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.

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

#FoodieScore Recommends: Cleveland County (N.C.) Eats!

In Shelby, N.C., for the American Legion World Series baseball tournament? You’re sure to get hungry after all that baseball! Well, Shelby-based blog #FoodieScore’s got you covered with great local recommendations for where to eat while you’re here in Cleveland County, N.C. This list is just a small sampling of our favorite spots, and it is by no means a full list of all the amazing restaurants our county has to offer. We hope you enjoy!

Red Bridges BBQ

BBQ

Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, 2000 E. Dixon Blvd., Shelby

Red Bridges is arguably one of the most popular barbecue joints in our area, as it is a two-time national award winner for barbecue. It has won Thrillist’s “Best BBQ in America” March Madness bracket competition, as well as the Garden and Gun Ultimate Barbecue Bracket. We won’t waste any more your time on reading, other than to tell you this barbecue is worth the acclaim.

Alston Bridges Barbecue, 620 E. Grover St., Shelby 

Alston Bridges offers up fast service and fantastic barbecue on the northern side of Shelby. This place has a ton of regulars that you can see filling up the parking lot at all hours of the day. (It is not affiliated with Red Bridges across town.) Its barbecue is more vinegar-based and less sauce-focused, which gives it a completely different flavor and a wonderful texture.

The Flying Pig, 901 College Ave., Shelby/Boiling Springs

Matthew is a huge fan of the barbecue (and the friendly staff!) at Flying Pig. It’s a little more off the beaten path, a true old-fashioned barbecue joint. The Q is delicious and Flying Pig offers three different barbecue sauces for your fancy.

Jammin J's

Pepperoni pizza from Jammin J’s Pizza Factory.

Pizza & Italian

Jammin J’s Pizza Factory, 1011 Grove St., Shelby

Jammin J’s is our personal favorite for delicious, inexpensive, endless pizza. Did we say endless? Jammin J’s offers buffet pizza with a range of flavors. They’ll ask when you come in what kind you’d like and immediately get it started for you. (Molly always asks for bacon, tomato, mushroom.) A few favorites are fiesta chicken and livermush pizza. (Livermush is a Southern specialty made from similar ingredients as sausage, but it has cornmeal mixed in, so the texture is a little different.) You won’t break the bank at Jammin J’s either, which is another reason it’s one of our favorites.

Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille, 233 S. Lafayette St., Shelby

You usually see wood-fired pizza grilles in larger cities, and they’re usually part of a chain. Not so here. Pleasant City is a local delight that many in our county can’t get enough of. Their pizza and beer game is strong, and it’s a great local hangout.

Toscanos Bistro, 5 E. Marion St., Shelby

If you’re looking for an Italian option, the relatively new Toscano’s is a great pick. Their pita gyros are delicious and fresh, their pizza is amazing, and their pasta plates are quite tasty.

Shelby Cafe

Cheeseburger and fries at Shelby Cafe.

American

Shelby Cafe, 220 S. Lafayette St., Shelby

You can’t come to Shelby without going to the Shelby Café. Their menu says it best: “Home Cooking Since 1922.” One of Molly’s personal favorite dishes: the Mayor’s Special, a pita bread breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, and livermush.

Snack Shop Family Restaurant, 103 S. Main St., Boiling Springs

A great diner option near Gardner-Webb University, the Snack Shop is a near-daily favorite for many locals in Boiling Springs. They have excellent home-style food, as well as diner food such as burgers, hotdogs, and milkshakes.

238 Cherokee Grill, 222 S. Railroad Ave., Kings Mountain

One of the best restaurants around if you’re looking for something a little more fancy. Cherokee has wonderful steaks, Greek chicken dishes, killer sandwiches, delicious desserts, and more. They also have a well-stocked bar area.

The Local Market, 4629 Fallston Rd., Fallston

If you’re looking for farm to table in Cleveland County, look no further. The Local Market’s burgers and chicken dishes are fabulous, and the locals rave about their cheese curds made from locally-sourced cheese. It’s in an old house, which houses both the restaurant and a gift shop with tons of local goods.

Sweet House Bakery

Coconut Cream Cupcake at Sweet House Bakery

Coffee & Dessert

Sweet House Bakery, 304 E. Kings St., Kings Mountain

Sweet House has a delectable assortment of cupcakes (filled, iced, however you like), cookies, and dessert bars. It’s Molly’s go-to place for dessert anywhere in Cleveland County.

Uptown Sweets & Treats, 221 S. Lafayette St., Shelby

Uptown offers not only cool, refreshing frozen yogurt, they also sell local donuts made by Forest City-based Davis Donuts. We hear they also have some pretty tasty gourmet popcorn, although we haven’t laid our hands on it yet.

Swooger’s, 1016 Shelby Rd., Kings Mountain

Want to enjoy a fantastic, fresh-scooped milkshake in a retro, 1950s-themed diner? Swooger’s is your place. They also have great diner food, including a solid cheeseburger.

Hannah’s Coffee House, 1024 E. Marion St., Shelby

This coffee shop situated in a quiet area of Marion Street is the perfect place for a variety of sweet treats, as well as great coffee. The service is impeccable! You can also pull up a few chairs and play Scrabble if you like.

Broad River Co., 105 S. Main St., Boiling Springs

Over in college-town Boiling Springs, Broad River is everything you can ask for in a coffee shop. It has plenty of space and little nooks for studying, reading, relaxing, listening to music, or hanging with friends. They offer bagels and sweet treats, in addition to coffee and mouthwatering smoothies.

Foodie Travels: Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn.

North Carolina has always been my home, but my heart for barbecue has always been in Memphis, Tenn. Unfortunately, until recently that penchant for Memphis-style barbecue only lived through the enabling of national brands that emulate the tradition.

No longer.

img_1183We recently spent a couple days in Memphis, “the pork barbecue mecca of the world,” as the history reads on the website for Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, the location of my first authentic Memphis BBQ experience. And what a baptism in barbecue paradise our dinner at “The Rendezvous” was.

Just a few blocks from iconic Beale Street, The Rendezvous is tucked away, the entrance off an alley in the city’s downtown. You know you’re close to the place when you catch the whiff of the pork aroma in the breeze between the tall buildings surrounding you.

Seeing the crowd, we expected a solid wait to savor the taste that accompanies the fragrance, but that was not the case. Almost as soon as our names went on the wait list, we were called to our table for two and our rendezvous with a barbecue masterpiece.

For me, the type of barbecued meat I order stems from the location where it’s prepared. In Texas, I had to sample the brisket. In North Carolina, it’s the chopped pork. In Memphis, and at Charlie Vergos’ establishment, I had to try the ribs, known for their dry-seasoning rub and signature vinegar wash to seal in the moisture.

Our waiter (more on the wait staff in a moment) smartly urged me to purchase a full order instead of the half size. And it turns out he wasn’t just trying to make a sale. For $3 more, he wanted to make sure I fully immersed myself in the foodie experience that is The Rendezvous’ ribs.

img_1196Pull-apart tender. Cooked to perfect doneness all the way to the bone. A seasoning that delights ALL of the senses. Ten meaty pieces, each more pleasurable than the last, until the final rib that makes you wish you lived in Memphis to visit for dinner at least once a week. That’s how I would describe the ribs at this “mecca” of barbecue.

In addition to sampling one of my ribs, Molly enjoyed an incredibly flavorful barbecue chicken sandwich, with a delicious smoky taste enveloped by a hearty, soft bun. And both of our main courses were accompanied by a side of wonderful baked beans and slaw, which offered a unique mustard base in lieu of the mayonnaise base that we’re accustomed to in our home state of North Carolina.

As heavenly as the food at The Rendezvous is, the price you pay also provides a front-row seat to a unique dining experience. The place has been a Memphis mainstay, just a short distance from the Mississippi River, since the 1940s, and you get the feel of an old-time eatery in the décor of the building and the presentation of the wait staff. Many of the waiters have served at the restaurant for decades, and you can tell from the smiles on their faces that they enjoy their jobs every night.

There are so many places in Memphis, Tenn., to experience “Memphis-style” barbecue, and specifically ribs. From our experience, I don’t see how any of them could top Charlie Vergos Rendezvous.

 

Charlie Vergos Rendezvous

52 S. Second St., Memphis, Tenn.

hogsfly.com

Foodie Travels: Lexington BBQ, Lexington, N.C.

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When you’re in sight of a restaurant on a Friday night and see a full parking lot, that’s a good sign. When you’re walking toward the building and you spot a smokehouse with multiple chimneys and a rack inside with countless levels of fresh meat, that’s a good sign.
I’ve traveled across the state of North Carolina for years, often passing Lexington without stopping for a taste of their barbecue. On a recent trip, I decided I’d passed up the opportunity too many times, and Molly indulged me with a stop at Lexington BBQ, right off the old Business 85 in town.
We lucked out that we arrived just a few minutes before the Friday night dinner line started forming (and that was even after having to sit in terrible traffic on I-85 north of Charlotte). So we got to stroll right in and find us a seat.
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I started the meal with a Cheerwine on crushed ice. Then I followed with my favorite way to start sampling any kind of North Carolina barbecue: chopped sandwich on a bun with the slaw on the side.
Let me tell you, I’ve experienced North Carolina barbecue from the mountains to the coast. I’ve tasted all sorts of flavors and textures of barbecued pork meat. The thing that strikes me about my barbecue at Lexington BBQ is that it delivered a combination right in the middle of a western North Carolina style I’ve had many times (smoky meat without a mixed-in sauce) and the eastern North Carolina style I dined on when I lived in New Bern (soft pork with a vinegary sauce).
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I liked the combination, and I liked this eating spot. We could sense we were among the few non-locals in the place, and I liked that feeling. The place had an old-school feel to it: non-fancy, local art with barbecue themes hanging on the walls, and food served on disposable plates.
If you’re not a barbecue eater or have one in your group, maybe someone would enjoy the fish sandwich. Molly’s not quite the barbecue fan I am, so she likes when BBQ restaurants offer other options. Her fish sandwich was very good: flaky, fresh (and not greasy) fish on a soft and flavorful bun.
Lexington BBQ offered good food, good and efficient service, and a great local atmosphere. It’s the kind of place where strangers hold the door open for you. And we’d recommend it to you if you’re interested in sampling central North Carolina barbecue during your travels through the area.
Lexington BBQ
100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington, N.C.
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Foodie Travels: Best We Ate in 2016

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

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

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

BEST BURGER

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

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

BEST BREAKFAST

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

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

BEST SWEET TREAT

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

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

BEST DESSERT

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

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

BEST SOUL FOOD

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

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

BEST MEXICAN FOOD

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

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

BEST ITALIAN FOOD

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

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

BEST BARBECUE

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

BEST SEAFOOD

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

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

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

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

Foodie Travels: The Flying Pig, Shelby, N.C.

In any part of American barbecue country, announcing a favorite produces instant disagreement among supporters of other choices. Here in Cleveland County, N.C., the frontrunning favorites are a pair of legendary Bridges-named establishments that have successfully served customers for decades. And as much as both of those restaurants deliver unique meat, side and atmosphere experiences, I believe I have a different favorite than most of my neighbors.

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The Flying Pig on N.C. 150 between Shelby and Boiling Springs sits in a small, unassuming building across from the local airport. It’s part of the landscape enough that some people pass it not realizing it serves up delicious barbecued pork, chicken, brisket, red slaw and some of the meatiest ribs I’ve ever eaten.

When you drive past Flying Pig during the morning hours, you see smoke rising from the back of the joint. If you come back at lunchtime, there’s often a big enough crowd in the parking lot and in the dining room that your choices for spaces are limited. Don’t be fearful or fooled though: the service here is always fast, even at the busiest times. And if you do have a bit of a wait, it’s absolutely worth it, and here’s why.

A few things that set The Flying Pig apart from the local and regional competition. One, it’s all about the delicious flavor of the meat. You won’t get a meat drenched and swimming in sauce when it comes to your plate. You get a pure, flavorful meat, no matter which you choose.

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Two, you get plenty of sauce in the form of three individual and unique choices that come in cups to your table. You can enjoy sweet, sour or spicy. My favorite is the sweet, which reminds me of a reddish, transparent sauce you’d find alongside chicken in a Japanese restaurant.

And three, this eatery maintains a bit of “best kept secret” off the beaten path.

The first time I visited The Flying Pig, I entered at an “off time,” later than the early dinner crowd and on a weeknight. The owner gave me the royal dining treatment, explaining how everything is freshly made, sharing the specifics of the different sauce choices and even offering a chance to look through a barbecue book that chronicles some of the most unique and celebrated BBQ restaurants in the region.

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I’ve recommended The Flying Pig to colleagues at multiple employers, to old friends coming through Cleveland County and wanting to know where to get the best barbecue, and to people who find out just how much I love food and want to know where I like to eat. I highly recommend The Flying Pig to you, too.

While the “big boys” on the local “Q” scene are certainly purveyors of delicious meats, sides, sweet tea, desserts and a hometown restaurant scene, there’s nothing that beats walking into this place, biting into plentiful, flavorful meat, getting a greeting from the owner and always being encouraged to come back again. And you get all of these treats for about the cost you would expect for barbecue (less than what you would expect to pay for expertly crafted brisket and ribs).

There are a lot of places in our part of the world that serve outstanding barbecue, but there’s not one that does it any better than The Flying Pig.

The Flying Pig

901 College Ave., Shelby, N.C.

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Foodie Travels: Eating Through a Weekend in Atlanta, Ga.

Atlanta may not be the first city that comes to mind if I ask you to name Southern metropolitan areas that serve up legendary food. But on our tour of the major cities in the South in the past two years, the Georgia capital just might have produced the most memorable lineup from top to bottom.

When we visited town for a weekend last year, we arrived with three restaurant destinations in mind. And those were the three we visited. We still have a handful we’d like to try when we’re back in town, but there were no disappointments among the stops we made.

Per our usual foodie travel plan, we visited one featured restaurant each day during the three-day trip, supplementing those meals with free hotel breakfasts and a cheap third meal. Here’s our experience and what we suggest if you find yourself in Atlanta.

 

Cheesecake

Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles

How can you not be attracted to a restaurant that bears the name of the “empress of soul,” Gladys Knight? How can the words “chicken and waffles” not further propel you to seek out a place that promises a menu of delicious soul food?

Well, unfortunately one answer is all of the news about a corruption investigation among Knight’s family, which has prompted some periods of closing in the restaurant’s Atlanta-area locations. Knight has even filed a suit to have her name removed from the restaurants altogether.

But before all of that was in the news, the downtown location was our first Atlanta foodie stop on a Friday night, and we left full of Southern favorites and surprises. Molly enjoyed the shrimp and grits, which she’s now sampled among the most Southern cities on the map— Charleston, S.C., New Orleans, La., and Atlanta, Ga. I had the signature chicken and waffles plate, which offered a simplicity that felt very true to the dish’s roots. It was almost a Waffle House-style waffle, alongside several bone-in chicken wings that were juicy inside and crispy outside.

The jewel in this eatery’s crown was our dessert: quite possibly the best cheesecake of any variety that we’ve ever eaten. Our slice of sweet potato cheesecake was a heavenly combination of light yet rich, flavorful yet not over the top.

If you visit Gladys Knight, as the Travel Channel and other food TV media have done, expect a crowd at peak times; it’s a pretty popular joint. And consider parking elsewhere in town and walking here. The parking situation wasn’t ideal, and we unfortunately ended up paying to park in a lot right next door.

On my dollar sign price scale ($ is cheap, $$ is moderate and $$$ is expensive), this one gets $$.

Online: 529 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, Ga.

 

Varsity burger

The Varsity

What’ll ya have? That’s been the catchphrase at The Varsity for nearly 90 years. Known as the world’s largest drive-in restaurant, this place offers you plenty to think about before you answer that question.

We visited on a Saturday night alongside five other family members in two cars. This place draws a major crowd at most hours on the weekend, but there was plenty of parking to be had.

Expect to stand in line at the counter for a bit if the joint’s hopping, but that’s OK because you’ll have more time to decide on your order if you’re a newbie. We ended up sampling a variety of items, including cheeseburgers, hot dogs, fries, onion rings and the Varsity Orange, the shop’s signature drink (along with the Frosted Orange shake).

The food is good and exactly what you’d expect of a drive-in style diner in the South. I’d venture to say the food’s also less greasy than some spots you’ll visit, and that significantly improves the experience.

You can’t miss The Varsity if you’re driving on Interstate 85 right through downtown Atlanta. When you spot it, remember there are plenty of reasons to stop in for a meal.

The Varsity gets $ on the price scale.

Online: 61 North Avenue, Atlanta, Ga.

 

Ribs

Daddy D’z: The Bar-B-Que Joint

We Ain’t Pretty But We’re Good.

Remember what your mama told ya. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

Those are among the statements on Daddy D’z website. And once you see this iconic Atlanta barbecue joint, you’ll understand why.

On a Sunday afternoon, we decided to make this restaurant our lunch stop. We planned to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. historical sites nearby, so we took advantage of free parking at the MLK center, about a mile away, and walked to the eatery.

That would be a fine choice if it’s not a 95-degree June day in Atlanta, Ga. I don’t suggest our route unless it’s a cooler time of year.

As we neared the restaurant, sweating profusely and tired from the heat-bathed trek, it looked almost like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Seemingly abandoned buildings were all we saw. It appeared plants were growing out of the structure that seemed on the map like it should be the location of this “famed” barbecue restaurant.

As we rounded the corner from the back, we saw the “Daddy D’z” sign and a full parking lot of cars. The inside was full of people, too, and that meant we had to sit on the outside porch, with fans and no central air-conditioning to cool us.

But we persevered through the heat and my insistence that I needed more drink and my lunch as soon as possible. And we’re glad we did. I had a plate of the best ribs I’ve had in my travels through the South.

I’m not the only proponent of the ribs either. They’ve been praised via the Food Network, among some of the best ribs celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez has ever eaten.

All of the Deep South barbecue favorites are here, and they come with sides of macaroni and cheese and some of the best soul food Atlanta or anywhere can dish up.

If you judge by appearances, you may not want to stop your car and walk inside. That would be a major mistake in foodie judgement on your part. If Daddy D’z fits into your travel plans, you should give it a try and let me know your verdict.

Daddy D’z gets $$ on the price scale.

Online: 264 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta, Ga.

Foodie Travels: Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack, Belmont, NC

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Barbecue is among the most diverse foods in the American South and Midwest. While you will find it from Kansas City to Texas to Memphis to the Carolinas, its form always varies in some way. And so does its serving establishment.

Molly and I live in a county (Cleveland County, N.C.) that prides itself on delicious pork barbecue. We have three barbecue-specific restaurants that all claim ties to the last name Bridges. All three are tasty, but in different ways. One even claims the title of Best Barbecue in America.

Directly to our east sits Gaston County, the hometown county for both Molly and me. It boasts its own set of delicious barbecue restaurants, slightly different from those in Cleveland County and from each other. But I believe my favorite Gaston spot is Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack, a fairly new BBQ establishment in the thriving town of Belmont, N.C. The place combines the perfect feel of both a modern no-fuss eatery and a longtime establishment that knows its regular customers by name.

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At Peace-N-Hominy (what a great name for a Southern restaurant, right?), it starts with the atmosphere. Rolls of paper towel napkins on each table and a sauce rack with four options is always a good sign at a barbecue joint. We also enjoyed the sign on the wall that notes things the restaurant believes in. At the top, above a reference to smoked meats, is: God. There is a faith element to the restaurant, which may be stepping too far for some, but we found it to be a nice indicator of where the owners stand.

Drawing from the old walk-in diner restaurants where you order at the counter, Peace-N-Hominy displays its menu in easy-to-read-from-the-line print that you can survey while you’re waiting to order. The choices are many and quite varied, even at this one Q joint. You can get your barbecue pork, your chicken, your smoked turkey, specialty bacon and other BBQ favorites. Or you can get a burger or hotdog, or a taco, or even breakfast.

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In many local restaurants, I have to make a cheeseburger my first menu sample. In any barbecue restaurant in North Carolina (because in Texas it must be brisket), I go with the chopped pork, either in a sandwich or on a plate. Going with the plate at Peace-N-Hominy was the right choice. I had the chopped pork, and Molly had the turkey. Both came with flavorful sweet hushpuppies, creamy coleslaw and an additional side. Molly had the bourbon baked beans, and I had the macaroni and cheese for a slight upgrade in price. Both were clearly homemade and did not disappoint.

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What really made this place stand apart was its culture, its deep set of menu choices and its location. You usually find those places either in a big-city spot or in a whole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s been in the same place for decades. Peace-N-Hominy is neither.

This place, however, was an incredible find, and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys barbecue of any variety. And it was a find. The restaurant’s main wall sign doesn’t directly face the road, so you might drive past it if you’re not watching. Try a few things while you’re there (we didn’t sample dessert or specialty sodas but should on our second visit), and let us know what you think.

Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack
403 Catawba Street, Belmont, N.C.
peacenhominy.com