Tasting Charleston: Boulevard Diner

2013-02-28 12.07.02
Shrimp and cheesy grits and fried pickle spears at Boulevard Diner.

Despite the fact that it's the last Tasting Charleston spot I'm writing about, Boulevard Diner was our first restaurant stop in Charleston. We stopped after a windy walk at Shem Creek, where we saw shrimp boats and pluff mud and piles of oysters sitting under the raised walkways.

The sweet tea was perfect, the fried pickles are always going to be an acquired taste (one I'm not likely to acquire, though I will admit to consuming them), but oh my, the shrimp and grits.

This is one of those places that is primarily an eatery for locals, including people who were clearly there on their lunch breaks, where the servers are friendly and the portions are ample.

I just can't tell you, though, how creamy and delicious those grits were. When you eat food and you suddenly feel like you're sitting in front of a fire drinking sherry and eating chocolate lava cake, even though it's clearly lunch, you know you got the right meal.

Like Black Bean Co., I wouldn't make Boulevard Diner a destination stop, but if you're in the area and looking for a place to go, you could do a whole lot worse.

Tasting Charleston: Black Bean Co.

While on the way to Folly Beach – because if it's semi-warm enough to walk on sand during the winter months, you do – we got hungry and, in an effort to umm, push through some of the fried southern cuisine we'd been eating, we stopped at the Black Bean Co., a local chain.

I ate a really tasty wrap with chicken, almonds, oranges, rice noodles, greens, goat cheese and a citrus vinaigrette, along with a side of couscous.

The food was good and light (much needed, the way we'd been eating), and was tasty. It wouldn't be worth mentioning, though, if I didn't say something about the ceiling fans, which are a series of a half dozen kayak paddles rotating on a pulley driven by a single motor at one end of the building.

It's clearly a restaurant that cares about the environment and the people it serves. I wouldn't call it a destination restaurant (don't go to Charleston and make it your one meal in town), but if you need a light lunch, go for it!

[Photo credit]

Tasting Charleston: Hyman’s Seafood


Photo from Hyman's Seafood

Hyman's Seafood is one of those tourist places that locals eat, sort of like Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse. It's always busy, the hush puppies are amazing, and there's always an owner or manager around to come chat.

The gentleman that came to chat us up was an older fellow in a wide-brimmed hat, which he tipped at the ladies, and when he asked about business, he asked only of the men what we did. That's Old South; felt a lot different than we're used to up north, especially in a busy restaurant.

The restaurant is famous for its flounder, which some complain is bony because it's a whole flounder. There's a video on the restaurant's home page explaining how to eat it without worrying about bones. Pretty awesome.

By the time we got to Hyman's, I needed a break from fried foods (other than their hush puppies, of course &ndash they serve a basket for the table before your meal, much like Italian restaurants serve bread). I ate jerk shrimp with some mac & cheese, and tried am amber from Palmetto, a Charleston brewery that's been brewing since 1850.

The food was delicious, the atmosphere outstanding, and the beer was a nice, full-bodied ale that wasn't overly hoppy.

You'll also get a sticker as you're preparing to leave; they hand out between eight and twenty gift certificates a day at the Old Market to people seen wearing the stickers.

If you're in town, make it a stop (you were probably going to anyway).

Tasting Charleston: Waffle House

OK, so Waffle House is a national chain; in fact, if you're so inclined, it'll take you less than two hours from Syracuse to get to the one in Clark's Summit, Pa. But Waffle House is uniquely southern, and I'm not sure I'd visit one north of the Mason-Dixon line – you can give people a recipe and train them all you want, but if you're making food that's not in your vernacular, you can't make it right.

If you need proof, go to your local northern U.S. Cracker Barrel and get some grits. You'll come away with the feeling that they're just like watery oatmeal, but made of corn.

I spent the summer of 1997 as co-director of music at a camp in Cleveland, Ga., about an hour's ride north of Atlanta on the Georgia 400. It's where Babyland General Hospital is, the place where Cabbage Patch Kids are born.

We were allowed off camp for a couple hours each night, and the only two places in town to go were a smoky little townie bar and a Waffle House. And so for two months, nearly every night you could find me at the Waffle House with a double order of hash browns scattered, smothered and double-covered (that's scattered over the grill, instead of in a crispy pile, smothered with grilled onions, and covered with cheese), along with a glass of sweet tea.

And so when I found myself in Charleston, I had to return to Waffle House. And it was every bit as wonderful as I remembered: classic diner, waitresses who can retain a patient, southern hospitality while still moving at Sunday-morning diner speed no matter the day or time. And the hash browns are every bit as delicious as I remembered.

Books: “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'” by Alan Light

How many times have you heard a song and said, "I wish I'd written that"? With me it doesn't happen very often; sure, the royalties on "Call Me Maybe" must be off the charts, but I rarely hear a song I think is clever and moving enough to wonder what was in the writer to create it.

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is one of those beautiful songs I want no part of after reading Alan Light's book about it, The Holy or the Broken.

Cohen's been so tortured by the song throughout his career that he had his agent send the author an email giving his blessing to the project, but the artist himself wasn't going to be part of it.

It took Cohen years to write and finally record the song – he put 80 verses together before finally getting it together in the studio in 1984, and when he finally did, his record company said the album he put it on was awful and refused to release it.

So it languished, again.

Cohen is one of the tortured writer set. Every detail has to be perfect. He's spoken in interviews, Light writes, about being drunk in his underwear on a hotel room floor with papers scattered around him. This is not romance; these are demons.

The version many people are familiar with originates with Jeff Buckley, but the song's history takes a stop-off at John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground, first.

Listen to Cohen's version (above, top). It's road-weary. It's weathered. It's sarcastic. On the whole, it's more pessimistic than optimistic.

Cale's version (above, lower left) has the same weathered, pessimistic feel. He is a few years younger than Cohen, but still someone who has been around and lived some life. He first did the song for a Cohen tribute record. When he asked Cohen to send over a lyric sheet, he came home to 15 faxed pages on the floor, with all 80 verses. He picked five for the tribute album, and it was that version that Jeff Buckley (above, lower right) first heard.

You can see how his simple accompaniment derives from Cale's, along with his selection of verses. But Buckley is young – eternally; he died while taking a swim on the way to a recording session – and his version is optimistic and romantic. And there's another thing: Buckley was a perfectionist. If you're familiar with the studio recording he did for "Grace," you know it starts with a breathy sigh. You could certainly interpret that as intimacy, given how sexy his version is. But, Light writes, it was a sigh of exhaustion. They'd done so many takes that night, he was beat.

The song, though, probably would have kept languishing if it weren't for two things that both happened in 2001: The September 11 attacks in the U.S. and the animated film 'Shrek.'

John Cale's version made it into 'Shrek' (Rufus Wainwright is on the soundtrack because Dreamworks had the film and Wainwright), and Jeff Buckley's started appearing over photo montages on the music networks.

And all of a sudden, it was everywhere. It became the default overlay for tragedy montages on TV dramas and sitcoms and in films. And everybody decided they had to cover it, and they had to do their best Jeff Buckley. Here are Wainwright, Allison Crowe and John Bon Jovi:

And somewhere along the line this happened, and Bono – who loved the sardonic humor in Cohen's version when he first heard it – nearly destroyed the song forever, on a 1995 Cohen tribute album.



Oh, my, Bono, what have you done?

It's also now appeared on many seasons of "American Idol" and "X Factor," because, well, it takes some concentration and some range to do the Jeff Buckley version, which is really what's done these days.

My take on the song: I love Buckley's guitar intro; it has such an incredible resolve after a minor buildup. But Cohen's closing verse isn't done nearly enough. It goes like this:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel so I learned to touch
I've told the truth; I didn't come to fool ya
But even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

My take on the book: This is great if you're a real music nerd. Really, it's not for the weak, the casual fan or the "Pop-Up Video" crowd.

One more version – one of my favorite covers, even if it's not iconic, to go out with.

Tasting Charleston: Martha Lou’s Kitchen

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Fried chicken, green beans, mac & cheese and rice & chitlins at Martha Lou's Kitchen, Charleston, SC.

Let's start with what Martha Lou's Kitchen is not.

Martha Lou's is not a place you drive by and say, "I've gotta try that someday." It's an airbrushed pink trailer on a rocky lot in a neighborhood you'd drive through with both eyes open. It's not a place you bring a big party. Four of you can cram into a booth if there's one available, but a dozen of you would likely create a standing-room-only environment. It's not a place you go if you're in a hurry. They pre-cook the sides and keep them warm, but if you walk in and sit down, you get waited on in the order in which you arrived, and they cook the food one table at a time. And it's not a place you talk back. The customer is only right when the customer's right, and Martha Lou Gadsden and her daughter Debra are pros – if they think you ordered sweet tea, you ordered sweet tea, not unsweet. And if they're not sure, they'll ask, because they're not interested in wasting the energy.

Now, here are some that Martha Lou's Kitchen is.

Martha Lou's is a place you either read about or were brought. And where you're welcomed as if you're home, and you're remembered, and appreciated and you leave happy and feeling comfy - even if they don't serve with some rose gold cutlery set, and certainly not hungry.

My parents were in the former group (they read about Martha Lou's). They went and had the best fried chicken they've ever eaten. My mother was starting a new job in a new town and asked if she could take a photo of a poster that had a prayer for today – something about making the most of today, because it's your choice and you can make it or waste it – and Debra just took it off the wall and gave it to her. And four months later, when they walked in for the second time, Debra made sure they got they same booth they sat at the previous time.

And so it was when we walked in a little after 11:00 on a Thursday morning, Debra hugged everybody and shoved us into a booth and took our drink orders and danced her way back to the kitchen, where she told someone who had walked in that she'd be happy to help him after she cooked for the two parties that had walked in ahead of him.

Martha Lou came in at some point near noon, and the place was already full, and she brought out our food on foam trays and then we all swapped trays because we had the right meat but the wrong sides. And we stopped talking because we were too busy eating, and then we stopped eating because our trays were empty, and then we sat in silence absorbing the experience.

Now you've read about Martha Lou's, so go if you're in town.

» More reviews of Martha Lou's at Roadfood

Tasting Charleston: Holy City Brewing

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Photo from Holy City Brewing

We've been in Charleston, S.C. for a week and change; I'll put in a couple of posts about some of the things we did, and we'll start with Holy City Brewing. Generally speaking, the beers were a little hoppy for my taste (more in-depth as the post goes on), but it was a pretty cool experience.

South Carolina's colonial constitution was written by John Locke; while some of the colonies were designed for the religious freedom of the founding colonists, South Carolina was designed for religious freedom, period. Charleston, with easy access via water and road, was a place a lot of people from a lot of different faiths came, and it still has one of the highest houses of worship-to-population ratios in the country. For those reasons, the city is frequently referred to as The Holy City.

Hence the name of the brewery.

Holy City is located in a former mechanic's garage famous for their mobile car jump starter service – it has a two-bay garage for storage and a couple of tanks, and a four-bay garage for some tanks and a tasting area. There's also a shipping container they use for storage and an outbuilding with a restroom. It's not open to the public for very many hours, but definitely worth a stop when it is.

When we went by, there was a solo guitarist playing acoustic instrumental Phish covers and a family playing cornhole. Each guest is allowed one sampler of four 4-oz. beers; you can sit at the small bar or at 50-gallon wood barrels that serve as tables, or wander around the garage (that photo at the top there? yeah, there were, perhaps, a dozen people when we were there on a Wednesday afternoon).

The atmosphere was fantastic; I don't think I'd want to be there with a big crowd or when it's really hot out, but on a chilly evening with lots of space, it was great.

Now, the beers. I will start by saying you can taste every ingredient in each beer we tried – they were all very well-crafted and complex.

We started with the Pluff Mud Porter. Pluff mud is lowcountry mud with the texture of quicksand and the color of coffee with a little milk in it. Pluff Mud Porter was a little darker than that, and, thankfully, more liquid than actual pluff mud. It's a bit hoppier than I like my porters (I sort of like coffee porters, but my favorites are Scotch porters, like Middle Ages' Duke of Winship).

We then moved on to the Slanted Porch Pale Ale. If you've ever had beer with me, you know there are a couple of weeks in August when I enjoy some pale ale, but the rest of the year I'd rather not even smell it. (Basically, when it's really hot and humid, I'll enjoy one, but other than that an amber or lager is about as light as I like.) Slanted Porch, though, is among the most complex beers I have ever had; if it were a notch less sweet I'd actually have taken some home as a gift. On the plus side, they're going to continually modify the recipe, so the Slanted Porch we tried – with notes of hops, citrus and honey, isn't the same Slanted Porch you'll get if you try it in six months.

I don't like a lot of flavored beers, but Pecan Dream would make the short list (Ithaca does a nice Apricot Wheat). It starts with a really good brown ale as a base, and adds pecan. It starts sweet and ends nutty, which for me is the right way to go. I didn't like my first couple of sips because it was too sweet, and then the nut and the brown settled in together and it came out really good. Highly recommended, especially for spring and fall weather.

I don't know what you're feelings on chocolate beers are, but I've had a wide variety of experiences with them. Notorious P.I.G.: Mo' Chocolate Mo' Problems is another really good take. They do it with their porter (unfortunately – I already mentioned it was too hoppy for me), but the aftertaste is pure dark chocolate – the somewhat bitter sort of chocolate you bake with, not the syrupy sweet stuff you put on your ice cream. Big win for me.

They sell growlers and over-sized bottles, along with merchandise like t-shirts and truckers hats.

I'd say the beer is about a three out of five, but if you're into beer and into culture and want to see something cool while you're in the area, definitely stop by Holy City.