Charleston, S.C., is a food lover’s paradise
Our waiter was staring at us in disbelief. Finally, he leaned forward and, ever so politely, asked my husband to repeat himself.
Although we had just ordered three appetizers, a soup and two main courses (we did eat every bite), my husband was, indeed, inquiring about where we might go later that evening to try more of Charleston’s culinary delicacies.
Most tourists are drawn to Charleston for its graceful, grand homes and hauntingly beautiful gardens. But an increasing number are going for the food, as the rich and varied cuisine of the region undergoes a renaissance propelled by an interest in locally grown ingredients and an influx of new chefs.
During a late-spring trip to South Carolina to visit family, my husband and I sneaked away for a few days to taste what all the fuss was about.
Our mission was to eat our way across the city and a few of its neighboring islands, sampling traditional favorites such as fried chicken and grits, along with fancier fare in restaurants where chefs are experimenting with specialized ingredients.
WHERE TO EAT
Fig, 232 Meeting St., Charleston; (843) 805-5900, https://www.eatatfig.com. Closed Sunday. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m. Entrees from $26.
In between meals, we strolled, taking in the gardens and trying to catch an ocean breeze. I was delighted to discover another feature of Charleston that pleased me almost as much as the food and the sights: The city boasts an unusual number of upscale consignment stores, where Chanel suits and designer clothes, many of them lovingly cared for and beautifully presented, can be had for a song.
But a quick tip: Before embarking on a venture of this kind, it is crucial to don comfortable shoes, so as to be able to walk off what you do to yourself. This is not the time — believe me because I know — for the new sandals purchased at said thrift shop, no matter how cute they are.
We began our feasting with some history and tradition. On the advice of Ted and Matt Lee, friends of a friend as well as Charleston residents and authors of two cookbooks about Southern cooking, we headed to Po Pigs Bo-B-Q.
I was skeptical at first. Po Pigs is a roadside joint next to a gas station on an empty stretch of Highway 174 on Edisto Island south of Charleston. We had visited an old plantation in the morning, and I was wilting in the heat, smarting from insect bites, limping from my inappropriate footwear and wondering what we were doing here in the sticks when we could be inside with air-conditioning.
My heart sank further when we walked in the door. I beheld a simple room, clean but nothing special, holding a few tables and, at the front, a steam table. I am from the West Coast, and steam tables signify to me congealed school-cafeteria food. I tried to send my husband a disapproving look, but I could not catch his eye.
He was staring at the buffet with a look of wonder and joy usually reserved for our children. I followed him to get a closer look.
How to describe what I saw? Tray after tray of things I had only read about in books or seen in movies: chicken stew, pork hash, red rice, lima beans, and yes, of course, hush puppies.
Now, I realize these are not rare foods. Anyone who has spent even five minutes in the South — I had not before this trip —has eaten them.
But not like this. The overall effect was that of a potluck with dozens of guests, each of them an accomplished cook who had brought along his or her best dish.
My favorite was the fried chicken, a dish I eat every chance I get. But never have I had it so perfectly prepared, the skin so crispy and salty, the meat so tender.
We filled our plates, and then we filled them again (it was, after all, all you can eat). And then, of course, we ordered dessert.
At nearby tables, other diners were engaged in similar acts of gluttony, and the whole restaurant seemed to be in the same state of slightly sheepish joy, a feeling that only grew stronger when the sugar high hit from the pecan pie, the caramel zebra cake and the banana pudding.
We stumbled to the car and looked blearily at the time. We had been in there for hours and needed to get on the road if we were going to have time for an afternoon stroll before changing for dinner.
Fortunately for us, we had chosen to descend into gluttony in one of the most charming walking cities in the United States. Charleston is at the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley rivers on a peninsula that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. The area south of Broad Street, famous for its centuries-old, perfectly restored Georgian and Federal mansions, offers many different kinds of walks. There are organized tours of gardens, architecture and even haunts of famous ghosts.
But we just ambled, joining the throngs who strolled by the water, stopping to buy a sweetgrass basket, a specialty of the Gullah people of South Carolina’s low country, who brought the technique from West Africa.
And before we knew it, it was time for our dinner at Fig in downtown Charleston, where chef Mike Lata, who won a 2009 James Beard Award for best chef in the Southeast, makes a point of buying his ingredients from local farmers.
Our meal was memorable, especially the salad of young lettuces that was so light and tender it was a delicious antidote to our lunch.
But as dinner wore on, it became clear that we had overdone it. Moments after my husband asked the puzzled waiter for more restaurant recommendations, reality set in. After a short and beautiful evening stroll, we returned to our hotel. Eating that much, it turns out, knocks you out.
In the morning, I woke up worried. We had saved the most highly recommended restaurant for last. Would our stomachs be able to handle it?
Brunch at the Hominy Grill, which many food writers, including the New York Times’ legendary R.W. Apple, has called among the best breakfasts in America, begins at 9 a.m. sharp.
It isn’t possible to make a reservation, so we made sure to arrive before it opened.
We still had to wait on the sidewalk, where we had plenty of company. After about 30 minutes, just as we were beginning to gain a profound understanding of what people are talking about when they refer to the hot Southern sun, we were led to a pleasant table. Shortly thereafter, wondrous plates began to arrive, chief among them the shrimp sautéed with scallions and bacon and served over cheese grits.
Of course, we also had to try the fried green tomatoes, the sausage biscuits and the ginger pumpkin bread.
As we drove away, we felt some regret that our overindulgence had prevented us from touring more of the city. But we also felt that immersing ourselves in the area’s cuisine had given us a deeper appreciation of the place and the culture than can be had from merely sightseeing.
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