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

Causeway Cafe

Photo: Causeway Cafe Facebook page

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.

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Photo: Causeway Cafe Facebook page

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 creative dishes, like the Santa waffle you see here.

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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Photo: @schoonmaker3 on Instagram

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.

Where do you get your favorite cheeseburgers? Share with us in the comments section, or share with #FoodieScore on social media. Follow @FoodieScore on Facebook and Instagram, or @Foodie_Score on Twitter.

Foodie Travels: The Wood Shed, Stanley, N.C.

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The round chopped steak, baked sweet potato and grilled bread at The Wood Shed

Walking into The Wood Shed in Stanley, N.C., is like entering a fine steakhouse in the American West.

You’ll hear country music. You’ll see the wood accents all around you. There’s even a model train that tracks an oval above the dining area. But the smell, that’s what you’ll experience first, and that’s what you’ll enjoy the most – at least until you taste your dinner.

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Growing up in the Stanley area, I remember many nights driving through town and breathing in the delicious aroma from the grill at The Wood Shed. It’s a steakhouse-style restaurant that serves up some of the tastiest beef, chicken and salmon off the grill that you’ll find anywhere. And whatever your entrée choice, you’ll enjoy it with one of the best salad bars around and delicious grilled bread.

Many people frequent The Wood Shed for the succulent prime rib the eatery’s known for. But I’m not a prime rib kind of guy, so I’m more likely to enjoy a NY strip, the chopped steak or the beef tips. You really can’t go wrong with anything you choose. There’s even a service plate option for diners who want to share a main course with someone else.

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The tender and smoky rib tips at The Wood Shed

The Wood Shed’s been owned by local businessman Bill Withers for decades, and it hasn’t changed all that much, other than the tomato-and-onion sandwiches that used to be complimentary on the salad bar and now come as an appetizer option.

Next time you’re looking for a place to have a nice meal – maybe to celebrate a special birthday or anniversary – check out The Wood Shed on Main Street in Stanley. The intoxicating scent will lead you there, and a happy stomach will lead you home.

Foodie Travels: Sunni Sky’s Homemade Ice Cream, Angier, N.C.

f4daf9ed20558c50ec3c10eeb341907eIf you haven’t yet discovered Sunni Sky’s Homemade Ice Cream in the North Carolina community of Angier (between Raleigh and Fayetteville), you’re missing out. Dozens of flavors await you, including some very creative options that you likely wouldn’t expect.

My first experience with Sunni Sky’s came about a dozen years ago while visiting a friend at nearby Campbell University. A group of us drove along the country roads of central North Carolina and over to the ice cream shop, where I had my first taste of pumpkin pie ice cream. And, boy, was it good!

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Photo: Sunni Sky’s Facebook page

That’s a pretty tame flavor compared to one of the shop’s most adventurous selections. How about ice cream with hot peppers and other sizzling ingredients? That’s the aptly named cold sweat, and it’s so fire-like that you can expect to sign a waiver if you want to consume a serving. The flavor is so “hot” that it’s garnered attention near and far for Sunni Sky’s.

Sunni Sky’s draws customers by the droves in the spring and summer months, so don’t expect to have this place all to yourself, especially on the busiest days. But while there’s not much standing room inside when the counter’s full, there are options to sit outside, or you can roll down the windows and take a seat in your car in the parking lot.

v67DMubcwVWAnzJMtqWmg_UQtkYpRC7VSx47f-gWCTcWhat makes an ice cream shop a winner for you? Maybe it’s the reasonable prices, the flavor selection, the consistency of the treat, or the small-town, family-friendly atmosphere. Or perhaps you like the opportunity to try as many flavors as you like to decide what you want to purchase. You’ll find all of those at Sunni Sky’s, which the owner named after his two children, Sunni and Skylar.

Take cash with you to Sunni Sky’s, and prepare your tastebuds. You’re in for quite an ice cream ride!

 

Sunni Sky’s Homemade Ice Cream

8617 State Highway 55, Angier, N.C.

Foodie Travels: Kim’s Kitchen, Stanley, N.C.

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Remember a time in your life when something you loved suddenly was gone? What if, one day, it came back?

That’s the experience I’ve had with Kim’s Kitchen Family Restaurant in Stanley, N.C. I grew up eating Kim’s Kitchen food with my family. Mom and Dad even delivered my favorite meal, the Kim’s cheeseburger basket, to me in Alabama, South Carolina and other parts of North Carolina. Then, in 2013, Kim’s Kitchen closed, as owners Kim and Clyde Millman pursued retirement and opportunities to travel together.

Four long years passed without a delicious Kim’s cheeseburger, the best burger I’ve ever had because of its fresh, hand-pattied beef, melted cheese and soft bun. It’s a generous sandwich, with one juicy patty and any toppings you like. I’ve talked up the Kim’s burger everywhere I’ve lived, and any other cheeseburger I’ve eaten has come with a side comparison to the measuring stick that I enjoyed at her restaurant.

Earlier this year, my family heard that Kim’s would reopen in the coming months. It felt like a dream, but not as much of a dream as actually visiting and enjoying a cheeseburger on day one of the renewed Kim’s Kitchen.

 

We’re so glad you’re back

It was almost surreal for this foodie to watch Kim greet her loyal customers as they streamed through the doors on re-opening day. My parents and I walked to a corner table and pulled up three chairs in what felt like a flashback to 1997 or 2007. But it was 2017, and it was real.

Not much has changed as far as décor goes. The wood-colored walls, the tables and chairs, the front counter, the kitchen window, the swinging doors to the dining area. All just as we left them several years ago.

Kim always walked around the restaurant to visit with her diners, and that hasn’t changed either. She stopped at our table and hugged me as we awaited our lunch, and then she proceeded to give out hugs all around the restaurant. “We’re so glad you’re back,” customers kept saying. Kim and her staff shared the same sincere sentiment in each conversation. If the first day of a new era of Kim’s Kitchen was an indication, the revived local dining icon hasn’t missed a beat.

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That’s the taste

When our order came to the table, the anticipation reached its highest peak. I ordered the sandwich I enjoyed so many times in the past: cheeseburger with lettuce and mayonnaise and a side of fries. In fact, that exact order with those toppings has become my standard test of the cheeseburger a restaurant makes, anywhere I go. I figure if they can’t make a solid basic cheeseburger, there’s not much hope for the remainder of the menu.

Dad ordered his favorite cheeseburger toppings, too: chili, mustard and onions, with a side of broccoli casserole (you can get fries, or you can enjoy one of the restaurant’s other side items with your sandwich). Mom had her customary chicken filet sandwich with fries.

Dad took a bite. “That’s the taste.” Those were the first words out of his mouth after tasting his first Kim’s burger in several years. Well said, Dad. Soon afterward, I took my first bite and felt the same way. The cheeseburger was just as delicious as I remembered.

Mom said later that she could’ve accompanied me and Dad and just watched us enjoy our meal. It would have been worth it, she said, just to see the smiles on our faces. We were home because Kim is home.

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What you’ll find at Kim’s

Kim’s is about the cheeseburger for me, but there’s so much more on the menu. You can enjoy a wide variety of sandwiches with accompanying sides of fries, onion rings, potato salad and more. There are also salads and daily specials of meat-and-three-style plates. And ask about the dessert specials that are available.

Just as important as the food, though, is the hospitality and tradition at Kim’s Kitchen. The Millman family has invested more than a quarter of a century in the Stanley-area community. For that reason, walking into Kim’s feels like walking into a dear friend’s house. And now it feels like that good friend has come home after moving away for several years.

I can’t wait to enjoy my next cheeseburger, and I hope to see you there. After all, it takes both outstanding restaurateurs and outstanding customers to build a legendary #FoodieScore spot, and that’s just what Kim’s Kitchen has become over all these years.

 

Kim’s Kitchen

106 Mariposa Road, Stanley, N.C.

Foodie Travels: Cindy’s Starlite Café, Catawba, N.C.

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I’m a retired competitive eater now (Molly rejoices for that), but at one time I had eyes far larger than my belly, as the Southern saying goes.

I once ate more than 100 fried shrimp in one sitting. I could knock down a couple dozen Taco Bell tacos, no problem. I’d devour more than 20 pieces of buffet pizza. If it was a challenge, either officially or informally and no matter how unhealthy, I was game.

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One of my bites into the Wicked Willy Challenge in 2012.

So when my newsroom colleagues and I heard about “The Wicked Willy Challenge” at Cindy’s Starlite Café back in 2012, I was naturally intrigued. The Catawba, N.C., restaurant offered a two-pound cheeseburger with chili and slaw, a large side of chili-cheese fries and a 32-ounce drink. If you could stomach it in 20 minutes or less, it was free. If not, you paid the price. And let me tell you, there was a price to pay either way.

My news publisher at the time, Michael Willard, took the challenge – health waiver and all – alongside me. And we both failed…miserably. Michael made more of a “dent” in his plate than I did, but both of our names went on a failures list on the restaurant menu board behind the cash register.

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This is the Wicked Willy Challenge plate in 2012.

One of my many sensory memories of that day has been the appetizing-looking “normal” cheeseburgers on the plates of other people dining in the restaurant at the time of our demising challenge. A group of firefighters and residents watched as we succumbed to the Wicked Willy, and I’ve wondered since that day what it would be like to actually enjoy my visit to Cindy’s, with no pressure and at least a pound less of food sitting in front of me.

Well, I wonder no more. Almost five years to the day of my Wicked Willy challenge, I took Molly to Cindy’s on the main street in the small eastern Catawba County community to try out a normal meal. She enjoyed a delicious Chicken Philly and Potato Wedges, and I calmly savored a basic Cheeseburger and Fries. Both plates were flavorful, freshly made and just the right amount of filling.

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The Chicken Philly and Potato Wedges at Cindy’s

The service at Cindy’s was just what you’d hope for in a Southern hometown-friendly restaurant. You’ll get great attention and care whether you’re a regular or a visitor, like we were.

You’ll find lots of your favorite diner-style food at Cindy’s, both breakfast and lunch/dinner favorites. You will even spot a framed copy of the article about our food challenge on the wall.

But what you won’t find: my name on the failures board as it was back in 2012, or my Wicked Willy plate sitting in front of me ever again.

The Wicked Willy challenge was the effective end of my competitive eating career. But it wasn’t the end of my love for a great regular-people-sized cheeseburger, or my support for the wonderful local restaurant and staff at Cindy’s Starlite Café.

 

Cindy’s Starlite Café

110 S. Main St., Catawba, N.C.

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Foodie Travels: Webb Custom Kitchen, Gastonia, N.C.

Like many cities across North Carolina, Gastonia has seen the center of its activity move away from its downtown area over the decades. The older west side of town used to be the lifeblood of the community, but over time much of that vitality moved east, closer to the Charlotte metro. Growing up in Gaston County, I watched the economy and entertainment move along Franklin Boulevard, seeing longtime businesses close in the west/downtown and new shops pop up by the dozens toward the east side.

But following and coinciding with all of that movement in Gastonia and other cities throughout the state, there has been a trend toward downtown revitalization. Many cities have made concerted efforts to bring back the importance, the interest and the people to downtown areas and main streets, and that’s certainly been no exception in Gastonia.

Perhaps the grandest example of a desire to revive Gastonia’s downtown is Webb Custom Kitchen, a longtime former theatre that now operates as a first-class American restaurant that beautifully partners the past with the present and the future.

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Stepping inside Webb Custom Kitchen is almost like being in two places at once. You get the feel of the old theatre, with camera and projection equipment throughout the space. Much of the music is from decades past, and you can enjoy Turner Classic Movies films on a large screen viewable from all of the seats. At the same time, there’s a fresh and modern feel to the accents of the place, from the chic dinnerware to the updated lighting to the opportunity to watch all the action in the kitchen. These pieces come together in a classy way that almost makes you feel like you’re dining in a scene straight out of The Great Gatsby.

Of course, we’re talking about a restaurant here, and despite the A+ grade we’d give Webb Custom Kitchen for everything from atmosphere to service, the highest marks of all go to the menu and the food itself. We visited for an early dinner on a Saturday afternoon, and we experienced what was quite possibly the best three-course meal we’ve ever enjoyed anywhere. (And particularly across the South, we’ve sampled our share of fare.)

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For starters, we sampled the Duck Cigar, a spring roll with light and flaky pastry containing savory duck cooked in its own fat and a mixture of fresh vegetables, all served with three flavor-packed, house-made dipping sauces. Molly told me after our dinner that she’s never had a better spring/egg roll. I just wish it was a bottomless appetizer; it’s that good!

Then came the main course. For me, I couldn’t stay away from the cheeseburger on the menu, and that led me to enjoy one of the best gourmet burgers anywhere. The beef was light, juicy, cooked to perfection, and surrounded by mushrooms, bacon, fresh lettuce and tomato, all on a hearty and flavorful brioche bun. I chose to enjoy it with a side of creamy, buttery country potato cakes. (Think mashed potatoes in a compact pancake form.)

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Molly decided to sample a chicken dish (containing three juicy cuts of charbroiled chicken), served alongside a fresh salad of spinach, tomatoes and goat cheese, and drizzled with a delicious sweet sauce with a hint of red-wine vinegar. She’s a big fan of Greek-style chicken dishes, and this one ranked among the best she’s had. For her side, she chose the stone-ground cheese grits, which offered a hearty and creamy accompaniment.

Dessert’s not often on our priority list after a sit-down restaurant meal, but after the first two courses were so grand, how could we not at least hear the options? Just about the time we made that decision, one of Webb Custom Kitchen’s managers stopped by our table to check on our meal experience. He shared some suggestions of his favorite dessert creations– including our eventual choice, a Chocolate Mousse Cake with mousse, chocolate cake, chocolate cheesecake and hints of cocoa. That was the winner, and it was a scrumptious, surprisingly light and not-too-rich closer to a phenomenal meal.

As we soaked in our evening visit to Webb Custom Kitchen, it was fun to imagine the past life of the Webb Theatre. The classic movies on the screen in the restaurant certainly aided that reflection, as did the camera equipment on the steps leading from the upstairs dining area to the front entrance. Webb Custom Kitchen wonderfully incorporates so many pieces of the past in its presence, and in doing so it has brought a vibrant life back to the western end of Gastonia.

 

Webb Custom Kitchen

182 S. South St., Gastonia, N.C.

WebbCustomKitchen.com

Foodie Travels: Hamrick’s Country Store & Grill, Cleveland County, NC

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The more I travel this amazing country of ours, I can picture the evolution of the American restaurant, living out the timeline of growth through my own eating stops.

In the past year especially, I’ve noticed a specific trend from the past that’s getting harder to find — the country grocery and diner. From Texas to Mississippi to my home state of North Carolina, I’ve experienced the wonderfully familiar feeling of walking into a longtime business that houses both convenience items, groceries and a restaurant. Or, in some cases, these places used to offer all of those goods and services. Many of the former “grocery” spots that also serve made-to-order food have turned into one or the other — but not all have changed completely.

A visit to Hamrick’s Country Store & Grill is a blissful step back in Southern time.

The roadside corner shop is a convenience and home goods store in the front and a meat counter and grill in the back. You can pick up fresh meat, hand-canned goods, a made-to-order cheeseburger or meat-and-vegetable plate and a snack for on down the road, all in one place.

“Speak up, or you’ll be hungry.”

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Photo Credit: @hamricksgrillandstore on Facebook

When you step to the back grill counter, the wait and cook staff exudes familiarity. Even if they don’t know you, they’ll welcome your order and bring it out to you. If they do know you, expect to be greeted by name. And either way, don’t be shy, or you might hear the prodding statement above.

I’ve known people who’ve eaten for many years at Hamrick’s, which as the crow flies is just a couple of miles from where my Dad grew up here in western North Carolina. Most repeat diners I’ve known are fans of the burger off the Hamrick’s grill, and so am I.

It’s like unwrapping a homemade burger, right off the grill. You can get other toppings, but I like mine with what I call the basics: lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. The tomato is like a thick cut you’d slice yourself, and the hearty bun aptly houses the whole sandwich.

“Anything else I can get for you today, hon?”

When you step toward the front register to pay, the friendly experience comes full circle. There are plenty of options to take with you from the country store. On a recent visit, I spotted a handmade book shelf, cookbooks from a nearby church, jars of home-canned food, and plenty of convenience items like bottled drinks, snacks and more.

What Hamrick’s offers in hometown gusto, it lacks in frilly and impersonal modern commercial culture. And that makes it a good place to pick up a biscuit for breakfast, pause for lunch, gather the family for supper, stop to stock up for the road, or even make a few new friends.

It’s places like Hamrick’s that connect our fond memories of the past with the lives we lead in the present.

Hamrick’s Country Store & Grill, 3142 Cliffside Road, Shelby

Phone: (704) 313-7270