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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Black’s famed Grilled Cheese

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

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

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

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Celebrating a #FoodieScore milestone

#FoodieScore celebration

Dear #FoodieScore Friends,

These words mark the 100th post here on #FoodieScore. Thank you for supporting us each and every day with your visits, your shares, your comments and your suggestions. You have allowed us to experience more great food than we ever imagined when we started this space.

#FoodieScore began more than two years ago with the sole idea of helping us organize favorite recipes we tried in our home kitchen. We cook often and just wanted a way to remember delicious simple dishes that we discovered. We had no idea so many people would be so kind by reading and sharing with other eaters. Several posts in particular seem to have deeply connected with fellow foodies, most of all our Mississippi Slug Burger, which astounds us when we see its thousands of views continue to climb.

The kind people in the state of Mississippi are a great example of the incredibly generous support we’ve received throughout these past couple years. When we began sharing restaurants in addition to recipes—and when we launched the #FoodieScore social media family on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—the folks in the Town of Holly Springs helped spread the word about our Foodie Travels series by sharing a piece on a visit to Phillips Grocery. We delight in every bite we enjoy, but it thrills us even more when we see others reminiscing about delicious food from the past or discovering a great meal for the first time.

To be honest, we are both humbled and proud to welcome those who come to #FoodieScore for recipe and restaurant suggestions. We take great pride in supporting the #EatLocal and #ShopLocal movements through our approach, which focuses more on sharing great food instead of critiquing anything less than stellar. But in an age of gimmicky marketing tactics everywhere we look, we are even prouder that you, dear friends, are what keep our food adventures alive and well. All our support has come from what marketing moguls might call “organic” generation, meaning we’ve done no paid advertising or sneaky shopping of personal information to get our #FoodieScore posts in front of your eyes. It’s all been old-fashioned foodie-friend support, and as we roll into the future, we will continue to share simple recipes and great restaurant finds with you, thankful that you share our joy in food so much you’ll continue to help spread the love.

And speaking of that future, we have a great plate of new features cooking up in the #FoodieScore kitchen that we’ll serve up soon. We spent a lot of time traveling America this summer, and that means we have some top-notch restaurant suggestions on the way. Our experiences also mean we’ll have quite a packed Best We Ate in 2017 coming out by year’s end. (Check out Best We Ate in 2016 here for a preview.) And just as we began, with recipes, we continue to cook up lots of tasty dishes with simple ingredients and directions, and you are on our mind with each bite. So keep joining us for dinner!…and breakfast…and lunch…and dessert.

In the meantime, be sure to check out our Foodie Travels map for ideas on where to eat when you’re on the road, or at home. You might have also noticed that we recently reorganized our archives into distinct Travels, sorted by state, and Recipes, sorted by dish type, sections to help you (and us!) more quickly search among all the great food!

So, thank you again from the bottom of our stomachs (and hearts). Your kindness to join us on this journey makes each #FoodieScore experience more flavorful.

Your Friends,

Matthew & Molly Tessnear

 

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

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

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

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Photo: Sunni Sky’s Facebook page

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

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

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

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

 

Sunni Sky’s Homemade Ice Cream

8617 State Highway 55, Angier, N.C.

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

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

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

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

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

 

We’re so glad you’re back

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

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

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

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That’s the taste

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

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

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

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

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What you’ll find at Kim’s

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

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

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

 

Kim’s Kitchen

106 Mariposa Road, Stanley, N.C.

Foodie Travels: 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: 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: Grits N Greens, Lowell, N.C.

Molly and I have made a habit of visiting some of the most Southern places we can find, both near home and when we’re traveling. As two native North Carolinians, we have a deep respect and appreciation for the “country” cooking indigenous to our slice of the country.

Simply by name, Grits N Greens Southern Cuisine interested us and, by menu, pulled us in the door. What’s more North Carolina Southern than grits and collard greens?

IMG_8187You can find both of those items on the menu at this restaurant, as well as other “granny” cooking favorites in a meat-and-three-type format of main dishes and vegetables. You can get diner-style food, such as breakfast mainstays, cheeseburgers and other sandwiches with French fries or sides. And you can get unique favorites that you won’t always find on a similar menu—choices such as crab cakes and a shrimp “po boy.”

Molly enjoyed a generously portioned steak melt sandwich with a side of crispy, fresh fried okra. I opted for a pair of crab cakes with sides of broccoli casserole and macaroni and cheese, along with a couple pieces of deliciously seasoned Texas toast.

No, we didn’t enjoy the namesake grits and greens, but it was reassuring to see them on the menu.

The eatery’s digs offer a no-frills atmosphere (plain walls, simple booths) inside a space on the main strip of a revitalizing “downtown” Lowell. There are a few other local shops on the same strip of Main Street, but Grits and Greens is the centerpiece.

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We visited on a Saturday afternoon, right after the typical noon lunch hour. Our server was friendly, the food was tasty and we left full but not overstuffed like we sometimes experience in a greasy-spoon restaurant.

If you like Southern food, give Grits N Greens a try and let me know if it meets your expectations for country cooking.

Grits N Greens, 125 N. Main St., Lowell, N.C.

gritsngreens.com

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.