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 d├ęcor 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.

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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.   

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