Charleston, we need to chat. I have for some time had a growing misgiving about our fair city. We continue to enjoy the blessing of the spotlight of national culinary focus. The Upper King Street Design District continues to develop unabated with killer eateries like The Grocery, The Macintosh and Mike Lata’s as yet un named new restaurant. Our Wine and Food Festival (now approaching its eighth year) has been heralded by John Mariani as “the most serious, but wholly fun-filled food festival in America .” We probably have more James Beard nominated (and winning) chefs than we could ever have dreamed. Our relationships with local farms and the largely grass roots distribution network that allows us as chefs to work with all of our wonderful and constantly evolving product has been hailed as a model for other municipalities. Our dining guests get it, and support us. The local media gets it, and supports us. One can honestly say we are enjoying a renaissance of sorts not seen here since Dubose Heyward holed up with George Gershwin on Folly Beach to write “Porgy and Bess.”
So what’s my beef? In a phrase, “culinary gentrification.’ While our battery of fine dining establishments continue to multiply, the mom and pop shop type of everyday neighborhood and ethnic restaurants grows ever smaller. Mind you, I’m not talking about the strip mall buffet joint, but the unpolished gems that are the highlight of any chef’s day off. I’m not here to bash Charleston – I remain a great proponent of the Holy City, but I will not be quiet about what I want for supper. Ever.
As a chef, I am always eating food, preparing food, thinking about food, shopping for food, writing about food. When I go into a peer’s restaurant, like it or not, the radar is on. I’m evaluating. Listening. Sensing. What kind of stemware? How is the service? Who did the design? Who’s heading up their PR? Why are their squash blossoms better than mine? I thought softies were done – where did they get them? It’s not intentional, or really even competitive. It’s just that when I eat out at a formal restaurant, I pay attention as an eater. I don’t know why my family even puts up with me I’m such a pain in the ass. I suspect it’s similar for many chefs. I know I’ve heard Anthony Bourdain speak about this same thing.
But the small family restaurants are different. Mark Miller once described drinking wine as an analytical experience, but drinking a cocktail as a sensual experience. For me, eating in a small family run restaurant is the same. I’m definitely aware, and checking things out, but I’m enjoying myself in the process.
Let me say from the start that I am unabashedly biased in favor of these joints. After I left Charleston in 1999, I spent 5 years in Minneapolis and 4 years in Nashville. The sheer size and scope of the Twin Cities, the general level of education, the progressive immigration policies have all worked to shape a city that celebrates what I call “The Mix.” I got a little spoiled there – I ate in the restaurants, I talked to the farmers, I learned from the grand mothers. I ate Oaxaquenos – banana leaf wrapped tamales of rough masa dough and shredded pork in a red chile mole thick with chile flecks. I washed them down with champurrado, or atole chocolate, like hot chocolate mixed with thick cornmeal. I ate guaraches of fresh corn masa, crisp off the griddle, shaped like an oval pizza and covered in the shaved rotisserie, pineapple basted pork candy that is al pastor, a result of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico City.
I stepped into a battlefield discussion between Eritrean, Ethiopean and Somali cab drivers not over whether or not Hailie Selassie was the messiah, but over who invented injerra, the high protein, spongy flatbread that acts as plate, vehicle and component in those cuisines.
I ate Banh Mi as the uber crisp baguettes emerged from French steam injection ovens, hinged and layered in grilled pork, pork meatballs and pate, carrots, cucumbers, daikon and slathered with Sriracha (for $2.50 each).
I ate Bo Bay Mon, or beef 7 ways, a celebratory multi course progression lasting several hours and involving grilling beef tabletop and wrapping it up into little lettuce and herb bundles.
I’ve eaten Szechuan pig ears and warm cucumber salad and probably enough dim sum to warrant a separate blog entry and a lifetime’s penance on Lipitor.
In Nashville, I met the city that surprised and delighted with what John T. Edge called “a meat and three Mecca.” Some of them had been recognized by the Southern Foodways Alliance and the James Beard foundation. Pat Martin walked away from big city bankerdom to become a whole hog pitmaster, in the tradition of the Tennessee BBQ triangle. But I also enjoyed Korean dolsot bi bim bap, or rice, beef and vegetables cooked in a porous stone bowl until the rice took on that crunchy / chewy juxtaposition that I am so fond of. I grubbed on Tandy Wilson’s taralli and belly ham pizza (with the farm egg), and on enough Nashville hot fish and hot chicken to write a dissertation. I was blessed with great Egyptian and Arabic friends, who often brought falafel from home and gave me the inside scoop on where to go for kebabs. I slayed Salvadoran papusas and tacos desebrados, oozing with beef debris stewed in red chile.
Eating like this has always been a vicarious form of travel. As a chef, I have rarely been afforded the means or time away from the operation to enjoy these foods in their native context, but I’ve relished every opportunity I could to go there by eating. I’m not an expert anthropologist. Rather, I’m an eater in the field. A trip to the taco truck? Sounds like a perfect day off.
Word reached me last week that they had torn down Kim’s in West Ashley. There remain probably 3 Korean restaurants in the area, but Kim’s was the closest to what you might find in the larger Korean population centers. Sure they had my favorite – The Stone Bowl as we call it in my family, but they had those wonderful grills built directly into the table. Upon ordering, raw beef, chicken or seafood would appear. You would grill it yourself, noshing on the house made varieties of kim chi as you went, perhaps a bit of rice. When finished, you wrapped it up in a bundle with lettuce, perhaps some more kim chi and a squirt of that awesome red bean chili paste. Phenomenal. I hope you got to have that experience, I really do. Because now you’ll have to wait until that business trip to L.A. or San Francisco.
I never made it to Wali’s Fish Supreme, Home of the Famous Bean Pie. That location is now occupied by the Octobachi restaurant. In digging, I was able to find some older reviews for the restaurant here, here and on bean pie here. My guess is that they probably had some killer fish, and regardless of whether it’s a Nation of Islam thing or not, I’m still curious to try that bean pie. I guess I’ll have to wait until my next trip to Detroit or DC.
When I lived here in the 90’s, we had no less than 4, perhaps 5 Vietnamese restaurants. There was Vinh Long up by the Carolina Ice Palace. There was Ha Long Bay, the wall painted with a mural of the Unesco World Heritage sight of eerie limestone formations in the waters near Hanoi. (They had avocado milkshakes.) There Binh Minh off Rivers that shared its space with a putt putt golf course. And then, there was My Tho, headed by the loved and respected Mama Rose. Now, despite the heading of Vietnamese and Thai restaurants in Charleston’s City Paper restaurant section, there is one: the kitchen at the H&L supermarket on Rivers Ave in N. Charleston. Thank God for that.
Robert Pinckney used to make some damn good fried chicken at the late, lamented Latasha’s Taste of New Orleans, now the home of 5 loaves cafe. His pork chops were superb, moist and crisp at the same time, and aggressively seasoned. He always played good music, and kept an old sliding glass door Coke cooler full of beers with a bottle opener on the side. If you wanted a beer, you got up and got it yourself. That’s how cool Robert Pinckney was back in the day.
The closest thing I’ve known to good Chinese food here was the old Emperor’s Garden, with their handwritten sign on the door stating “We Have No Buffet.” That says so much about our collective cultural dining myopia. Sure, we now have a P.F. Chang’s. We have a handful of clean, “safe” Chinese bistros that deliver a consistent dining experience to the tunes of Edith Piaf and Billy Holiday, but I would argue that their food is no more Chinese than visiting a Chipotle is Mexican. I would argue that this town continues to grow and our tastes develop and mature. I would say that the last thing this town needs is an over conceptualized, branded restaurant that is great for the whole family. We don’t need sanitized pan-Asian bistros, we need a good quality Cantonese seafood restaurant with live tanks of critters, BBQ hanging in the window and Dim Sum cart service on the weekends.
And we need to provide robust support for it, like we’re investing in our community, because we are. One plate at a time, one family at a time.
Now I’m hungry…