the extreme.  You’ll know I’m going to Charleston to eat, to drink, and to embrace all that is great and good in this jewel of the American South

See you at the finish.