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, entrĂ©e, 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.