Being part of a dinner club has made us come to realize that food is not just a way to provide nutrition to your body or a social event, but it also provides a special kind of insight into the culture and history of an area. So for our trip this year of exploring south of the Mason/Dixon line, we decided to take our first ever walking culinary tour in Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston has been getting a lot of publicity for their foodie culture and number of award winning chefs and restaurants so it seemed like a perfect place to explore through food tastings. We met up with Glen from Charleston Culinary Tours at the Southend Brewery and Smokehouse. We arrived early to grab a drink at the bar before the walking tour and were worried that the torrential downpour outside from Tropical Storm Anna would cancel the tour, but we seemed to be the only people worried about the sideways rain and 30MPH winds. Such tourists! But with an umbrella and a determined spirit we decided we were still going for it. The heavens were smiling at us that day because the rain and wind stopped just before our tour and provided us with a cool and beautiful day to be out walking and exploring Charleston.
There are many towns and cities we have visited that claim to have the best of the local dish. Pizza in Chicago, cheesesteaks in Philly, BBQ in Nashville, clam chowder in San Francisco, and now shrimp and grits and she-crab soup in Charleston. Glen started us off at Southend Brewery and Chef Orlando Barrera with a cup of she-crab soup. The she-crab soup is iconic to Charleston ever since it was made for President Taft when visiting the mayor of Charleston and is reportedly served every year at the White House Correspondents Dinner. The creamy bisque or chowder like dish is made with blue crab meat, crab roe, with a dry sherry float. It was so flavorful and creamy and a great start to the tour! Southend also has Glen’s vote for best shrimp and grits. As a grit lover extraordinaire, I never knew that the best kind are made with heavy cream and butter and no water. Where have I been?!? These grits were not the soupier kind I have had before but rather decadent, creamy, and popping with flavor! The shrimp was local with a roasted tomato and tasso ham gravy. Last but not least we had fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese and chow chow. I have tried fried green tomatoes before but this was the first time I had tried pimento cheese. From what I can tell it is frequently served with fried green tomatoes but also used as a dip, on sandwiches, or even burgers. The spread is commonly made with cheese, mayo, onions, pimentos, and S&P. But with this foundation, I think there are many opportunities to kick it up a notch with lots of other ingredients. The chow chow is a slightly tangy vegetable relish, usually made with bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, beans, carrots, etc.
After Southend, we took a nice walk through downtown while Glen talked about the restaurant scene in Charleston. He said that there is about 1,003 restaurants in Charleston and he seemed to know every chef, every dish, and the history of every restaurant! He also described how because the real estate is so expensive, many restaurants are part of restaurant groups with investors to help cover the costs of the facilities.
Our next stop was at the newly opened Cumberland Street Smokehouse and Chef Kyle Yarbrough. Here we tried some great Low Country style BBQ. The meat was rubbed with a spice seasoning before smoking and not slathered in sauce. The BBQ is served with the rub and then sauce (usually a mustard and vinegar based) are added on if desired. Collard greens are a common BBQ side and I highly suggest adding the pepper vinegar on top! It really makes a flavor explosion in your mouth. 🙂 Also a must is the duck fat fries. Crispy, hot, and cooked in duck fat for a flavor that will surely send your taste buds to Shangri-la. The rest of the BBQ was cooked well, but seemed dry. I definitely opted to add the additional sauce on top.
Next we walked down the waterfront and learned about some Charleston history. Glen also explained the grey flags that we saw displayed on some homes for Support Shore Power. This is a local effort to require cruise vessels to use shore side power instead of running their engines when sitting at port. Those in support of this are hoping to cut down on pollution from the ships that goes into the pier and soot that travels into the historic downtown area. It seems like it is all about perspective. Glen said that many of the restaurants do not like the cruise ships because no one comes to shore to eat when all the meals are included on the ship. On the other hand, when we asked a city bus tour guide about the flags, he scoffed and said “those groups are always upset with someone. Before the ships, they hated the bus tours. It’s always something.” I guess it depends on what industry you support. 🙂
Our next stop was at Pearlz Oyster Bar and Exec Chef Victoria Neikirk for some fish tacos. Not sure why we weren’t able to go inside but it could have been because the place was quite small and our tour group was a large group of 13. Instead the kitchen delivered the rolled fish tacos outside to us across the street. I am sure not everyone enjoyed that in the group but I love the idea of a good street food so it didn’t bother me at all. To me, it felt less formal and more local. The grilled Mahi taco was absolutely delicious! Rolled in a soft tortilla with cabbage, pico de gallo, and crema. It was fresh with a little bit of a spice. Pearlz is also a big supporter of the Sustainable Seafood Initiative which is a conservation program through the South Carolina Aquarium.
Last stop on the tour was Carmella’s Café and Dessert Bar. This place had beautiful and fresh décor with an open and vibrant feel. It is a fun atmosphere and great way to wind down after a foodie adventure. This place had an awesome mix of amazing desserts and coffee but with a full bar and creative cocktails. Our final dish of the tour was a chocolate mouse on a chocolate cake and was divine! (And I don’t like chocolate too much so that is saying a lot!) We also opted for the $5 special cocktails made for the tour. One was a fruity and refreshing orange slushy cocktail that tasted like an Orangesicle with manners and a hot chocolate coffee cocktail.
Now that the tour and we had some bearings in the city, Bill and I wanted to walk around and explore downtown as well as seeing their famous Rainbow Row. We asked Glen to give us some suggestions for places to stop in while we were down in that area and he sent us to Blind Tiger. “It looks like a real dive”, he warned us, “but walk all the way through to the patio in the back. They have the most amazing patio in Charleston.” Man was he right! We were stuffed from all the food on the tour so we were looking just to have a drink but I did try the white corn fritters. Eh. Their “Secret Sauce” seemed like a version of ranch and the fritters were served on some sad wilted lettuce. Clearly the selling point for this place is the patio atmosphere. The Blind Tiger has been many things during its long history including a speakeasy. These parlors called “blind tigers” were places where a person would pay an entrance fee to see the “blind tiger” and be served complimentary cocktails while waiting to see this tiger that would never show up. Pretty soon all patrons would stumble out blind. Today the patio is just overflowing with character and feels like a little oasis surrounded by crumbled courtyard walls in the middle of the city.
Our only regret with this tour is that you only have time to visit a few places and Charleston has so much to offer. Another big lesson is that many of the places are so popular and only open for dinner, that you need to make reservations well in advance! We certainly fell in love with this city during our brief few days and only feel like we scratched the surface of what this area has to offer. We most certainly will be going back because we have South Carolina on our minds.