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

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

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

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

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

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

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The tender and smoky rib tips at The Wood Shed

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

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

Foodie Travels: Mas Tacos Por Favor, Nashville, Tenn.

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Just a few miles from Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, there’s a cozy little Mexican food spot that really puts on a show for your tastebuds.

Mas Tacos Por Favor (translation: more tacos, please) started out as a food truck-style eatery in a 1974 Winnebago and has since moved into a more permanent location in East Nashville.

This place is all about flavor, as a taco shop should be. On the menu you’ll find favorites like the Cast Iron Chicken Taco and the Sweet Potato Quinoa Taco with roasted tomatillo salsa and red cabbage, both with sour cream, cilantro and fresh lime. Options also include tamales, soups, and vegetarian and gluten-free options. Tacos and other menu items rotate based on fresh ingredients available.

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Expect a line, and minimal parking space in the lot and surrounding neighborhood, especially if you arrive at a peak lunch or dinner time. But that’s just a good indicator of the loyal customer base and the taco experience you’re about to enjoy. We had a brief wait, but when our order was ready, it was exciting to hear “Tacos for Matthew” called on the restaurant’s speakers. And despite a solid crowd, our order was ready pretty fast.

Fresh is an apt word to describe the flavors of each taco we enjoyed, which included savory chicken, pork and fish, as well as the sweet potato quinoa variety. We also appreciated the menu balance of favorites you’d expect in a taco restaurant and creative options you won’t find just anywhere.

There are few foodie experiences we enjoy more than a solid visit to a delicious taco shop, and Mas Tacos is certainly on our list of favorite Mexican food destinations.

 

Mas Tacos Por Favor

732 McFerrin Ave., Nashville, Tenn.

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: 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: 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: 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: 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.

 

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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.