Foodie Travels: Best We Ate in 2016

2016 has been a year of travel across the South for us. And from east Texas to coastal Georgia to the West Virginia mountains, we have enjoyed the ongoing gifts of incredible local food at every stop.

Many of our experiences have found their way here to #FoodieScore, but there have been too many great eats to have time to share them all. However, as the year comes to a close, we’d like to recap and award favorite designations to some of the best food we ate at restaurants in 2016.

Without further delay, here are the first-ever Year’s Best #FoodieScore winners, our short list of favorite experiences, somewhat categorized in the style of Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

BEST BURGER

Matthew – Lankford Grocery & Market, Houston, Texas – In a year full of delicious burgers on our foodie travels, this local dining institution gave me the second best burger experience I’ve ever had (after the now-closed Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley, N.C.). The fresh meat, soft yet hearty bun, creamy cheese and fresh veggie toppings on my traditional burger was the perfect bun-meat-condiment ratio. Even Sheldon Cooper would be proud. And the friendly southern-style atmosphere of this place, set right in a neighborhood near the downtown of the nation’s fourth-largest city, was memorable. Lankford edges out a long list in this category, which also includes Al’s Burger Shack (Chapel Hill, N.C.), Betty Bombers (Savannah, Ga.), Burger Bar (Bristol, Va.), Pawley’s Front Porch (Columbia, S.C.) and Secret Sandwich Society (Fayetteville, W.Va.).

Molly – Al’s Burger Shack, Chapel Hill, N.C. – Out of all the delicious burgers we tried this year, Al’s eclipsed them all in multiple respects. Al’s burgers come with a delightful, soft bun that is freshly cut almost all the way through. The bun is still held together on one side, which means the ingredients – the meat of the meal – don’t move around or fall out like with most burgers. I eat a lot of messy burgers, but this bun held it all together for me. That’s one reason Al’s burgers are my new favorite. The second big deal for me is, of course, taste. I got a Swiss and mushroom burger with a garlic aioli sauce. The garlic flavor along with a slew of mushrooms atop a very juicy, perfectly-cooked burger made this sandwich my best burger of the year. Honorable mentions include a mushroom Swiss burger from The Copper Penny (Forest City, N.C.) and the Hey Good Looking burger from Burger Bar (Bristol, Va.).

BEST BREAKFAST

Matthew – Red House Inn in Brevard, N.C. – A bed-and-breakfast often gives you pancakes, French toast, eggs and other mainstays on a B&B menu. This homey B&B in western North Carolina does all that, but they also offer a traditional English breakfast. You get an English muffin, multiple meats, a cooked tomato, beans and mushrooms, along with other breakfast favorites. Everything is hot, fresh, and thanks to the B&B setting, you don’t have to drive to get there. It was a nice walk from our cottage next door to the main house. This was a wonderful place to celebrate the joys of marriage on a Valentine’s Day weekend.

Molly – The Collin’s Quarter in Savannah, Ga. – You can’t go wrong with the perpetually busy, Australian-inspired, unique cafe that is The Collin’s Quarter. (Unless you don’t like Matcha lattes.) (Inside joke.) We decided on brunch and my Avocado Smash was one of the freshest, most hearty, delicious brunches I’ve ever had. Here’s a description from the website: “[Smashed avocado] served on artisan toast bread with feta, heirloom tomatoes, micro herbs, and shaved radishes topped with a poached egg and sesame seeds.” It doesn’t get much better than that, and I didn’t even know I liked radishes! I also had a Madagascar Vanilla Latte. This place even inspired us to try our own poached eggs and smashed avocado toast at home. That makes it a winner in my book.

BEST SWEET TREAT

Matthew – Cupcrazed in Fort Mill, S.C. – A simple follow of this spot on Instagram shows you just how much this place knows cupcakes. Success in Food Network competition proves it, too. Seriously, I can’t explain it any better than this: Follow Cupcrazed on Instagram. You’ll get a daily digital dose of cupcakes. They offer the basic favorites, but they get crazy, too. My s’mores cupcake was righteous. It was so good that we took a box of cupcakes to our family.

Molly – Sweet Paris in Houston, Texas – It was so difficult to choose a best sweet treat spot, because we went to so many! But perhaps the most out-of-the-box was Sweet Paris Creperie, suggested to us by a dear friend for whose wedding we were in town. Their website says, “Welcome to our beautiful world of crepes” and I couldn’t agree more. I decided on a s’mores crepe. It was soft and delightful, filled with marshmallow creme, and covered with a chocolate drizzle, powdered sugar, and flame-torched marshmallows. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything more delicately sweet in my life.

BEST DESSERT

Matthew – Profiteroles at Superior Seafood in New Orleans, La. – A hearty dessert for $2 while traveling 1,000 miles across the southern U.S.? Yes, please! Our meal was great at Superior Seafood, but the $2 desserts topped it off so well. In a city known for its food and for its beignets, I discovered the profiterole, a soft and light pastry with ice cream and various sweet toppings. Other restaurants came close on taste this year, but none offered the corresponding value of Superior’s $2 dessert.

Molly – Banana pudding at Ronda’s Kitchen, Kings Mountain, N.C. – I got local for this one, because the best darn dessert I’ve put in my mouth this year is Ronda’s banana pudding. Let me tell you why. It’s homemade weekly, cooked slow on the stovetop, and topped with fresh bananas just before it’s served. It’s so creamy and sweet, with just the right amount of vanilla wafers swirled inside, that you forget any other banana pudding exists. It’s spoiled me on banana pudding anywhere else. Nom!

BEST SOUL FOOD

Matthew – Sweet Potatoes in Winston-Salem, N.C. – Perhaps the place I was most excited to visit this year for its southern and local flair, Sweet Potatoes did not disappoint. We enjoyed brunch while on a one-night weekend excursion. My chicken and pancakes (a take on the famed chicken and waffles) were like a slice of grandma’s old kitchen. Crispy, flavorful, boneless fried chicken tenders, atop a light and rich sweet potato pancake. And the brunch macaroni and cheese was a creamy, light appetizer to start us off. We lucked out with a window seat, so we got to take in Winston-Salem’s outdoor arts district, while also getting a view of the entire restaurant, which filled up immediately after opening on a Sunday morning.

Molly – Time-Out Grill in Chapel Hill, N.C. – Clearly Chapel Hill was a win for us foodies, and Time-Out had it all. We made a late-night stop upon our arrival into town, with no idea the caliber of soul food we were about to encounter. We sampled a chicken and cheese biscuit, broccoli casserole (the warmest, heartiest broccoli casserole you can imagine), sweet tea, country ham, and even a slice of pecan pie. A great stop for any hungry passerby at any time of day or night, Time-Out is a 24/7 soul food capital for North Carolina.

BEST MEXICAN FOOD

Matthew – El Rey in Houston, Texas – We eat Mexican food often, and most restaurants offer a similar set of familiar favorites. Not El Rey. Maybe that’s what you’d expect of a restaurant just a few hours from the Mexico border. But it struck me how surprised people were when I told them how great the food experience is in Houston. Folks seemed further surprised to discover Houston is one of the nation’s largest cities. El Rey was not just Mexican. It was Mexican and Cuban and other ethnic food goodness. We had tacos with plantains. We had fish tacos. We had fajita tacos. This place was a mix of the tastes of Mexico, San Diego, Miami and more. And the restaurant space itself gave off a very boutique cantina vibe. Best Mexican experience all year.

Molly – El Rey in Houston, Texas – Nope, that’s not a typo. When we were discussing our favorite Mexican food of the year, both of us chose El Rey. Another great suggestion from our awesome friends in Houston, my favorite fish taco of all time can be found here. Just crispy enough, just flaky enough, on a warm flour tortilla, with all the right toppings. Fish tacos, for the win.

BEST ITALIAN FOOD

Matthew – Big Mike’s in Brevard, N.C. – This is the definition of a local Italian-American joint. Red-and-white plaid tablecloths. Delicious pizza dough. Sweet tea to drink. Sports memorabilia all over the walls. Big Mike’s had great pizza, great garlic knots and a homey feel. It’s the kind of place that can turn lunch into lunch AND dinner. And that’s a good thing.

Molly – Dino’s in Bessemer City, N.C. – My mom and dad recommended Dino’s after they visited a few times and enjoyed the plethora of options this local Italian place has to offer. My stromboli was on point, Matthew’s pizza was on fleek, and the appetizer plate my mom shared with us gave us a taste of fried zucchini, fried mozzarella and more.

BEST BARBECUE

Matthew – Tie between Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack in Belmont, N.C., and Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, N.C. – Peace-N-Hominy is a chic modern Q Shack. Creative menu. Tasty meat. Decorated space. Lexington Barbecue is the legendary classic. All the favorites. Delicious meat. Non-fussy decor. Two different sides of the barbecue experience completely, both thrilled me in different ways with their range on the barbecue restaurant scale. And they offered something different than our three barbecue restaurants here where we live in Cleveland County, N.C.

BEST SEAFOOD

Matthew – Desposito’s in Thunderbolt, Ga. – If you want fresh, flavorful seafood presented simply without frills, this is your spot. Right off the water in coastal Georgia, I don’t know that Molly and I have ever visited a more hole-in-the-wall restaurant with more simple decor. And I don’t know that we’ll ever have boiled shrimp and deviled crab with more flavor. This place has served stars like Michael Douglas, and it’s been featured in publications nationwide. We understand why, and it has the distinction for me of serving the best seafood we ate all year.

Molly – Superior Seafood in New Orleans, La. – My hat’s tipped to Superior Seafood on this one, mainly due to the incredibly superior shrimp and grits I had the pleasure of eating here. Shrimp and grits are where I set my bar for the quality of a seafood or southern restaurant. I have sampled them in many places, but Superior Seafood’s were exactly…perfect. No gravy, instead a simple, flavorful, delicious “tasso cream” sauce. Perfectly-cooked grits. Perfectly-flavored, sauteed shrimp. Tiny squares of sausage. I savored every bite.

What’s the best thing you ate this year? Have you tried any of our favorites? You can find out more about most of the restaurants above in our Foodie Travels section!

Pictured Above (clockwise from top left): Lankford Grocery cheeseburger in Houston, Texas; Cupcrazed s’mores cupcake in Fort Mill, S.C.; El Rey fish taco in Houston, Texas; and Red House Inn English breakfast in Brevard, N.C.

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Foodie Travels: Scratch Bakery, Durham, N.C.

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Molly and I are always excited to find a fresh local bakery. When that bakery serves up several kinds of homemade pie, it’s even better.
During a quick stop in Durham, N.C., we visited Scratch, one of those local places that feels almost like it’s set in a different location than it actually is. Scratch offers outdoor seating that has the cafe-style feeling of a European city plaza. But it also provides the desserts and brunch items recognizable in American dining venues.
We went to Scratch for pie, and on the day we visited, the offerings included chocolate, lemon chess, buttermilk sugar, sweet potato, rhubarb and more.
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While all of the options we sampled were delicious, and we sampled about everything but my least favorite flavor of rhubarb, the buttermilk sugar was the most unique. It had a creamy yet light, sweet, buttermilk-flavored filling, with a crunchy layer of sugar right on the crust.
The crust. It was the most flaky, pastry-like crust I’ve had in recent memory on any pie. And pie is our typical dessert of choice anywhere we can eat it, at home or on the road.
Scratch also serves up brunch items like the popular avocado toast and traditional breakfast sandwiches, as well as other pastries, coffees and drinks, and lunch menu choices.
If you visit, don’t expect to park right outside. The section of Orange Street is set up to be a pedestrian walkway. But you can find a variety of half-hour, hour and two-hour parking throughout downtown.
Scratch Bakery
111 W. Orange St., Durham, N.C.
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Eating Through a Weekend in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Regardless of your college sports allegiance, the central North Carolina city of Chapel Hill offers plenty of reasons to visit. From its tree-lined driveways and iconic main street named for Benjamin Franklin to its incredible culinary and arts scenes, there’s plenty to see and do without having to think about sports and mainstream entertainment.

On a recent visit, Molly and I had a chance to enjoy some of the best in vintage local fare. There are plenty of upscale, chic restaurants to try in Chapel Hill, but on this trip we stuck with some of the specialty joints known for their history and/or their simplicity. Here’s what we discovered and recommend if you find yourself in Orange County’s iconic city. And as a special tip, unless you have a friendly local place to park, check out the parking garage on East Rosemary Street, if you’re staying a while and walking around. It might eliminate any search for a metered spot on the streets.

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Time-Out

Open since 1978, this place is exactly what you’d expect of a 24-7 joint in a heavily populated and heavily hungry college town in the South. As if the hours didn’t already tell you this joint caters to the up-all-night youth culture, just glance at the menu. You’ll find a collection of Southern barbecue, chicken, biscuits, casseroles and pies. The most notable menu item: the “Man vs. Food Special,” named for the restaurant’s appearance on the Travel Channel show several years back. The special offers a gigantic (seriously) biscuit with a piece of boneless fried chicken topped with a slide of cheddar cheese, along with a generous side helping of macaroni and cheese and a drink. Come late. Come hungry.

Time-Out

201 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.

timeout247.com

 

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Sutton’s Drug Store

When you Google this restaurant, the information that first appears under the name says, “A Destination.” That’s been true since way back in 1923. This place is special. You can get burgers, hot dogs, breakfast, or you can sit at the counter and enjoy a vintage soda or shake. And if you’re in a hurry, stop just inside the door and select from a shelf of dozens of vintage sodas in the bottle. If you’re a regular or a celebrity, chances are your photo is on the wall. If you’re a visitor and have time to sit down and eat, take in those photos and breathe in the atmosphere.

Sutton’s Drug Store

159 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.

suttonsdrugstore.com

 

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Al’s Burger Shack

If you like fresh, hip, boutique burger spots, you’ve got to make a pilgrimage to Al’s Burger Shack, which is on the west side of Chapel Hill headed toward neighboring Carrboro. Al’s was the exception to our “longtime fixture” rule on this trip to town, as it’s only been open since 2013. But this place – which we saw in a New York Times travel piece on Chapel Hill – has a special burger selection every day the doors open, and the regular menu includes options for burgers with a wide variety of toppings, from guacamole to Cheerwine BBQ sauce, from spicy pimento cheese to onion jam to a roasted garlic aioli. And you can get any burger in two sizes: the Al size which is large, or the “buddy bite size,” which allows a hungry eater like me to try two burgers for a good price in one visit. Molly particularly enjoyed how this place folds its buns around its burgers to keep everything in your sandwich from sliding around. And don’t turn your nose at the idea of crinkle-cut fries: these are topped with a delightful rosemary seasoning that will please your tastebuds. Expect to sit outside at Al’s as indoor space is limited, but there’s a canopy covering the patio seating.

Al’s Burger Shack

516 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, N.C.

alsburgershack.com

 

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Merritt’s Store & Grill

Since 1929, Merritt’s has served the local community, and today you get a very specialized back-in-the-day, regular-kinda-place feel when you walk in the door. In other words, this is not your average restaurant, and they don’t serve your average sandwich. Nope, this place is known for its BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato), and with good reason. You get a generous helping of bacon, fresh vegetables and your choice of fresh bread. There are even topping options like guacamole. Your sandwich comes neatly wrapped in thick, plain wrapping paper, held together with a piece of masking tape. Those are your signals this place is unique for its time now. You can expect a short line to order and a long line to receive your food and find a seat (limited inside, more out front, don’t miss the seating out back) at Merritt’s. But it’s completely worth it. You also have your choices of chips and drinks to accompany your sandwich, but let’s be honest: This place is about getting a superior BLT.

Merritt’s Store & Grill

1009 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill, N.C.

merrittsstoreandgrill.com

Creative Southeast-Style Fish Tacos

The recipe is a missing ingredient when I approach the kitchen. There are very few things I cook that follow an actual tried-and-true recipe with measurements. Something thrills me about looking in the fridge and the pantry and creating a meal. Maybe that’s a trait I developed during my bachelor days. And maybe that’s why many of my posts in this space are restaurant adventures; I cook often, but I rarely use a recipe that’s very shareable.

Cooking is a therapy for me, and there’s very little that’s therapeutic about sweating what expensive ingredients I need to pick up at the store and how carefully I follow someone else’s directions. It’s the creativity that makes the whole experience fun and flavorful.

That’s the case with these “Southeast-Style Fish Tacos” I made up on a recent Sunday afternoon. We cook a lot of homemade Mexican in our house, and we usually keep things incredibly simple. This on-the-fly “recipe” is easy, too.

Here are the basic parts of the plate: Fish, Tortilla, Sugar Slaw, Garlic-Onion Aioli

Molly makes amazing homemade tortillas, but for this “dish” we used store-bought. We always prefer flour.

The fish can be any fish you like. To be truly “Southeast” I’d suggest something like a catfish that you commonly see here in North Carolina. You could also use a flounder or a tilapia. We had fresh-cooked salmon on hand, so that’s what I used, lightly seasoned with a little paprika and fresh-squeezed lime juice. I cooked the salmon on a medium-high heat for about 6-8 minutes on each side, just enough to cook it through and through without losing any of that beautiful flaky texture and light pink color.

For the slaw, I took 2 cups of fresh red cabbage (great for color), 2 teaspoons of white sugar and 2 teaspoons of brown sugar, and a teaspoon of milk to add a little liquid to break down the sugars a bit faster. I mixed the slaw in a bowl and then flash-froze it for about 15 minutes. The combination of two basic sugars in the slaw is one reason I call this “Southeast.” There are many variations of Asian slaw out there that have a sweet ingredient, but the sugar just seemed to place this in the Southeast United States.

The aioli was a combination of a 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, a teaspoon of onion powder, a teaspoon of chopped garlic and a teaspoon of garlic salt. This sauce was intended to give the aioli a bit of a quick kick that would counter the sweetness of the slaw and the citrus spice of the fish. The mayo in this ingredient is another reason I refer to this as “Southeast Style.”

I spread a few lines of the aioli on a warm tortilla, added a few strips of freshly cooked fish (the salmon in our case) and then topped the plate with a healthy pinch of the slaw.

It took about 30 minutes to put this dish together, from the moment I gathered ingredients to the time we took our first bites. Let me know what you think of the concept and the dish if you try it, and feel free to share with me in the comments below what you think about my approach to cooking. Eat well!

Molly’s Take: As a big fan of White Duck Taco in Asheville, I have to say, this is the closest we’ve come at home to replicating the explosion of flavor and fresh ingredients you’ll find in one of their tacos. The three parts of this taco were each incredibly flavorful – the citrus-y, grilled salmon; the crispy, cool slaw; and the salty, saucy aioli. I don’t always rate dishes on our blog, but I give these easy tacos an A+ for originality and taste.

Matthew’s Take: Obviously, I love this approach to cooking, as I said above. But I was also quite pleased with how these tacos came out. We feature beef, chicken, fish and shrimp in tacos at our house on a regular basis, and this particular combination varied from the homemade pico de gallo, rice and beans we normally use to accompany the main ingredients. I really liked the flavor combination of the sweet slaw and the spice of the aioli, along with the hearty lightness of the fish. And I ultimately decided that cabbage holds up much better in a taco than the oft-used lettuce.

Foodie Travels: Ronda’s Kitchen, Grover, N.C.

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NOTE: In 2017, Ronda’s Kitchen underwent changes and became the Highway 29 Grill. The cheeseburger and mozzarella stick photos directly below are from food at the Highway 29 Grill, which we enjoyed very much!
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Original Post on Ronda’s Kitchen
There must be something about the word “kitchen” that helps a restaurant serve a delicious cheeseburger…and other delicious food.
My favorite cheeseburger ever is served at Kim’s Kitchen restaurant in Stanley, N.C. It has the perfect combination of fresh beef, soft and hearty bun, melty cheese and fresh toppings.
One of my other favorite cheeseburgers served in western North Carolina is the burger I order at Ronda’s Kitchen in Kings Mountain. It has the same delightful combination of delicious fresh beef, soft and hearty bun, melty cheese and fresh toppings.
But Ronda’s success doesn’t rest solely on its cheeseburgers. This place has it all, and they do all of it well.
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You can get your burgers, hot dogs or other sandwiches. There’s seafood (our family recommends the fried oysters). Or you can eat a meat-and-three-style plate with a variety of side options. And then there’s dessert: Try the delicious homemade banana pudding with the bananas cut fresh on top, or sample one of those huge cookies you see at the checkout counter.
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Ronda’s is reasonably priced for the generous portions you get. And in case you’re wondering with the types of diner or kitchen-style food I listed above, you aren’t walking into a grease pit when you dine at this place. I’ll be completely surprised if you tell me later that the food was “too greasy,” no matter what you order.
This is a great local place to take your family, and it’s easily accessible, right off I-85. Let me know what you think, especially if you try the cheeseburger.
Ronda’s Kitchen
1842 S. Battleground Ave., Kings Mountain, N.C.
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