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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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: 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

Foodie Travels: Phillips Grocery, Holly Springs, Miss.

Fifteen years after America’s Civil War in the 1800s, Oliver Quiggins built a saloon across from a Mississippi Central Railroad depot and hotel in Holly Springs, Miss. Business boomed until prohibition, when the saloon transitioned into a grocery store and new owner Walter Curry started making hamburgers. W.L. Phillips and his wife acquired the old saloon building and store in the 1940s, and it has served up the popular local hamburger ever since.

img_1135You can picture the small town’s busy past when you drive up to Phillips Grocery in northern Mississippi, but life is much different in these parts now. Though there’s consideration of restoring the old hotel and depot across the street, the neighborhood is quiet, far different I’m sure than its days with a saloon.

The inside of Phillips Grocery has the feel of an old country store, with relics of the past on the walls, snacks and bottled drinks for sale and just a few tables set up in the back. When you step to the counter, you’re greeted by a hand-written menu above a small window into the kitchen.

img_1136Our visit to Phillips was a cheeseburger trail stop for me, so I knew what to order. I sampled a Phillips single, served with unique toppings of mustard, onion, pickle and muenster cheese. The juicy burger patty was no doubt freshly homemade, and the toppings were a delightful mix that offered such wonderful variety from the typical lettuce, tomato and mayo we experience most places in North Carolina.

My side of seasoned fries were crunchy and, well, tastily seasoned as well. And Molly was very pleased with her thick-cut bologna sandwich (one of her favorites) and side of tater tots.

img_1127After our meal, we ventured back out into the street, and as I snapped a few pictures, I imagined the saloon and grocery past. On the way to the car, we encountered a local Mississippi photographer. After exchanging pleasantries and learning he was in Holly Springs to talk to the owner of the depot property, he wished us well on our journey. “Welcome to Mississippi,” he said. Welcome, from both the past and the present at the wonderful Phillips Grocery, indeed.

 

Phillips Grocery

541 E. Van Dorn Ave., Holly Springs, Miss. (if following GPS, be patient, it may take you along a few turns and lead you to believe you are lost…this is a local place tucked off the main roads of town for an out-of-town traveler)

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Info Credit: History of Phillips Grocery inside the Holly Springs location

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: Ronda’s Kitchen, Grover, N.C.

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

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When we occasionally visit Uptown Charlotte, we like to eliminate the stress of navigating parking and one-way streets by using the high-speed rail service to travel into the city. And sitting right off one of the rail line’s stops, in the South End district of Charlotte, is Pike’s Soda Shop.

Pike’s is the fusion of an old-school soda shop and a new-age American diner, offering everything from burgers and fries to delicious home poked meat-and-side plates. You can also get a variety of milk shakes and delicious desserts. This place is actually responsible for Molly and I developing an affinity for Toll House Pie.

Nostalgia covers the walls, and the first thing you see when you walk inside is an old-fashioned soda counter. It’s the kind of atmosphere that immediately tells you that you’re in for a treat.

For us, that treat usually involves a good cheeseburger. I know what you’re thinking: “Matthew, you always try the burger.” Yes I do, but this is one of those places where you can build your own juicy, unique burger with a variety of toppings.

If the burger’s not your item of choice, try one of the home style plates. Whatever you get will fill you up. But if you have room for dessert afterward, opt for a milkshake or the pie. Your meal will be made.

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Molly and I enjoy a mint chocolate chip ice cream milk shake at Pike’s.

Pike’s gets a $ on my $ (very affordable), $$ (middle of the road), $$$ expensive dining cost scale. That’s especially true if you plan to eat a simple sandwich and side. It’s up to you, of course, whether you want to add more to your meal. Two people can easily have a simple meal here for $20 with just the basics, and that’s often my benchmark for a reasonable place to get a good meal.

A #FoodieScore tip: The light rail method is a great way to eliminate the hassle out of driving around and parking in Charlotte altogether. We like to park at the Woodlawn station and then ride the train to South End to eat, then get back on the train to go into uptown for a Hornets game, a cultural event or to just explore. HOWEVER, a friendly stranger tipped us off once that parking around Pike’s is free during a certain time period on weekdays and on weekends. If you drive, be sure you have to pay before you drop coins in those parking meters.

Pike’s Soda Shop

1930 Camden Road, Charlotte

Pikessodashop.net