Foodie Travels: The Real Deal, Spartanburg, S.C.

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The name says it all, folks.

The Real Deal crafts Philadelphia-style (Philly) cheesesteaks. And the combination of lightly toasted bun, tender seasoned beef, melty cheese and other toppings…well, it melts in your mouth.

We learned about this foodie stop from an Upstate S.C. resident while talking over a meal at a bed-and-breakfast inn. That should’ve been our first clue to take his advice, right? If you’re talking about other food while enjoying food, it’s a foodie match and a suggestion worth pursuing.

Less than a week after the recommendation, we made the short trip down I-85 to Spartanburg for a Saturday afternoon treat. We almost drove right past the restaurant and its simple signage, so pay attention on your route.

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Inside, the cooks behind the counter greeted us and told us they could tell we were first-timers by the way we studied the menu. I should’ve known the cheesesteak would be good by the cooks’ observations.

Molly and I both ordered the Liberty Bell, a cheesesteak with onions and melted cheese. She added mushrooms, and I added green bell peppers.

We decided to enjoy our cheesesteaks in the restaurant. I might not have known that was an option until the cook asked “for here or to go?” At first glance, it looks like a take-out-only place, but a step around the corner reveals a few tables for dining in.

Waiting on the food was a sensory experience all around. The walls are covered (and I mean covered) in photos of patrons. The cling-clang of the cook’s sandwich assembly rings. And the smell of cheesesteak ingredients wafts.

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Now, I must confess, when these cheesesteaks came to our table, we were so excited that we started eating without sharing a blessing for our food. In two years of marriage, we’ve never completely forgotten to pray for our meal, but these cheesesteaks were so inviting that we didn’t say a word of grace. Just “mmm” and “mmhm.” We realized it moments later and paused for a prayer.

Molly’s enjoyed an authentic Philadelphia-made cheesesteak, and The Real Deal was the next best thing, in her assessment. She also enjoyed that she could order Kool-Aid as a drink at this foodie destination.

There aren’t many places to get a cheesesteak in the South, and even fewer places offer such a sandwich that’s worth its price. I’m not a big fan of dining out to eat a sandwich because I often feel I can make something just as good at home and pay less for it. Not so at the Real Deal.

We’ve made cheesesteaks at home, and they were good. But they weren’t The Real Deal. If you like a cheesesteak, this place must be on your list.

The Real Deal

1311 Asheville Highway, Spartanburg, S.C.

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Foodie Travels: Carolina Cafe, Gaffney, S.C.

“Get there early.” That’s the advice we received from several sources about the Carolina Cafe, off Highway 11 in the Upstate of South Carolina. And when we rounded the corner and saw the parking lot of the place at 7:15 p.m. on a Friday night, we understood.

We were told to expect a 40-minute wait for a table for the two of us, but it only took 15 minutes before we were seated in a cozy, but very chilly, corner of the restaurant. That pleasant service surprise was the first of many fond moments during our dinner experience.

img_8314Warm yeast rolls and fresh honey butter arrived at the table along with our drinks, another check mark for a great dining outing. It’s always a plus when you get delicious bread with a meal; it’s a type of free appetizer, if you will.

The menu offers a little bit of everything you’d expect to find at a nice casual American family restaurant in the South. There are burgers, sandwiches, salads, steaks, seafood, ribs and more.

Molly ordered the shrimp and grits, one of her favorites. The grits were creamy, and the shrimp were plump, flavorfully sautéed and generously portioned. It was also a great deal at $10.99. You’ll often pay closer to $13 or $15 or more for this dish. And I often have a hard time justifying that cost, unless I’m eating premium shrimp and grits in a coastal area.

img_8316I decided to try the beef tips – a less-fussy compromise for a steak. As much as I love a great cut of beef, I often find my steaks come with too much fat, or not enough bites, not cooked as well as I like, or too much price for what I’m eating. I’m not saying any of those apply at Carolina Cafe, but restaurants in general have led me to the beef tip. And the version at this particular establishment was very satisfying: a great portion for $10.99, served alongside a flavorful baked potato.

We both got salads as part of our meals, and they were just as satisfying as the rest of the entree. Nice portion, fresh ingredients and just the right amount of dressing on the side. Outback Steakhouse serves one of my favorite side salads, and the Carolina Cafe’s salad matches it.

img_8323Our visit was a special date night on the spur of the moment, so we decided to order a dessert. Our choice: the $4.99 Caramel Apple Cheesecake. The piece we shared was a rich and creamy cheesecake, filled with small pieces of flavorful apple, topped with a caramel sauce layer and covered with pecans. Along with the Graham cracker-style crust, it was one of the tastiest cheesecakes we’ve sampled in recent memory. And we love a delicious slice of cheesecake.

Carolina Cafe impressed us at every turn, from that very first glimpse around the highway corner. The restaurant was full of families and couples all night, and a crowd was still waiting outside when we left. The recommendations we received to try this place were spot on. Similar to a well-known pancake house’s slogan, when you come to Carolina Cafe hungry, you leave happy.

The Carolina Cafe gets a $-$$ on our price scale of $ (cheapest), $$ (middle of the road), $$$ (expensive). You can go $ with burgers, or you can go $$ with steaks and shrimp. As always, it’s your choice!

Carolina Cafe

211 Old Metal Road, Gaffney, S.C.

CarolinaCafeGaffney.com

Foodie Travels: Sunny’s Donuts, Gaffney, S.C.

Pay careful attention as you near the intersection of Granard, Logan and Yale streets in Gaffney, S.C. You don’t want to miss this.

It looks like a convenience store and gas station, and it is. But Sunny’s Quik Stop offers so much more on one corner of the shop.

Look for the blue and orange-yellow sign that announces “Sunny’s Donuts.” It’s flanked on each side by “Voted Best Donut Shop in South Carolina” signs. And you know you’re in South Carolina because one of those signs offers University of South Carolina Gamecocks colors and the other Clemson University Tigers colors.

Most importantly, inside you’ll find a donut display case that offers a plethora of tasty treats. There’s everything from basic donuts to bear claws to peach fritters and more. If I had to liken the donuts to something familiar for everyone, I’d say they’re more Dunkin’ than Krispy Kreme. But don’t let that deter you if you have a hard allegiance to a brand and product. This place is special, and with all of the establishments you’ll find on #FoodieScore it’s all about the one-of-a-kind angle.

The shop and its owners have a unique story behind them. You can read more about that here.

There is a convenience store in the other part of the building, but the Donut wing is what makes this a destination more than just a stop on the highway.

Many of the treats you choose will provide more than you’re able to eat in one sitting. So bring the family or a group of friends, prepare to take some home and go ahead and make plans to come back when you get to Gaffney.

Unique donut shops and bakeries are commonplace in big cities, but they’re somewhat of a rare breed these days in some small towns in the South. Don’t pass this one.

Sunny’s Donuts

720 S. Granard St., Gaffney, S.C.

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Foodie Travels: Pawleys Front Porch, Columbia, S.C.

Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” (or DDD for short) resoundingly succeeds in sharing some of the most tasty, interesting and American restaurants from coast to coast. The show has served as a locator map for restaurants Molly and I have visited across the country, and it’s been a primary source of dining ideas for a couple of our trips this year alone.

When we planned to hit the road for a recent summer trip through South Carolina, Molly explored DDD options on our route. That’s how she discovered Pawleys Front Porch, an American food restaurant in the Five Points community of Columbia, not far from the University of South Carolina campus and the confluence of interstates 26 and 77.

Pawleys is a well-known burger spot in Columbia, receiving praise beyond just the Food Network. One of my mom’s friends even suggested it as her first choice when she learned we’d be traveling right through the South Carolina state capital.

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As if the menu’s primary reliance on cheeseburgers wasn’t enough to reel me in, this place names its specialty burgers after South Carolina islands. That’s a major selling point for me, since my family has frequented Kiawah Island south of Charleston for nearly 30 years as our vacation haven.

There’s a Kiawah burger on the menu, and that was naturally my easy choice. Along with an incredibly well-seasoned beef patty, I enjoyed the Brie cheese, fire-roasted peppers and portobello mushrooms as my toppings. And the burger was more than a mouthful in each bite.

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Other island options include Fripp, Edisto, Wadmalaw and Sullivan’s, with a wide range of toppings that make each burger a special experience. But that’s not all that we enjoyed about this place.

When Molly and I can travel to a restaurant that offers me a burger and her a Mexican food option like a quesadilla or taco plate, we’re especially happy. Pawleys delivered on those options, including a special shrimp taco offered on the day of our visit.

With burgers and a mixture of other food options, Pawleys has an atmosphere you’d almost expect to find at a more coastal location. There is a front porch with seating, as you’d expect with the name, but there’s also inside seating in an all-American restaurant kind of environment with college-aged wait staff members, which you’d expect with the location proximity to USC.

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We usually order water for drinks, but with that in mind this is a place where two can eat well for about $20. When we left, our stomachs were full, our tastebuds were happy, and I didn’t have any reason to complain about pricing or service. Give it a try if you’re traveling through the middle of South Carolina. I’ve had burgers from Greenville to Charleston to Myrtle Beach, and Pawleys’ was the best in taste, creativity and price.

Pawleys Front Porch

827 Harden Street, Columbia, S.C.

pawleysfrontporch.com

Foodie Travels: Cupcrazed Cakery, Fort Mill, S.C.

A whisk handle, the smell of icing and a counter full of cupcakes greet you at the door of Cupcrazed in Fort Mill, S.C. This baked goods factory has received praise on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” competition show, and you quickly understand why when you enter their space, just off I-77 a few miles south of Charlotte.

We discovered Cupcrazed on Instagram, and we’ve liked and commented on the business’ foodie posts for months. On a recent trip through South Carolina, we stopped in for the first time.

The atmosphere is like a cross between a cozy coffee shop and a big-city bakery. Colorful decor, including room for a few patrons to sit around tables and on couches, awaits, as well as an employee at the counter.

This is the kind of place where it’s helpful to stand in line to have time to make your selections. In addition to cookies, brownies, cake pops and cakes, an assortment of cupcake options awaits each day. Be advised that specialty concoctions change daily, but there are always the classic vanilla, chocolate, carrot cake and other options.

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When you’re interested in more complex flavors, it can be a tad difficult to decide what choice your stomach wants to make that day. So, step back and take a minute. We had to select between Cookies and Cream, Reese’s Cup, Key Lime Pie, S’mores, Triple Chocolate, Raspberry and a variety of other unique flavors. You should know that these aren’t basic cupcake flavors. My S’mores cupcake came with a Graham cracker topping, a toasted marshmallow and a fun-size Hershey bar on top.

Individual cupcakes at Cupcrazed are $3, but you get a bit of a deal if you want to buy a half-dozen or dozen and share. Six cupcakes will cost you $15, essentially giving you a free cupcake. Twelve cupcakes will cost you $30, meaning you’re paying for 10 treats and getting two for free at that rate.

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We enjoyed a cupcake each on our visit and then took four cupcakes to our family to share. One cupcake at a time will more than fill your need for a sweet treat, but later that day or the next, the memory of that delicious cupcake makes you wish you had bought more while you were in the bakery. Luckily, this place is easy to find in a shopping village less than a mile off the interstate. That’s a good thing because the Instagram posts each day make me a bit Cupcrazed.

Cupcrazed Cakery

936 Market Street, Fort Mill, S.C.

Cupcrazed.com

Foodie Travels: Bantam Chef, Chesnee, SC

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Back in June, we decided to take a Gaffney/Chesnee foodie adventure. Part of my side of the family is from Union, South Carolina, so I’ve spent some time in the area traveling through. We found a restaurant decorated in 1950s memorabilia – an Elvis Presley mannequin, a 1950 Studebaker, tons of model cars, license plates, and classic black and white tile floors. It’s called the Bantam Chef and its burgers and offerings are well known in the area.

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I had heard of it because the owner’s brother owns a second Bantam Chef in Union, where my grandparents and dad used to eat when he was younger. They usually got food to go. I had never been to either restaurant location. So for me, it was a bit of a homage to my grandparents’ love for the hometown establishment.

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Matthew tried the Studebaker Cheeseburger and I tried a regular cheeseburger. And their fries were to die for! Here’s Matthew’s review of the burger at Bantam Chef. 🙂

Simple Caramelized Peaches

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Fresh peaches are a sign of summer in the South, particularly in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina.

Roadside stands are the resource of choice when possible, and those baskets of fruit can yield the most delicious cobblers, pies and baked goods you can imagine.

But you often get more peaches in a cheap bin than you can use in those oven-baked treats. So what do you do with the rest?

One of Matthew’s favorite things to do with fresh fruit that contains some natural juices is to caramelize it. The process draws out the natural sugars in the fruit and creates almost a sweet sauce that is delicious by itself, on top of another dessert element or with plain ole vanilla ice cream.

This recipe is a bit unconventional because there’s no need to really list ingredients or a process. Many recipes for caramelized fruits will suggest adding white or brown sugar to the pan. Some guides even suggest putting a little bit of olive oil in the pan to keep your fruit from sticking. Matthew doesn’t prefer the oil because it doesn’t benefit a sweet dish, and he doesn’t prefer adding sugar to the pan because it defeats the purpose of relying on and enjoying the natural sugars.

For fresh peaches that you have peeled yourself, it’s likely you have some juices in addition to the solid fruit, especially if your leftover fruit has had time to sit in the fridge for a few days.

How we made it:

Put your frying pan or skillet on your burner and give it medium-high to high heat.

Take a cup or two of fresh fruit, depending on how much you want to eat, and spread it out in your pan, being sure to include some of the juice. The key to having the juice is that it will help keep your fruit from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Still, like many things you cook in a stovetop pan, you’re less likely to deal with sticking if you’re using a newer, non-stick pan.

You have to achieve the right balance of letting your peaches sit to heat and caramelize and moving them around so they don’t stick. That balance can only be determined by your pan and your burner, along with how much juice you add to the pan. I would suggest a quarter cup of juice per cup of fruit.

Your fruit will almost become a light jelly or sauce, with the chunks of peach or fruit of choice still visible in good supply. That’s when you will know that your caramelization process is done.

As we said above, you can do many things with caramelized peaches and other fruits.

Matthew chose to use the fruit he made to top a graham cracker square in a bowl. Then he added a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and a dusting of powdered sugar.

Molly’s Take: I love this recipe because it does encourage creativity. Caramelizing the fruit, then topping it with whatever you like (ice cream, whipped cream, cookies, etc.) can be completely different every time, for whatever your taste buds desire. And when you use fresh South Carolina peaches, the juice, the consistency and the taste is just delicious. Mouth-watering, even. I love fruit with ice cream, and caramelizing it with vanilla bean ice cream is a delightful pairing.

Matthew’s Take: I’ve caramelized fruit many times, but peaches may be my favorite. They retain so much of their juice after peeling that they are perfect for cooking in a pan on the stove. They pair perfectly with a slightly sweet cookie and/or vanilla ice cream. I give this one an A+ for taste, an A for presentation, depending on your topping, an A for cost if peaches are readily available, and a B for ease. It takes some creativity to caramelize fruit because you can’t just follow an exact recipe and expect the same results every time.