Corny Cornbread

Corny Cornbread

Cornbread has occupied a regular spot on Southern dinner tables for centuries now. It’s normally an inexpensive bready staple that’s traditionally been bred to crackle and crumble its way into soupy sides like beans and potatoes. While there’s incredible satisfaction in using many iterations of cornbread to add flavor and texture to a plate, or to help clean the plate itself at the end of a meal, cornbread can be so much more.

I learned how to easily take cornbread to another level while visiting in the kitchen with an old friend, Martha Hall, during my days living in North Carolina’s colonial capital, New Bern. Martha made a more delicious cornbread that paired great with homemade chili beans. She called it “Corny Cornbread.”

While at first it sounds quite redundant, let’s think about the name. Most cornbread I’ve eaten includes the “corn” part more because of the cornmeal than actual kernels. Not so with Corny Cornbread. Kernels are baked right in, hence the “Corny part,” and the result is an extra burst of flavor and texture in each and every bite.

Perhaps even more importantly there’s one extra ingredient that gives this higher breed of bread an edge over its crumbly ancestors, and that’s sour cream. The dish could just as easily be called “Creamy Corny Cornbread,” because this method makes a cornbread so buttery and non-crumbly that you almost don’t recognize it as, well, cornbread. (In fact, cornbread purists will scoff at it entirely. And that’s fine. I like a creative kitchen where new concepts are embraced. You aren’t required to do the same.)

So, how is this Corny Cornbread assembled? Well, I’ll take liberties with Martha’s recipe by adding my own twist. I suggest you start with whatever cornbread recipe you prefer. You can mix from scratch with cornmeal, or you can do what we like in our house: Use a box of Jiffy. We love Jiffy’s sweetness and simplicity, so we start with the mix, needing only to add a third of a cup of milk and one egg. Then, you can add one cup of whole kernel corn (fresh is, of course, is the very best, and you can actually use cream corn if you really want to be bold, but you might need to alter the cooking time and methods due to the extra soupiness), and be sure to include a third of a cup of sour cream. Blend all of that together and pour into your cast iron skillet or baking dish and follow the time and temperature instructions of your recipe.

As usual, I suggest you take liberties with this #FoodieScore recipe, ensuring you create a plate to suit your tastes and make you happy. And as always, be sure to let us know what you think of your Corny Cornbread. Thank you, Martha Hall, for making cornbread cornier and better than ever. We believe these tricks can take cornbread quite literally from a side dish to the star of your meal.

Foodie Travels: Snappy Lunch, Mount Airy, N.C.

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Our State magazine proclaims it’s the one sandwich every North Carolinian must try.

The restaurant where it’s served owns the distinction of being the only local restaurant mentioned during The Andy Griffith Show, the now-legendary television program that stars one of North Carolina’s all-time most famous residents.

Those are pretty stellar credentials for the Pork Chop Sandwich at Snappy Lunch in Mount Airy, N.C., a.k.a. Mayberry.  And every bit of that praise is deserved.

Located a few miles off Interstate 77 near the Virginia border, Mount Airy flows a genuine small-town charm to its visitors through a variety of Andy Griffith Show-themed shops and restaurants. That warm and familiar hospitality extends to guests of Snappy Lunch, which will celebrate its 100th birthday in just a few years.

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Snappy is a local kind of place, where you can walk in, seat yourself, expect friendly table service and order your “usual” off the menu, whether you’re a common patron or not. Molly and I had never been to Mount Airy before, but on our recent first visit I already felt like I had a usual favorite after hearing all the talk about the Pork Chop Sandwich, so that’s what I got. And…

Mmm mmm,” that’s mighty good eatin’. (Say that in your best Andy Taylor voice.)

The pork chop is plump and juicy with a thick, crunchy fried crust to boot. I could taste the sweet milk batter I’ve heard they’re bathed in. And that flavorful meat balances with a fireworks show of toppings, including cool coleslaw, mustard, chili, onion and fresh tomato, all on a simple bun.

You’ll need to pull plenty of napkins from the tabletop dispenser. (And if you’re fussy about your meal being neat and tidy, you might want to just go ahead and let the rest of us eat your sandwich for you. Only serious foodies need apply for the job of tackling this masterpiece sandwich!) I also suggest you have a good drink to wash it down with. And if you’ve let lunch slide to about 1 o’clock in the afternoon, I suggest you consider ordering two sandwiches. They’re mighty good.

Now, Molly spotted a breaded hamburger on the menu. I could tell it roused her curiosity. So she tried it, and she loved it. The soft breaded meat sandwiched between a fresh bun, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise tickled her fancy quite nicely, and she said it even reminded her a bit of the Bready Burgers her great-grandmother used to make. (We’ll have to share more on those another day.)

The food at Snappy Lunch was excellent, but just how “snappy” was it?

Five minutes flat. Not a second more, from the time we sat down and ordered to the time we were eating lunch.

That’s pretty snappy, and it’s also pretty affordable! Molly and I had two filling sandwiches, two bags of chips, two small drinks (but with plenty of refills before they ever ran dry) and included a nice tip for $13. For lunch for two people, you won’t beat that too many places.

We suggest you head off to Mount Airy as soon as you can and try this legendary Pork Chop Sandwich (or whatever menu item catches your eye). And make it Snappy.

Snappy Lunch, 125 North Main St., Mount Airy, N.C.

The (Disappearing) Beef Dog Tradition

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Here’s a beef dog with a missing bite at our family get-together a few years ago. You could say the shredded beef looks a bit like pulled pork, but it’s actually beef.

If you type “beef dog” into a search engine, it’s likely you’ll find both pictures and recipes for traditional American hot dogs and beef diets for canines. That’s not at all what you’d find if you time-traveled back to the 20th century and asked for a “beef dog” in Rutherford County, North Carolina, where my mom grew up.

For folks like my maternal great-grandmother Hassie Quinn (1911-1999), the beef dog was a favorite sandwich, usually consisting of pulled beef on a bun. No frankfurters or dog food would be delivered upon request of a beef dog then and there.

Great-grandma Hassie’s son, Lee, my maternal grandfather, served up beef dogs when he worked at a restaurant and store operated by longtime community fixture Windy Powell in the Caroleen community of Rutherford County. Locals referred to the eatery as Windy’s which, like the beef dog itself, would confuse anyone in a different place and time. (Absolutely no association with Wendy’s, square hamburgers or Dave Thomas.)

Several years ago at a summertime Quinn family gathering in Caroleen, we enjoyed beef dogs. You can still find the local delicacy in a few spots, like The Fountain restaurant at Smith’s Drugs on the main stretch of Forest City, North Carolina. Diners at Smith’s, which now serves more of a cubed-style beef on a hot dog bun, like hot dog-type toppings on their beef dogs these days, a restaurant server told me recently.

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A beef dog at Smith’s in Forest City, N.C.

Despite the deep familiarity and nostalgia of the sandwich for my family and its presence at the occasional family gathering and restaurant or two in this western section of North Carolina, I’m not sure the beef dog is known at all elsewhere.

I’d love to know if you’ve ever had a beef dog, or if you’d try one with the opportunity. Let us know in the comments section of this post, email us at mmfoodiescore@gmail.com, or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Foodie Travels: Cotham’s in the City, Little Rock, Ark.

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I realized just how much of a foodie I am when a sadness swept over me after hearing the news that longtime Arkansas dining institution Cotham’s Mercantile had burned to the ground in May. I never had a meal at Cotham’s, but I felt a disappointment that Molly and I had missed an opportunity to eat there when we were traveling about 100 miles away from the restaurant’s Scott location, just six months prior to the fire.

This summer, we had planned to fix that foodie travel omission by visiting Cotham’s on a cross-country road trip. Then we saw an online story about the fire and closure, just two weeks before our trip.

But all was not lost, for us or for Cotham’s, as the historic dining establishment continues to operate a sister restaurant, Cotham’s in the City, in the downtown area of Little Rock. The building and location are different, but the menu and the name are much the same. We couldn’t pass it by again (and we didn’t).

Cotham’s in the City has limited hours of 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, but its minimal window for coming to eat is quite literally its only shortcoming.

The inside of the place has a deeply Arkansas feel, with local and state political campaign signs covering the walls and local people, many of them business professionals stopping in for lunch and ordering in familiar Southern accents, filling the tables.

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Cotham’s was—and Cotham’s in the City is—known for the Hubcap burger, a generous pounder that stretches outside its bun and comes with traditional toppings of lettuce, tomato, mayo, pickle and cheese. So that had to be my choice on the menu, and it was a great one. The burger was cooked perfectly, just like a well-done but not blackened homemade cheeseburger, and the toppings were all very fresh. I decided to use my fork to cut off the overhanging pieces of meat and enjoy them like a bonus hamburger steak first, following that by cutting my sandwich in half and eating the traditional burger.

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Molly enjoyed a solid plate of pintos, slaw, fried okra and jalapeno cornbread, the last of which I sampled and found to be a nice, moist cornbread with just the right amount of spice to offer great flavor without fire.

Cotham’s in the City was overflowing with lunchtime diners by the time we left shortly after noon, and I understand why. The hubcap burger was absolutely worthy of inclusion in my list of favorite all-time burgers in the Southern United States, with its fresh meat and toppings, generous size and price ($10.99 with fries). Don’t let the opportunity to enjoy Cotham’s pass you by when you’re hungry in Little Rock! We’re sure glad we got a second chance!

Cotham’s in the City, 1401 West Third Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

 

Foodie Travels: Shirley Mae’s Café, Louisville, Ky.

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Along a wall of bright blue bricks a beautiful mural reads, “Smoketown to me was a melting pot. Everybody knew everybody.”

The sentiment rests just a few blocks from Shirley Mae’s Café in the Smoketown neighborhood of Kentucky’s most populated city of Louisville, and the words and images perfectly describe the experience of eating at the nearby restaurant.

We felt like family members stopping in for a meal when we visited Shirley Mae’s for the first time. The conversations we had with the restaurant family gave us the feeling we were related to our hosts. A baseball game on TV told us we were definitely in Louisville, home of the famed “Slugger” baseball factory. And the food, well, that was what we came for, and that’s what made it feel most like we were having a familiar meal at grandma’s house.

Everything you eat at Shirley Mae’s will wow you. I guarantee you that. And I can also promise you that everything will be fresh when it hits your table. During our visit, one Shirley Mae’s family member told another to take a side dish serving back to the kitchen and replace it because it had been sitting too long.

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Both of our entrees—fried chicken wings and fried fish filets—were seasoned to perfection. (And those are just two options on a long list of main courses.) The chicken was juicy inside, cooked just right for chicken, and it had a delightful crunch on the outside. The fish had more of a cornmeal crust that sang a song inside your mouth with each bite.

While we’re talking about cornmeal, you won’t believe how good the hot-water cornbread is. One Shirley Mae’s family member told us the cornbread was “poor folks food.” Well, eating poor never tasted so good. The bread came out wrapped in tinfoil and nestled inside a small cup. It was solid with a bite of crunch on the outside, and it was soft and warm on the inside. We couldn’t eat it all, so we took it with us on the road. Wouldn’t you know, it reheated beautifully in just a basic microwave and didn’t get the least bit dry for the following three days.

Our side dishes were just as tasty. The macaroni and cheese lived up to its name: cheesy! And it was so creamy, too. My yams registered perfectly on the sweet scale, not tasting too much like a plain, soft-baked sweet potato and not seasoning too close to being sweet candy or pie.

Perhaps the best side of all, and the most-talked-about meal item we enjoyed: Molly’s pinto beans (with slaw, of course). She savored their seasoning and could tell they had been cooking a long time. Molly loves pinto beans, and I dare say these were her all-time favorite beans.

We washed down our meal with sweet tea and grape Kool-Aid (All the best soul food restaurants serve it, we now understand. Just read here and here.)

After paying for our food, we enjoyed a few nice conversations with Shirley Mae’s family members. We learned about their lives, and they learned about ours. Our connection felt just like a Sunday afternoon front-porch talk with relatives.

And that’s why the Smoketown mural caught my attention so much. “Everybody knew everybody.” That’s how it felt at the restaurant that serves homecooked favorites with unbelievable flavor. Eating a meal at Shirley Mae’s is a beautiful combination of savoring delicious made-to-order food while also discovering your family in this world is bigger than you realized. In this melting pot, you don’t have to share blood and a tree to be family. All you have to share is food and your heart.

Shirley Mae’s Café: 802 S. Clay St., Louisville, Ky.

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5 tips for building a BLT sandwich that hits the spot

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In the summer South, a fresh “mater” sandwich is an annual seasonal rite of passage. How that sandwich is assembled is completely up to the consumer (though the ingredients are obviously not open to debate for anyone with the idea it must be done only one way), enabling foodies to get quite creative in finding the perfect recipe.

My favorite way to enjoy a tomato sandwich is the BLT, or bacon, lettuce and tomato, which goes a step further than its simpler “mater” cousin. Just a plain BLT always does the trick for me, but it really hits the spot when I take a little extra care to enhance the sandwich.

On a recent summer day, I made Molly and me a couple of BLTs for lunch, and I spent some time experimenting to jazz up our meal. The whole experience—making the food and then really enjoying it—got me thinking about the keys to perfecting such a longtime regional food staple.

Here’s a five-item, must-do checklist for making your own great BLT.

1. PICK LOCAL TOMATOES: For “mater” sandwich and BLT purists, there may be no more important choice than using a fresh, local tomato picked from the garden. If you don’t have a garden or know someone who does, consider your options at a local farmer’s market. A fresh tomato free of preservatives and pesticides will absolutely be more flavorful and much juicier. Our go-to tomato source in summer is a small network of home gardeners that are family members and neighbors. Once you have the right tomatoes, sprinkle the cut slices with a little salt and pepper to really make them pop. That’s what my grandpa always did, and I understand why every time I take a bite.

2. CHOOSE FRESH GREENS: The L in BLT stands for lettuce, but that’s not a requirement. You can go with another green, or no green at all if that’s not your thing. (Folks who like true “mater”-only sandwiches go with mayo and fresh white bread only, not needing the bacon or the lettuce to be complete.) Nice fresh spinach leaves are my favorite because of their flavor, their crunch and their lack of extra moisture. When you have a juicy tomato, you don’t really need other “wet” ingredients to find the right sandwich balance.

3. SEASON AND CRISP THAT BACON: Normally, a little pepper is nice, but I recently went farther with a light sprinkling of pepper and a slight caramelizing process with brown sugar. The result was a sweet and savory bacon that had even more flavor. Whatever you do, even if it’s no seasoning at all (after all, it’s bacon, right?), you’ve got to establish a crunch. My mama’s right: limp, chewy bacon is never good. If you end up with bacon that troubles you in the crisping attempt, try a few minutes on aluminum foil in the toaster oven, or slide each piece onto a toothpick and bake it in the oven. (That last one’s a trick we learned at a bed-and-breakfast inn in eastern North Carolina.)

4. GET SAUCY: Duke’s mayonnaise might be the most preferred choice of “mater” and BLT sandwich aficionados. That’s a fine standby that’s been delighting home chefs for decades, and for many foodies this is where you can stop reading this step and go on to the next. But we also live in the aioli and specialty-mayo age. How many times have you read a restaurant menu and seen the word aioli or something akin to “chipotle mayo”? There’s so much you can do to jazz up a sauce to slather on a sandwich. Recently, I decided to create a sweeter mayo, so I combined two teaspoons of Duke’s with a teaspoon of local honey. The result was an even fancier sandwich.

5. MAKE A SOLID BREAD SELECTION: I know many tomato lovers who prefer plain white bread for their “mater” sandwiches. Again, that’s an OK choice, but the BLT begs for a more solid selection. You need something that can hold up against the juiciness of the tomato, the greens, your sauce selection and that crunchy bacon. (As Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would argue, it’s all about the moisture barrier between the juicy vegetables and the bread.) If I’m using white sandwich bread, I like to lightly toast the slices or even grill them in a pan on the stovetop for a little more heft. To go a step further, consider selecting an even heartier bread, such as potato, brioche or ciabatta.

Finally and most important to always remember when you’re cooking at home, this is your #FoodieScore, and your taste will guide your ingredients and your results.

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Foodie Travels: Causeway Café, Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

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Tucked into the coastal North Carolina community of Wrightsville Beach, there’s a little diner called the Causeway Café, known for more than 30 years for its delicious breakfast and lunch plates.

The café opened in 1987, not long before my family started visiting Wrightsville and nearby Wilmington each year for our summer vacations.

I can remember going into the Causeway with Mom and Dad and enjoying pancakes and waffles topped with fruits formed in the shapes of smiley faces. And the restaurant still serves up great and creative dishes for all ages.

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Each beach community seems to have its local breakfast/brunch destination. Most such places are home to both locals and tourists, and that’s what you’ll find at the Causeway Café. It’s a relaxed atmosphere where, in the summer, you might see folks riding their bicycles or their convertibles up to the restaurant, and you’re guaranteed to see diners in sandals, swim shorts and comfy T-shirts inside.

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On the menu, you’ll find a wide variety of pancakes, waffles, omelets and eggs, as well as sandwiches, salads, wraps and seafood selections. It’s the kind of place that pleasantly blurs breakfast and lunch to suit your mood for the day. That’s probably one of the many reasons the Causeway’s still going strong after all these years. That and the homey atmosphere.

So when you’re cruising around Wilmington or over to the coast for a day at the beach, remember the Causeway Café for a good breakfast, brunch or lunch to fuel your adventure or relaxation.

Causeway Cafe, 114 Causeway Drive, Wrightsville Beach, N.C.

 

Foodie Travels: HenDough, Hendersonville, N.C.

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If you enjoy locally sourced food that’s served in creative ways at an affordable price inside a welcoming house (and who wouldn’t?!), then you’ll love HenDough, a phenomenal-yet-simple culinary experience in downtown Hendersonville.

We recently discovered HenDough—located inside a beautiful two-story house with bright, modern accents—during a visit to nearby Flat Rock to explore the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. Just check out what we ordered for a weekend brunch:

Fried Chicken Biscuit

Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit

Sweet Potato Salad with Bacon

Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese

Nutella Crunch Donut

Lemon Blueberry Donut

16-Ounce Locally Roasted Coffee

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We enjoyed every part of our feast and, since we were so full, we actually took both donuts and half of each biscuit with us to enjoy later, as well as a second cup of coffee.

The biscuits were HUGE, buttery and wonderfully crumbly. The plump fried chicken was tender, perfectly breaded and had just the right amount of meat inside and crunch outside. The thick bacon crunched with a glorious seasoned flavor, paired with warm and filling egg and cheese.

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HenDough’s side options give you a tough choice. We went with our top two, and we loved the creative use of sweet potatoes in potato salad with crunchy bacon and a mustard-mayo-tasting sauce, as well as the rich and cheesy mac.

Dynamite Roasting coffee, from nearby Black Mountain, is featured at HenDough in a serve-yourself setup. On the day we visited, choices included HenDough, Ethiopian, Mexican and decaf blends, and you can add whole milk, half and half, syrup, sugar and other ingredients at the counter. Dynamite is just one of many local outfits that partner with HenDough, including farms, bakeries, creameries and more.

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This Foodie Travels find is definitely worth your time and money—each person can eat for about $10, as we did, even adding a doughnut to a biscuit and side. There’s a pretty good parking lot out back. And it’s in a great location to pair with a hike, downtown shopping or other adventure before or after you eat.

 

HenDough Chicken & Donuts

532 Kanuga Road, Hendersonville, N.C.

Foodie Travels: Pinky’s Westside Grill, Charlotte, N.C.

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Restaurants in converted spaces offer an added bonus alongside a meal. You can daydream about the building’s former life and inhabitants, and sometimes even enjoy the atmosphere created by hints of the past.

That kind of experience is one of the many cool things about Pinky’s Westside Grill on, you guessed it, the west side of Uptown Charlotte, N.C. The eatery is set in the location of a former Volkswagen garage, evidenced by the bay doors on the front wall and the old VWs sitting on the roof and in the parking lot.

In addition to the fun of eating in an old garage, Pinky’s offers a lively vibe with both a bright dining section and an active, and spirited, bar area. But that’s not what’ll have you coming back after your first visit. It’s the food that will hook you on Pinky’s. Creative, delicious and quickly-tabled food.

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That’s right: corn dog shrimp! It’s tough to name just one must-try item on the Pinky’s menu, but this might be it.

First up: corn dog shrimp. They’re just what they sound like. Large shrimp covered in delicious, sweet corn dog batter. Someone at your table should try them because they’re one of the most satisfying and unique culinary finds around. Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives ordered them on the show’s visit to Pinky’s.

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With all of the great menu choices, don’t miss out on the delicious burgers!

You also have a lengthy list of menu items from which to choose some of the American favorites you love—burgers, tacos, wings, hot dogs and salads. You won’t be able to sample everything you want on just one visit, even if everyone at your table tries and shares something different. (A tip though: someone should get the sweet potato fries with honey mustard. The combination is amazing!) Guess that means you’ll have to enjoy a few visits to get the full experience. That’s our plan.

Pinky’s Westside Grill is a gem of a find, especially considering each member of your party can eat for about $10. This one will be one of our top #FoodieScore restaurant recommendations in the Charlotte area. Check it out next time you visit the city!

Pinky’s Westside Grill

1600 West Morehead Street, Charlotte, N.C.

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Legendary Burgers in the American South

#FoodieScore’s Matthew Tessnear ranks his 10 favorite burgers ever

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Nothing quite defines my culinary life like the experience of savoring a delicious cheeseburger enjoyed at a unique restaurant in the American South. It’s that very activity that provides a lasting snapshot of my childhood and my young adulthood in my home state of North Carolina and throughout the region. Maybe it’s a hereditary drive to find every great cheeseburger out there, thanks to my dad’s equal enjoyment of a delicious burger. Certainly, my love for cheeseburgers has never waned, and it’s only grown stronger since marrying my wife Molly, who’s become my #FoodieScore partner in crime.

My all-time favorite take on the American beef burger comes on a hearty bun with melted cheese. The cheese is non-negotiable, and I will tell you there is no such thing as a hamburger. Every other topping is unnecessary, but I do enjoy just minimal lettuce and a light dose of mayonnaise, which I find brings out the flavor of the meat, bread and cheese.

There are so many great restaurants across America that have perfected their own unique cheeseburger, but the South is the only region in which I’d consider myself a burger connoisseur because it’s the only section of the country that I’ve frequented enough to become an expert. I’ve sampled—ahem, devoured—hundreds of different restaurant burgers across the South, and now for the first time I’m proud to share my very favorites with you. These are my top 10 burgers in the American South, until I try my next new cheeseburger, at which time the list immediately is subject to change with the insertion of another classic.

 

Betty Bombers

The Classic Bomber at Betty Bombers in Savannah

 

  1. THE CLASSIC BOMBER
    Betty Bombers
    Savannah, Georgia

It’s always my first choice to enjoy a cheeseburger that, in some way, accents the key elements of beef, bread and melty cheese, even if it includes additional toppings. Betty Bombers does just that, serving up a burger cooked with ever the slightest grilled crust on the bottom and gooey cheese on top. The veggie toppings are just the right kind of dressing that don’t disrupt the essentials. On top of everything, you get to enjoy this delightful sandwich among World War II relics that celebrate the “Greatest Generation,” in a restaurant located inside the local American Legion post headquarters.

 

Burger Bar

“Move It On Over” at Burger Bar in Bristol

  1. MOVE IT ON OVER
    Burger Bar
    Bristol, Virginia

Burger Bar has captured an expert flavor combination with the smoky barbecue sauce, grilled onions and your choice of cheese on the “Move It On Over.” And I must suggest you try it with a side of sweet potato fries accompanied by a sweet aioli for dipping. This stop also offers a sea of memorabilia about country music legend Hank Williams who, legend has it, was last seen alive outside the restaurant.

 

 

  1. CHEESEBURGER
    Steak-Out
    Birmingham, Alabama

Steak-Out has the ambiance of a fast food restaurant that just so happens to deliver. So you wouldn’t expect to necessarily get one of the best burgers you’ll ever eat. But that’s exactly what they do. You get a premium-beef burger and high-quality toppings that tastes like it came off the grill at a high-end steakhouse. You can even get a baked potato as a side at this place. I’m not sure I’ve ever visited a restaurant or burger joint that so expertly blurs the lines between fast food and fine dining. (Unfortunately, I don’t have my own photo of the delicious Steak-Out Burger.)

 

Phillips Grocery

The Cheeseburger Single at Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs

  1. CHEESEBURGER SINGLE
    Phillips Grocery
    Holly Springs, Mississippi

It’s just fun to enjoy a cheeseburger inside a more than century-old building that once housed a lively saloon. On top of that, Phillips serves up a funky little cheeseburger with a standard topping combination I’ve never found anywhere else. The single gives you just the right amount of beef to enjoy the dressing of mustard, pickle, onion and muenster cheese. Well done, Phillips. It’s just an extra treat that you also get to enjoy the place’s general store feel with its furnishings of antique relics of the past.

 

Pawley's Front Porch

Kiawah at Pawleys Front Porch in Columbia

  1. KIAWAH
    Pawleys Front Porch
    Columbia, South Carolina

Pawleys exudes a college-town vibe in its location in the Five Points neighborhood, cozied next to the University of South Carolina campus. The shop’s burger menu salutes the state’s great resort island destinations, and it just so happens to include a tribute to my favorite getaway locale of all time, Kiawah Island. The burger’s topped with one of my favorite cheeses, brie, as well as marinated portabella mushrooms, and fire-roasted peppers. This is one of the juiciest, most flavorful burgers I’ve ever put in my mouth.

 

Cal Dreaming

Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger at California Dreaming in Charleston

  1. BARBECUE BACON CHEESEBURGER
    California Dreaming
    Charleston, South Carolina

Outside of the classic/basic/house cheeseburger style that emphasizes the meat, bread and cheese, a set of toppings with sweet barbecue sauce and bacon is my all-time favorite, and no one does that combination any better than California Dreaming. It’s the perfect amount of sauce and a generous helping of perfectly crispy bacon. There are a couple of California Dreaming locations—which also give you the feel of a fine-dining experience with their snappily-dressed servers—but the Charleston location has consistently had the very best burger of them, and it easily has the best setting with a panoramic view of the river harbor near downtown.

 

Al's Burger Shack

Kenny J at Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill

  1. KENNY J
    Al’s Burger Shack
    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Al Bowers knows Chapel Hill (he previously worked at another local legendary restaurant, Merritt’s Store & Grill) and he knows a delicious, creative burger. His joint, just down the street from the University of North Carolina, tops its delicious patties with fun toppings like those on the Kenny J, which is both distinctly North Carolina and Southern with its Cheerwine barbecue sauce, not-too-spicy pimento cheese, grilled onions and bacon. I must also praise him for not completely splitting his buns, which allow the sandwich to envelope its toppings, making the burgers easier to eat. Additionally, he caters to your size preference with the buddy bite, Al and Big Al sizes. And if all of that is not enough, he may serve the most flavorful French fries (with sea salt and rosemary seasonings) I’ve ever had alongside a burger.

 

 

  1. EXTRA SHARP CHEDDAR STEAK BURGER
    McGuire’s Irish Pub
    Destin, Florida

Adjacent to the white-sand beaches and emerald-colored waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll find that this joint, with money taped everywhere, offers quite the valuable burger. McGuire’s calls its creations Angus Steak Burgers, and the quality is so good you’ll feel like you’ve got a tender steak on your bun. If that’s not enough for ya, try the $100 Grand Burger of Filet Mignon, caviar, merlot sauce and imperial champagne. Seriously. I’ve never sampled the high-dollar version myself because I haven’t seen a way to top the Angus Steak Burgers. (Sadly, I haven’t had a McGuire’s burger since 2006, and that was before everyone carried a high-quality camera phone, so I have no personal photo here. I need to fix that soon with a trip to Florida’s beautiful panhandle.)

 

Lankford Grocery

Old Fashion Hamburger (with cheese) at Lankford Grocery & Market in Houston

No. 2 OLD FASHION HAMBURGER (WITH CHEESE)
Lankford Grocery & Market
Houston, Texas

In this restaurant tucked into a friendly neighborhood between the Fourth Ward and Midtown sections of the nation’s fourth-largest city, you’ll find a remarkable cheeseburger that offers the freshest overall combination of toppings I’ve ever eaten on a burger. I enjoyed the softest bun, the greenest, leafiest lettuce, the crunchiest, most flavorful onion, and a fresh beef patty that is second in quality only to the No. 1 sandwich on this list. I’ve discovered that not all of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” spots are legendary in quality. This one deserves that status.

 

Kim's Kitchen

Cheeseburger at Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley

No. 1 CHEESEBURGER
Kim’s Kitchen
Stanley, North Carolina

Kim Millman’s cheeseburger has topped this list throughout my life because of a steady diet of the most important ingredient in a burger: the beef. You won’t top the fresh, hand-pattied, perfectly cooked beef on a Kim’s cheeseburger. You also get a substantial sandwich that’s an incredible value for your money, while adhering to Sheldon Cooper’s (of Big Bang Theory fame) burger formula that prizes the perfect bun-meat-condiment ratio. And you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a friendly table visit from Kim herself while you’re dining in this community fixture between Charlotte and Asheville.

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