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.

Tasting Charleston: Martha Lou’s Kitchen

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 โ€“ 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 โ€“ something about making the most of today, because it's your choice and you can make it or waste it โ€“ 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.

ยป More reviews of Martha Lou's at Roadfood

Go to Hullar’s

I corrected a wrong on my eat local resume last weekend by going to Hullar's.

This place has been around since the early 19th century, and it still has a neighborhood pub atmosphere.

We started by walking in, putting our names on the list and flopping down at the bar for beers next to someone we knew. Always a good sign.

It's the sort of bar that brings out the older adults; while there were some families dining, we were easily the youngest people at the bar by close to 30 years. The bartender, Neil, seemed scattered at first, but I didn't see anyone wait more than two minutes for a drink, and when tables were called, Neil was quick with a check to settle up a bar tab.

The waiter did one of the things I didn't mention in my giving great service post that I should have: He knew his products. Specifically, when he came to ask if we were ready to order, I first asked, "This is our first time here. What have we been missing?" And he had an answer for me. We'd already decided on our dinner, but there's probably going to be a lunch in our future in which we try some of his suggestions.

The food is better than passable (I won't call it amazing, but it was definitely good), the portions generous (those of you who have seen me eat will be surprised to hear I'll have an entire second meal out of it), and the cost very reasonable (drinks, appetizer and dinner for about $50).

Absolutely worth a visit. They also have an adjoining coffee shop I'll have to hit up for breakfast some day.

Know your customers: 2 very different dining experiences

Last weekend, I visited my parents in Springfield, Mass., to help get some stuff out of the house (they're moving to South Carolina, where the snowblower will be useless, the seafood and taxes cheaper, and the retirement easier).

We went out to eat twice, and had two very different experiences. The food, in both cases, was excellent – above expectation and worth the price.

I'll tell you first about Ixtapa #5. This is a taco truck parked in the parking lot of a grocery store in a heavily Latino community.

Their English is as broken as my Spanish. They serve tacos, quesadillas and Mexican sodas. Maybe they'd do a burrito. They put tongue (pictured), chicken or beef on your tortilla of choice. Bam, the end.

They're quick, the food is cheap, they don't chat a lot unless they know the customer's family (which is common in a close community like that one), and it's one of the most genuine dining experiences I've had (even though I was standing in a grocery store parking lot).

Next, I want to talk about Felix's Family Restaurant. This is an Italian restaurant that stands in what used to be a pizzeria. They overhauled it after a kitchen fire moved the pizza place a mile away. It should be noted that the building shares a parking lot with Felix's Auto Body.

We went to catch up with some old friends (and by old friends, I mean we've know the family for 30ish years). It was evident from the hugs and the animated talking that we were catching up and kind of caught up in ourselves.

Some wandering musicians began playing (accordion and guitar), and they were loud. They serenaded tables near and far with Italian songs – I get this; it's authentic and it adds to a dining experience.

We did our best to ignore the musicians – we made it obvious by not looking at them, not offering applause and certainly not participating when they stood over several members of our party and played in their ears.

And then they tried to engage us.

Let me make this clear. We weren't there to see a concert. If we'd been a table in the corner entirely ignoring a musician we (and other people) had paid to see and talking across the table at the top of our lungs so we could be heard, we'd be giant assholes.

But the musicians were ambiance, and we didn't want it. And they insisted. It took every hint short of asking if they'd just go play across the room to get them to let us enjoy our food.

The server was an entirely different story. She left one pitcher of water for 9 adults and wasn't attentive to it.

When she showed up with eight salad plates, she apologized, noting that she probably stole it – a cute joke, except that she then spent the next several minutes regaling us with stories of stolen restaurant cutlery, rather than, say, getting us another plate.

It took us 15 minutes to get a shaker of red pepper at one point during the meal.

One of our party let her know she was allergic to tomatoes. When she asked that her dinner be altered to avoid tomatoes, the server brought a dinner that appeared to have something tomato red on it. After insisting there were no tomatoes, we learned it was marinara sauce. Which, if you worked in an Italian restaurant, you'd be required to know has a tomato base, no? And while the dish was replaced with something tomato-free, we didn't get an apology from management, nor did we get a discounted dinner.

Overall, we were at the restaurant slightly over two hours, without any unnecessary chatter; it just took that long to do dinner.

It was one of the worst customer service experiences I've ever had, and I had it in a place that stood to charge us in the area of $200 for our purchase.

Recommendations: Taco truck yes, Felix's no.

Some Central New York food businesses you’re missing

I sat down with Tracy recently and she reminded me that I needed to do another post about places I like. So, here are some of my current favorites.

Cafe at 407

I've written about 407 before. I'm actually sitting in the cafe writing this blog post, staring at the real whipped cream on top of a hot chocolate a child is drinking while waiting for the singer-songwriter to start playing. In fact, I'm sitting in an overstuffed chair on the wifi with a cup of coffee on the side table, remembering that this place raises money for a non-profit called Ophelia's Place, which deals with eating disordered youth and adults. There's a conference room in back, next to the employees' cubicles and an outpatient clinic. It's in the village of Liverpool. Go there.


Recess Coffee is celebrating their fifth anniversary this week. The cafe was packed the other night (that's where I had the aforementioned get-together with Tracy), and they are not going anywhere any time soon. Best hot chocolate in town (York, Almond Joy, peanut butter, and more), and a few really good whole-bean roasts.

Farmshed CNY

Farmshed CNY is a web-based app (that is, you go to the website, you don't download it) that will find you farms, farmers markets, restaurants, breweries, dessert, bakeries and more in Central New York. The idea is to have you buying local foods, drinking local beer, and considering where you're sourcing your stuff. And also it helps you find it, by determining your location by GPS. It's awesome.

Small Potatoes Marketing

Maybe it's weird to recognize a marketing firm, but Marty at Small Potatoes works hard to get Central New York food producers distributed into bigger venues. He started as strictly a shoe leather business, and eventually let himself be talked into a blog and Twitter account, both of which he's done really well with. Look for Better Brittle, Recess Coffee and Brooklyn Salsa at the CNY Regional Market thanks to Small Potatoes, and he's worked with a bunch of other locals you're starting to see more and more places, too!

Laci's Tapas Bar

You've probably heard of Laci's by now; they've been around a couple of years. Tapas is a food presentation that features appetizer-size portions of really beautiful, frequently creative food. The menu is excellent, the service is wonderful, and they're over in a part of town you never go to. Try them out!

What are your favorite hot spots this winter?

5 Central New York Spots You Might Have Overlooked

Last summer, I did a series on Central New York places you might want to work from or bring a client to. Here are those posts:

5 Syracuse-area Coffee Shops to Work From
5 Syracuse-area Bars to Work From
5 Places to Bring Clients in the Syracuse Area (Note: Edward Thomas Cigar is now something a bit more private and secluded, and is no longer on that list.)

Here are five places in the Syracuse area not on these lists that you might want to try out.

1. Frosty Fuzions

Located in the Gold's Gym in DeWitt, Frosty Fuzions is locally owned, employs a couple of people part-time, and serves organic smoothies and coffee, locally made high protein bread, and other energy drinks and food bars. The owner, Shawn Hannon, is personable and he keeps up on sports and politics, so there's always something to talk about at the counter. He also does corn-based plastics. You don't need to be a member of the gym to go in; just let the folks at the member service center know you're heading in for a smoothie.

2. The Beginning II (B2)

The B2 is a little off the beaten path, but not far (a little bit up Bridge St, past all the action). They have a lot of really good food (they claim they have the best wings in town – they're definitely up there – but the pizza, nachos and sandwiches are pretty awesome as well). The B2 is a sports bar (Syracuse U, Red Sox and Buffalo Bills) with beach volleyball courts out back. It draws a mix of people, from students to retirees, and has a friendly staff. Try them out on a non-sports day if you're not into the sports crowd.

3. The Cafe at 407

I wish I was out Liverpool way more often. Located in the village of Liverpool, the Cafe at 407 supports Ophelia's Place, a safe haven and support center for people with body image issues. The serve fair trade, organic, awesome foods (coffee, salads, sandwiches, soups, cakes, etc.). Free wifi, and a very comfy space.

4. Kelley's

If you're on Tipp Hill or near the Onondaga Hill neighborhood, you're probably not a stranger to Kelley's. Upstairs, Kelley's is a nice-looking place, but at the bar downstairs, it really comes to life. Dark woods, a couple of dining tables in quiet corners and otherwise a sports bar feel. The food is very good (try the Buffalo mac-n-cheese!), and they have some really good off- and on-menu wing sauces that you'll just have to go to experience.

5. Books and Memories

Books and Memories is a large used book and music shop. They're currently in transition, dumping some of their dead weight and opening themselves up some storage space downstairs, but they still have five rooms with narrow aisles, tall shelves, and stacks of books laying around waiting to be filed. While I miss the basement (it was so big they'd have to yell downstairs a few times before closing to make sure they didn't lock anyone in the shop at closing time), I was still able to spend several hours browsing recently – and that didn't include opening up my computer, or checking out any CDs or vinyl. They offer coffee and tea for free while you browse (they have a donation jar, but it's serve yourself and leave something if you want), and the wifi is free as well. It takes up a block on James Street in Eastwood, and is the perfect place to spend a rainy weekend afternoon.

Winning customers by stretching the rules

For those Syracuseans not in the know, Funk 'N' Waffles is a great little spot on the SU hill. It has a menu of interesting waffle creations (including chicken & waffles, pulled pork waffles, and a new favorite for some of my friends: a stuffing waffle with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce), good coffee, and free wifi.

They are good citizens, opting for local eggs, Dinosaur BarBQue sauces, and other local options when possible.

The only complaint I've ever thought of is that they close at 4:30 on Mondays, which is kind of early.

So, as co-chair of the 40 Below Civic Engagement Task Force, I approached the venue about staying open a little later to host a social networking event, which started at 5:30. I arrived a little before 5, and was pleased to see they had something of a walk-in crowd, which meant they weren't bored in that hour between when they typically close and when we were to start.

Then we brought in 16 people – very few of whom had been there before. And almost to a person, they were so impressed with the venue that they said they would not only return, but bring other new people.

If eight of those people do return with two new people each, and then half of those new people do the same, that's a lot of new customers, thanks to being willing to keep the lights on and paying two employees for four extra hours.

That's a minimal investment for a lot of new customers – and let's not forget that so much of small business marketing is helping the non-profits in your area.

Awesome job, Funk 'N' Waffles.

Good Customer Service: Fayetteville Uno

With a gift card in hand, we made our way last night to the Uno Chicago Grill in Fayetteville. As most of you know, I'm not one for chains, typically. With the gift card, the money's already spent, so I don't see any benefit to not using it.

Aside: The going wisdom is that for every dollar spent at a locally owned shop, 73 cents are spent in the community. For every dollar spent at a chain, 43 cents are spent in the community. Over a large population, that's quite a boost to the local economy when the money's spent at local shops.

One thing Uno does that I like is that when he first approaches your table, the server writes his name on a napkin and places it on your table. Brian did so, and then commenced the "I'm Brian, I'll be your server routine."

Brian's first win was having the bartender pour my Sam Adams in the brewery's "Ultimate Beer Glass." He noticed the Boston hat, and commented to the positive.

But he also noticed the gift card sitting on the table, which had to scare him, because people have the bad habit of tipping on the cash they pay, not the full bill. So if we had spent $30 on food and had a $25 gift card, would he be getting a big fat $1 tip?

The other exceptional thing Brian did that I liked was when we had a half dinner salad left (we each ordered an entree and shared a dinner salad), he offered us "boxes" – not assuming we had the same destination, even though we did – and then followed up by asking if we'd prefer just one (which we did).

Another aside: I was once at a local establishment with a female friend having wings and watching a football game. "He thinks we're on a date," I told her. "Why do you say that?" she asked. "Because he's being awfully attentive to me, assuming I'm picking up the bill, and we have fresh glasses when there's still three sips in the ones we're working on while everyone else has to wait. He wants me to impress you with a big tip." She didn't believe me. We moved to a table away from the crowd at the bar when it got busy, and when he brought the bill over, he said, "I knew you just wanted to be alone."

Brian stopped me on the way out the door to talk baseball, too. Big win for the restaurant.