Foodie Travels: Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, Charleston, S.C.

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When we travel, we like to maximize our foodie opportunities to visit great local restaurants. You won’t find us eating at a chain establishment in a faraway city. But you might find us driving slightly out of the way to test out a restaurant we’ve seen or heard great things about.

On a recent trip to Charleston, one of the greatest and most diverse foodie cities in the Southeast and all of America, I faced a major dining dilemma. For months, I’ve been hearing about a place called Scott’s BBQ in the small community of Hemingway, South Carolina, a 90-minute drive from Charleston and way off the beaten path on my journey from and back to Charlotte, North Carolina. Scott’s, I’m told, is one of the best places anywhere to eat whole-hog, pulled-pork barbecue because of the emphasis on quality wood and slow smoking. But how could I sensibly add three hours to my trip for one meal, even if meant sampling some of the best barbecue out there?

A little restaurant research solved my quandary. (I recommend you always thoroughly research restaurants and cities before making your dining plans. Spontaneity can lead to great foodie adventures, but I’ve seen many Yelp and Trip Advisor complaints that could’ve been avoided with a little planning and scouting.)

Apparently the people of Charleston also wanted to enjoy Scott’s BBQ, enough that Rodney Scott has opened a location on Upper King Street to sell his delicious barbecued meats and sides. So, I got to go to Charleston and have my barbecue, too. And what an amazing barbecue experience it is!

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Scott sells ribs and chicken in his Charleston spot, too, but I had to try out his renowned whole hog pulled pork because that’s what I’ve heard so much about. (When we say whole hog, we mean the whole hog is cooked slowly for about 12 hours in the barbecue pit.) I’m proud to say I watched a Southern Foodways Alliance feature on Scott that reveals he shares my belief in the power of perfectly cooked meat that doesn’t need to drown in sauce. He offers his own spicy, thin barbecue sauce, but his meat is so masterfully and flavorfully smoked that you don’t even need it.

What you do need is to get a pork plate with sides of cornbread and macaroni and cheese. The moist cornbread appears to be brushed on the top with honey and comes with a cup of fresh cream butter. The mac and cheese is hot, gooey and oh, so creamy, too.

If you get cornbread on the plate, you will have double bread, as two slices of white sandwich bread come with the pork as well. I always love that style of service, as it’s what I’m familiar with from eating barbecue in Alabama and Kansas City, too. You can make a sandwich with some of your pork and your bread, and you might consider your sweet cornbread a dessert of sorts. That’s what I did.

Rodney Scott’s BBQ is like an alternate double world within Charleston, a city known so much for its culinary prowess, particularly food with lowcountry flair. Scott’s serves pork that I imagine mirrors the product in his hole-in-the-wall old joint up in Hemingway, but it comes in new-age digs that I found to be neat, tidy and without unnecessary frills. From door to counter to table, the service was incredibly friendly, too.

I’m sure glad I did my research before traveling through Charleston. If I hadn’t, I would’ve missed this prize in a city full of great food. For the barbecue lover, Rodney Scott’s is, as advertised, the must-visit BBQ spot in all of South Carolina, whether you’re in Charleston or can make it to Hemingway for the original.

Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, 1011 King Street, Charleston, S.C.

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Foodie Travels: Carolina BBQ, Spartanburg, S.C.

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I’ve savored barbecue from corner to corner of North Carolina, but South Carolina is a different story. I realized recently that I couldn’t name even one prime barbecue restaurant in South Carolina that I could recommend to a BBQ-loving friend. So, of course, we had to change that.

Earlier this year we came across Carolina BBQ—perhaps the most common name for a barbecue restaurant in either of the Carolinas (seriously, there’s one almost everywhere it seems)—and I added it to my #FoodieScore scouting list for the state of South Carolina. (We receive a lot of “you have to eat here” recommendations, and each one goes on a list that changes almost daily. Thank you for your great suggestions!) Luckily, Carolina BBQ is in Spartanburg, which is about a 90-minute roundtrip from our home in Shelby, N.C. And it just so happens to also carry Southern Living magazine’s endorsement as the best barbecue in the state of South Carolina.

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Normally, I’d classify barbecue restaurants into two categories, legendary dives and modern Q shacks. Carolina BBQ is almost a solid hybrid of the two. From the outside of the place, you almost get the sense you’re about to venture into a decades-old kingdom of delicious meats and sides. When you walk in the door, it feels like a new-age take on the old lunch counter experience, with bar-and-stool and booth seating available.

Then you hit the menu, and you continue to toe the line of old school and new school. Carolina BBQ plates a hearty assortment of Carolinas BBQ favorites. We’re talking pulled pork (always my first meat choice at a Carolinas BBQ establishment, and theirs was a nice mix of meaty and seasoned), sliced pork and half chicken, the stuff you read on the menu of an iconic barbecue spot. But keep reading because there’s also St. Louis ribs, beef brisket and smoked turkey, and that’s just the meat.

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The side dish lineup is strong, including creamy, thick, hearty mac & cheese, the biggest fried squash you’ve seen in your life, creamy and crunchy coleslaw, and quite possibly the best Brunswick stew I’ve ever eaten. For folks not familiar, Brunswick stew is a thick soup that usually contains lima or butter beans, vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes and corn, along with shredded meat and spices for flavor. A cup of Brunswick stew is the perfect warmup on a cold day, and I’ve eaten my share of it from my days living in Eastern North Carolina. Carolina BBQ’s stew will also delight folks who are more familiar with the term “chili” or “chili beans” due to its warmth, richness and spice kick.

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Of course, a restaurant’s barbecue sauce of choice is always a heady question, and that’s one place Carolina BBQ functions as more of a modern Q shack. There’s no one sauce to rule them all. You get three on the table. When I think of South Carolina barbecue as shared by the traveling experts, I think of a mustard sauce, and Carolina BBQ’s is a good one, with a solid influence of mustard but almost a smoky-sweet side to it as well. There’s also a “mild” sauce that, to me, had more of a kick to it. And finally there’s a Cheerwine sauce that tastes more like Cheerwine than any Cheerwine BBQ sauce you’ve ever had in your life. If you love Cheerwine, you have to try it first, especially if you’re not already drinking the soda by the same name, so you can tell the difference. The sauce is a ringer for the taste of the North Carolina-based soda that celebrates 100 years in 2017. I had to sample all three sauces in separate areas of my plate, and I couldn’t pick a clear favorite. They’re all good.

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My pork plate came with two sides AND four hushpuppies (so did my wife Molly’s savory smoked turkey plate, of which there was so much that she took half home), so we had plenty to eat without dessert. But how could we resist either the deep-fried brownie bites or homemade banana pudding? We went with the banana pudding, which is unlike most you’ll find in our part of the South. The pudding is sweet, light and almost airy, not heavy at all, filled with fresh banana slices, and all on top of a crunchy pecan sandie-like cookie base. When you dig in with your spoon, dip all the way to the bottom to get a solid crunchy bite of that cookie as you scoop up through the pudding, the bananas and the whipped cream. For someone who likes to get creative in the kitchen, the Carolina BBQ banana pudding is a delightful new take on the classic Southern dessert.

Carolina BBQ offers both the classics as you’ve come to love them and favorites with new twists—and we loved both angles—so I might have to create a new “hybrid” category to describe similar barbecue restaurants. One thing’s for sure: This Spartanburg Q shop has plenty of choices for you, and they’ll all come at an affordable price. We savored two plates, two drinks and dessert for $23. Not bad at all for a filling Saturday dinner!

Carolina BBQ, 7115 Lone Oak Road, Spartanburg, S.C.

Baked Pie Company, Asheville, N.C.

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What if I told you there’s a place where you can get three hearty slices of delicious homemade pie alongside a creamy scoop of sweet ice cream, all on a plate just for you or to share with friends and family, for $13?

Your reaction will immediately reveal how alike or different we are.

Well, there is such a place, and it’s a South Asheville shop called Baked Pie Company. The slice trio a la mode is known as a “Pie Flight,” a takeoff on the multiple-option beer flights made popular by breweries.

Baked Pie counter

This is where we determine our degree of similarity. Beer just isn’t a thing for Molly and me. Pie, however, well, it’s the only thing sometimes. Outside of a great restaurant that serves both top-notch cheeseburgers and tacos, there’s nothing that excites us more than visiting a stellar pie shop with an array of sweet slices.

Baked Pie Company has no doubt instantly joined our list of favorite pie shops with its seemingly endless display case of fruit, cream, nut and other pies. There are sugar and gluten free options. There are cheesecakes. You can order a whole pie. You can enjoy just a slice. You can indulge in a flight, which we highly recommend.

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On our first-ever visit, Molly and I each sampled our own flight. To be transparent, she took home almost half of her slices to enjoy later, but I finished the whole flight in one sitting. Hey, it was my birthday, and it was my lunch that day!

Each pie itself was incredible, and the crusts were perfectly flaky and light, not overdone in the slightest.

The honey pecan, available most every day on a rotating menu, was perfectly sweet without going over the top, and the caramelized nuts on top were so fresh and perfectly placed it’s like Baked added them after the pie cooked. The blueberry crumb offered a fresh berry taste with a sweet, slight crunch. The sweet potato was rich with real sweet potato flavor and texture, while offering the balance of a fine streusel. The lemon chess was wonderfully tart. The cranberry cheesecake a creamy delight. And the fudge brownie so rich and chocolately with the taste of real cocoa!

We enjoyed our pies in the dining area of Baked, which offers wooden tables and chairs, both in a family-style table setup and along a counter-style seating option. The rustic accents around the room add another nice touch that makes the place feel just like home. That and the aroma and sight of all that pie!

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When it comes to dessert, we understand that many folks enjoy a slice of cake, a fancy cupcake or another favorite option. We’re not those people. No, we’re pie people, and Baked Pie Company is a kindred spirit in our foodie world. If you’re a pie person, too, it’s an urgent addition on your must-visit list!

Baked Pie Company, 4 Long Shoals Road, Arden, N.C.

Pro Tip: Check the Baked Pie Company Facebook page each morning for the day’s pie list!

Foodie Travels: The Shake Shop, Cherryville, N.C.

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Don’t be fooled! If you drive by this place outside business hours, you might think it’s closed because of its rustic exterior. It’s not.

Again, don’t be fooled! If you’re a foodie fan of trendy spots, you might confuse this spot with the renowned Shake Shack, a fast-food chain based in New York City. It’s not.

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This is The Shake Shop, a locally owned Cherryville icon that’s been serving up Southern sandwich, side and drink favorites for decades. And it’s one of several dining favorites, along with Black’s Grill, in the western Gaston County community that have earned Cherryville press coverage as “Cheeseburger Town.”

That acclaim recently extended statewide as The Shake Shop was featured in the popular Our State magazine as one of North Carolina’s must-visit “Hole in the Wall” joints. The publication was enough to get us to finally make a #FoodieScore visit to The Shake Shop, and here’s what we discovered.

  • Don’t expect to immediately get a table on a Saturday if you arrive past 11:15 a.m. We drove up just before 11 a.m. and waited for the doors to open. After ordering at the counter and selecting a booth, we watched the small dining area fill to capacity in about 15 minutes. We also suggest you call ahead if you’re heading to The Shake Shop from outside town. We discovered the hours on the restaurant’s Facebook page are different than what’s posted on the door.
  • You must take cash here. Don’t forget!
  • Don’t expect to get a shake. While they’ve been served here in the past and the word is still in the name, it’s not part of the menu now. Do consider a handmade cherry lemon Sun-Drop, with cherries on top. It’s also a favorite drink over at Black’s Grill in town.
  • If you like Lottaburgers—a submarine sandwich-style bun filled with a burger patty and toppings on each half—you should try one here. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a place to top this lottaburger. The flavors—juicy meat, fresh slaw, tomato and pickle, also the standard sandwich toppings at Black’s Grill—and the portions are both large!
  • The onion rings are a great side choice, as heralded by locals. They’re some of the crunchiest, least greasy, flavorful onion rings we’ve had anywhere.

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The Shake Shop’s not the kind of place where you’ll find the crowd looking for the hippest, trendiest, most expensive and chic food available. It’s the kind of place where you’ll see families and friends meeting for a delicious meal at a good price. (We ate with tip for less than $20, and we ordered a few extras on top of the basics.) And it’s the kind of place where you’ll see regular customers arriving to a familiar question: “Are you having your usual today?” We heard that several times during just one quick lunchtime visit.

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Oh, and do expect to be called “honey” and “sweetie” when you order, as the Our State story reported. Southern hospitality flows freely here, and that’s just the way we like it.

The Shake Shop, 505 W. Church St., Cherryville, N.C.

Foodie Travels: Black’s Grill, Cherryville, N.C.

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“Black’s Grill,” I would say as I answered the phone, pen poised in hand, ready to take another order. I’d write it down on a ticket pad, then tear it off and stick it above the main grill. Whoever was manning the grill would put on any necessary burgers and buns, and pass the ticket on down the line. As the fry cook, if I took the order, I’d go ahead and get the fries from the freezer and put them in the basket, to dip down into hot, yellow-brown oil.

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My two favorite parts of the job were the people and the free meal every day. The people I worked with at Black’s were there because they needed a job or wanted this particular one. Our boss, Barbara Hastings (who later passed it on to her son), was a phenomenal boss who cared just as much about her employees as she did her business. I think she knew it takes good, happy employees to make a good restaurant. My coworkers were like family to me. Those ladies taught me a lot about getting along with other people and caring. They had been through hard times, so they understood more than most people do. I wasn’t a rich kid, I was just trying to help make money for myself and for college. So I understood, too. I worked there for over two years, and those years at that job taught me more than many other jobs I have had. I learned hard work and I learned what kind of worker I was: someone who valued quality, attention to detail, and who would get things done when she saw they needed doing.

Today, I’m a schoolteacher and I don’t get to man the deep fryer anymore, or carry up large boxes full of fries from the basement. I don’t get to occasionally work the grill or dress the sandwiches. But I still go back to Cherryville from time to time to get a taste of that good old food so characteristic of my time there. And when I taste my first sip of a hand-crafted cherry lemon Sun-Drop, I know I’m in the right place.

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So what can you get at Black’s Grill? Oh, Lordy, where to start! Here are a few of my favorites. First, you have to get that cherry lemon Sun-Drop, because the waitress will make it with Sun-Drop, real cherry juice, a lemon, and cherries mixed in. It’s a powerfully refreshing drink. For food, Black’s has one of the best hamburgers in the world. Thick, perfectly-grilled, hand-pattied, juicy, hearty burgers with plenty of cheese on a toasted bun. We used to toast the buns with a thin layer of mayonnaise on the underside and lay ‘em straight on the grill. (Don’t tell my dad. He hates mayonnaise.) They have a mean hamburger steak, and another of my favorites is the grilled chicken melt: a grilled chicken breast on Texas toast with grilled onions and cheese. Get mayo, lettuce or any other toppings you like.

One good thing to know about Black’s: the default sandwich topping is slaw, tomato, pickle. I still go places and get slaw and tomato due to my love for it at Black’s. (They make slaw fresh every day, and there were quite a few times I made it myself. It’s a no-sugar slaw, just freshly chopped cabbage and plenty of cold mayo. It’s pert near perfect.) You can also get any number of other things like hotdogs, chicken patty sandwiches, corndogs, and more. They have a delicious Poorboy, ham and cheese on a hoagie bun, or Half and Half, ham and cheese on one half and a small cheeseburger on the other half of a hoagie bun.

Perhaps the king for me though is the grilled cheese. I’m serious. Black’s will trip you up because they have two versions: a toasted cheese and a grilled cheese. Be not fooled – they are not the same. A toasted cheese is your typical grilled cheese – cheese toasted between two slices of buttery bread. But a grilled cheese sandwich is another beast entirely. Here’s how it’s done: they take a fresh slice of American and plop it right on the grill, then put the bottom half of a hamburger bun on top of it upside down. They let the cheese cook and harden until it’s brown and crispy on one side, then use a spatula to scrape it up, while holding the bottom bun, then flip it right-side-up onto a sandwich paper. The sandwich dresser tops it with slaw, tomato, two small pickles, and salt and pepper, before capping it with its top bun. It’s then wrapped Black’s style. Let me tell you. I have never gotten a grilled cheese as good as this anywhere and my husband and I have eaten local food in more than 30 U.S. states. When you bite into that fresh, cool slaw and tomato, and taste it all mixed in with that crispy, toasted, melty cheese…there ain’t another taste like it. Even when I get another menu item, or even a basket, I get a grilled cheese to share with someone, too.

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Black’s famed Grilled Cheese

When you first walk into Black’s, you might feel a little out of place, or time. That’s because the people who go there are mostly regulars. But it won’t take long before you’re greeted and treated like family. And it won’t take long, if you live close by, before you’re a regular, too. I don’t live in Cherryville anymore, but I stop by when I can. It is always worth the stop. They’ve also done some snazzy retro redecorating inside and I must say, I really like it, from the Cherryville-themed mural to the antique fry baskets hanging on the walls holding ketchup packets and such. One word of warning: the parking lot and the dining room are cozy, so try to go at a less busy, less typically-lunch time of day.

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Thinking back to tickets, Black’s Grill was one of two food jobs I had where someone sent me home with order tickets before I started my first day. I was encouraged to study them and the menu to learn what was offered and how to write it. And study, I did. I was a nerdy kid. Today, I’m so glad I had that job, that when I walked in to meet Barbara for the first time, she was willing to give this homeschooled kid a chance, and that when I started to work there, I became a part of the Black’s Grill family. I miss those times. But what a blessing it is that Black’s Grill is still there – and hopping with business! – as a reminder of what’s important in life: treating people, and feeding people, right.

Black’s Grill, 1915 Lincolnton Highway, Cherryville, NC

Foodie Travels: Ray’s Drive Inn, San Antonio, Texas

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We wish you good luck if you visit Ray’s Drive Inn, an iconic restaurant in San Antonio, Texas.

You’ll need luck to find a parking space in Ray’s lot, which seems to stay quite full, especially at peak dinner times. (They do appear to have a gravel parking lot across the street.) But that’s your first good clue that you’re in for an awesome dining experience at the spot that calls itself the home of the original puffy taco.

And speaking of that taco, good luck resisting the opportunity to order as many as you can, filled with nearly as many toppings as you can imagine. If you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll experience amazing service at Ray’s with a server who’s willing to describe the contents of each taco option.

Ray’s was our first stop on a two-day summer excursion through San Antonio, and we’ll be honest with you that it was quite difficult to not return for every other meal we ate in the city!

It was the aforementioned “puffy taco” that attracted us to Ray’s. I had heard about puffy tacos on one of the many Food Network shows I regularly binge on, and it appeared Ray’s was the place to get them.

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If you’ve never had one, the puffy taco is almost like a premium Taco Bell chalupa, but it’s far fresher and, well, better. The outer shell is fried crispy yet maintains a lightness that yields to the delicious filling it carries.

On our visit we sampled puffy tacos with zesty chicken fajitas, seasoned ground beef, savory pork, crispy fried fish and carne guisada. Each one offered the same familiar pop of fresh flavor of toppings like lettuce and tomato, and a crispy, puffy shell. But each one’s unique meat performed its own flavor concert with the other ingredients.

We ate a basket of chips that also came to the table—and the menu features a variety of other Mexican and American favorites—but otherwise this #FoodieScore stop was all about the tacos—wondrous homemade-style tacos.

If you can’t resist a tasty taco like us, don’t miss Ray’s. We suggest you take cash and expect a hearty crowd of other taco lovers. San Antonio’s quite lucky to have this taco treasure.

Ray’s Drive Inn, 822 SW 19th Street, San Antonio, Texas

5 Coffee Shops We Love

We sample a lot of foods that deserve the moniker of a #FoodieScore, but as all foodies well know, sometimes you can score with a beverage, too. To recognize some of those drinkable delights, we compiled this list of our favorite coffee shops across the South. From Oxford, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, to our own little corner of North Carolina – here are five places you can satisfy your coffee fix.

Bottletree Bakery

The Bowl of Soul at Bottletree Bakery

BOTTLETREE BAKERY, Oxford, Mississippi—Just off one of our favorite town squares in all of America, there’s more than a bakery awaiting you here. Chances are good you’ll be drawn to the shop’s treat counter first, with its pies and pastries and other confections. But you don’t want to overlook the coffee, especially our favorite, the Bowl of Soul espresso! The spot is also one of the best to get a quick bite to eat in this Southern town that’s home to Ole Miss.

Collins Quarter

Matcha at Collins Quarter

THE COLLINS QUARTER, Savannah, Georgia—There’s a reason you feel like you’ve stepped into a street café in a foreign country when you enter. It’s because the name, the atmosphere and some of the menu items get their inspiration from Australian influences. Right in the heart of a downtown district that oozes with Southern charm and history, this favorite spot offers an assortment of coffees with global flair, along with a full menu and a delicious brunch on the weekends.

Broad River

Latte at Broad River (Photo Credit: @broad_river on Instagram

BROAD RIVER, Boiling Springs, North Carolina—When folks in this small college town refer to “the coffee shop,” this is exactly what they’re referencing. Whether you’re seeking one of a plethora of hot or cold brews, the best cup of hot tea to cure a cold or a tasty pastry for breakfast or a midday treat, you’ll find it all here. And if you’re not in a hurry, there’s plenty of room to relax on a couch or take a table for studying or working.

Frothy Monkey

White Monkey at Frothy Monkey

FROTHY MONKEY, Nashville, Tennessee—You won’t find a ton of room inside this former house, but the packed space is surely an indicator of the popularity of this shop in the city’s 12 South district. In addition to a variety of delicious locally roasted coffees, the place serves up breakfast, brunch, dinner and sweet treats, as well as beer and wine for those so inclined. We love it perhaps most of all for its funky name and the funky little space to match, along with the tasty White Monkey drink!

Camino

Chai Latte at Camino Bakery (Photo Credit: @caminobakery on Instagram)

CAMINO BAKERY, Winston-Salem, North Carolina—We first tried this hip, modern coffee shop after a show at the nearby Hanesbrands Theatre. Its delicious offerings – from well-crafted lattes to baked goods to a variety of wines – make it a perfect stop for any trip through Winston-Salem. We both love its variety of options, the college-town vibe and the beautifully-designed atmosphere.

Foodie Travels: Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn, Wilmington, N.C.

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We live in the age of digital marketing, a place and time in which companies sneakily obtain our personal information and then use it to lure us into buying their products or services. Even many of the old-fashioned billboards we pass on highways have been converted to digital boards that rotate, attempting to appeal to our culture’s tendency to move on quickly to the next newest and greatest thing.

So it might surprise some people that, for one, bumper stickers still exist, and two, they can still be a valuable tool for attracting customers such as me and my wife Molly to a restaurant. That was the case during a recent late-summer weekend getaway to the North Carolina coast. Over the course of two days, we noted a number of “Eat at Flaming Amy’s” bumper stickers on the backs of vehicles driving through the Wilmington, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach communities. We’d already visited other restaurants on our list for the weekend and still had a dinner destination to be determined, so we decided to listen to the bumpers calling, like colorful little subliminal messages, and visit the Flaming Amy’s website menu to learn more.

At that point, you might say we entered phase two of the marketing process. The bumper stickers caught our attention enough to seek more information. When we did that and learned of all of the delicious American-Mexican treats awaiting us, we quickly decided Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn was definitely the place to have dinner, meaning the restaurant’s whole tactic worked.

The Flaming Amy’s website touts the brand as hot, fast, cheap and easy. Let’s put that four-promise list to a quick test based on our visit. The meal only set us back about $20 for the two of us, which included two GIANT, specialized burritos, house-made tortilla chips and an included salsa bar with at least a dozen choices, two refillable drinks, and really no need for a tip because we paid at the counter and then visited the drink counter and salsa bar to serve ourselves. So cheap and easy checked out well. The burritos were steaming hot and clearly freshly rolled for us when they came out of the kitchen in less than 10 minutes, so hot and fast check out, too. Four promises were made, and all were kept, meaning the bumper sticker scheme felt more like a godsend than a gimmick.

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But Flaming Amy’s goes well beyond its simple promises. The restaurant’s burritos are packed with a TON (OK, so not literally a ton, but what might qualify in a human’s ability to eat a serving of food as a culinary ton) of fresh ingredients. I ordered a “Wok on the Beach,” a cleverly named concoction of shrimp, rice, broccoli and carrots that are like taking a Japanese stir-fry and using it to fill a massive tortilla. The burrito came with a side of chips, and I enjoyed dipping those in about nine different kinds of salsa from a salsa bar with even more choices than that. (Molly and I could only carry so many little cups back to the table without making excessive trips.) This place might consider adding the word “plentiful” to its list of promises. And “hip” would be another great choice, as Flaming Amy’s offers a very relaxing atmosphere that’s great for a dinner with the family or a meet-up with friends. We knew we were in for a treat when we reached the front door and it was colorfully covered (and that’s an understatement) with stickers.

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Before heading out those doors, I revisited the ordering counter to pick up my own Flaming Amy’s bumper sticker. While I don’t like attaching stickers to clutter our car’s bumper, I’m still proudly displaying the sticker in the form of this #FoodieScore recommendation, aren’t I? And you don’t have to pass me on the highway to see this advertisement. If you share it, it has the potential to reach an infinite number of people!

To summarize, and to unlock the next level in this great restaurant’s highly successful marketing plan by sharing my experience with other foodies, I’ll close with four more words: Eat at Flaming Amy’s.

Flaming Amy’s Burrito Barn, 4002 Oleander Drive, Wilmington, N.C. (location also at 1140-A North Lake Park Boulevard, Carolina Beach, N.C.)

You can also check out Flaming Amy’s Burrito Bowl, with two locations in Wilmington, N.C.

Foodie Travels: Chico’s Tacos, El Paso, Texas

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The United States-Mexico border is just a couple of miles down the road. You see hills jammed full of colorful houses in Mexico’s neighboring Ciudad Juarez on your drive to dinner. After arriving in the small, packed parking lot off Alameda Avenue in El Paso, Texas, you walk into an equally packed, nondescript building and walk to the counter, where orders are being taken—in Spanish. This is Chico’s Tacos.

The far-western Texas town of El Paso is America’s 20th largest city with more than a half million people. Ask any of the locals (and anyone who’s made their home in El Paso in the past) where you should eat; Chico’s Tacos, open since 1953, is always the answer.

We first heard about Chico’s Tacos from celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez on one of our favorite food shows, “Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Sanchez hooked us from the beginning of the episode by saying, “It’s always a good time to eat a taco. There’s never a bad time to eat a taco.” Amen, Aaron! Molly and I have a mantra about such food: #MexicanEveryDay. Sanchez goes on to share the delightfully simple pleasure of eating Chico’s Tacos, and those words—delightfully simple—are exactly how my wife, Molly, described the experience after our first-ever visit.

As Sanchez explains, the Chico’s Tacos are not the prettiest, most photogenic tacos you’ve ever seen. In fact, by today’s standards, they don’t look much like tacos at all. To the processed-food society we live in, they look more like what we’d call taquitos. But they are light, crispy and covered in a very thin tomato-chile sauce that fills a little cardboard food boat. Then all of that is covered in basic, finely shredded American cheese. It is indeed simple, yet so satisfying and authentically El Paso. And two people can dine (we had a double order of tacos, a bean burrito and two drinks) for about $10. For the non-taco-inclined, it appeared many of the locals were also fond of the Chico’s cheeseburger.

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I took Spanish classes for five years in high school and college, so I’m proud to say I knew what was said at the order counter and when our number was called. I was even able to answer a question from an employee about whether we wanted packets of “dulce,” or sweetener.

It was obvious we were one of few visitors in Chico’s at the time, as most folks appeared to be dining as part of a regular routine. In a time when so much emphasis is put on the struggles between different people in our country, it was nice to experience being visitors in this great place. El Paso is a city with many bilingual English and Spanish speakers, and some patrons even live or do business across the border in Mexico. Walking into Chico’s was a chance for us to experience life in the everyday world of another culture, still within the borders of our own country, though close to another.

Chico’s Tacos is essential El Paso dining. You’ll find fancier, pricier, more Instagram-ready food. You won’t, however, get a more realistic, local food experience.

Chico’s Tacos, 4230 Alameda Ave., El Paso, Texas (Other locations in town as well)

Foodie Travels: Saw’s BBQ, Birmingham, Ala.

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White barbecue sauce.

At tables throughout the pillar cities of the mainstream barbecue world—Memphis, Kansas City, Austin, et al—using those three words together will lead to confusing looks or sneering comments. Folks will either turn their nose at the notion out of offense that their barbecue style is the only way, or they’ll claim they’ve never heard tell of it.

But in Alabama, particularly the northern barbecue communities, white barbecue sauce is a historic mainstay, highly regarded on its own foodie throne. The condiment, often some mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar, pepper and other special ingredients, is the go-to traditional choice for many in the state.

I discovered white barbecue sauce while living in Alabama and working at Huntsville Hospital in 2011. A few of my colleagues at the time discovered my love for food and made it their mission to baptize me in appropriate local cuisine. (I never repented of my native North Carolinian ways, but I am thankful for their acceptance and food evangelism.) Coworkers shuttled me around to barbecue restaurants like Lawler’s and Little Paul’s (sadly now closed). I enjoyed each stop, but nothing wowed me as much as the food—and the white sauce—at Big Bob Gibson’s down in Decatur. (If you can say down, as Decatur is still in North Alabama.) My experiences at Gibson’s were among the best in my barbecue life, and I’m sure it helps, from a food history standpoint, that they draw credit for originally launching the white sauce movement.

When I moved back to North Carolina, I carried the Alabama barbecue experiences with me and shared them with others. I can’t remember a time when my talk of white barbecue sauce was met with anything but disregard here in my home state, until I told my wife, Molly, who has family connections to Alabama, about the stuff that’s odd to most and second nature to those living in “Sweet Home.” Molly seemed game to try Alabama white sauce, and she got her opportunity on a recent road trip that took us through the central portions of the state.

We had several solid choices for barbecue as we passed through Birmingham, and we decided on Saw’s BBQ in the Homewood community on the southeast side of the city. We’d never been to Homewood before, but it quickly gave us a small-town Main Street feel as we parked and walked up the street to Saw’s.

Inside the restaurant, it was clear most folks were regulars, meeting their friends and family for dinner, sitting in their usual spots inside and outside (where there are quite a few patio-style tables), ordering their favorites. The joint had the feel of a place that would be an ideal spot to chow down before or after an Alabama or Auburn (or both) football game on a fall Saturday. The familiar and comfortable qualities had me into the place before even seeing any food.

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For my dinner, I ordered a plate of the barbecue ribs, macaroni and cheese, and potato salad. The sides were both creamy and robust, wonderful deals for the price, The ribs were incredibly meaty (always a value question when trying ribs in a place you haven’t before), generously sauced (with a more universal-style barbecue sauce, though white sauce is available by request, which I heard several times) and wonderfully flavorful. I also love that they came in what I call “Alabama fashion,” with two pieces of plain, white sandwich bread, perfect for “sopping” the plate clean afterward. (If you haven’t tried soaking bread with barbecue sauce on your plate, you’re missing out.)

And of course, as this tale about white barbecue sauce leads you to believe, Molly and I sampled Saw’s Roasted Chicken Sandwich with White Barbecue Sauce. Molly often prefers chicken to pork at barbecue restaurants, and that desire was perfectly matched by Saw’s serving its chicken with the legendary white sauce.

The sauce was as flavorful and as unique as I remembered it at barbecue restaurants in North Alabama. You can tell the influence of mayonnaise, and I picked up a slight peppery quality, yet different from what you’d expect of a white pepper gravy. Quite honestly, Alabama white barbecue sauce is something you have to try for yourself to understand and appreciate. It’s unlike most anything else you’ll ever eat, so it’s hard to compare it to much. Molly enjoyed the sauce at Saw’s as much as I did, saying it was a great accompaniment to the chicken.

Saw’s impressed us with its homey, small-town feel, its delicious barbecue and sides, and its well-matched quality and cost. And I can say that all of my efforts in sharing the legend of Alabama white barbecue sauce finally netted a positive response from someone even game enough to seek it out and try it. I’m lucky that the willing participant is my wife, and I’m lucky that I got to further expand my barbecue horizons by enjoying Saw’s, a great spot in suburban Birmingham.

Saw’s Barbecue, 1008 Oxmoor Road, Homewood, Alabama