Charleston: Cuisine and Conversation

by Emily Corak
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Charleston cuisine

“Don’t waste your time counting calories here. Anyone who does is missing out on the best food this city has to offer,” Francisco, my Lyft driver warns. After moving to Charleston from Panama twenty three years ago, Francisco is one of many locals and transplants with strong opinions on the food scene, and he’s more than willing to chat about it with a Charleston cuisine first-timer.

South Carolina’s largest city boasts an eclectic and drool-worthy array of food, ranging from traditional low country southern fare to African-inspired soul food. Charleston’s impressive culinary reputation landed them a feature on season fourteen of the prestigious television show Top Chef. As a fan of both Top Chef and good food, a week in Charleston created fantasies of fine dining and a self-made tour sampling all the featured restaurants and custom creations. Upon arriving, however,  neither my budget nor my “on-the-go planning” approach would allow for this. Cue plan B –  relying on the kindness and expertise of Charleston folks to point me in the right direction towards the best of Charleston cuisine.

charleston cuisine

Writer Emily Corak explored the city to learn about and enjoy Charleston cuisine (Photo by Emily Corak)

Bri: Getting Acquainted with Charleston

“People here are really nice,” says Bri as she transports me to my hotel on the outskirts of the city. “It takes some getting used to,” she adds. “I’m from Massachusetts and this type of genuine kindness is an adjustment.” Drivers, vendors, fellow diners and locals strolling along the street eagerly oblige any requests for friendly conversation and recommendations on how to best fill my dinner card.

Charleston is also a great city for walking (Photo by Nancy Zaffaro)

Leila: Poogan’s Porch

“You haven’t come to Charleston if you leave without trying fried green tomatoes,” says Leila, an employee at the Holiday Inn. “And don’t eat on King Street. Wander down the side roads and use those big bay windows to peek at everyone’s food.” The first time I attempt this tactic, I poke my head into a restaurant and try the she-crab soup that finds its way onto many menus.

She-crab soup, I am soon informed, is made from crab roe, or crab eggs, alongside crab meat, cream and sherry. I’ll admit that a summer day in Charleston already blanketed in heat, a piping cup of beige soup and a smattering of crab meat didn’t win me over like I’d hoped, but the fried chicken at Poogan’s Porch prove reinvigorating.

I venture to this tiny restaurant after a chat with a jewelry vendor at the historic market. After appraising my casual clothes, she tells me that if I want good low country fare without needing to dress up, Poogan’s Porch is an essential destination.

She was right.

The complimentary biscuits arrive straight from the oven drizzled with sweet cream butter and quickly fall apart on my tongue, leaving me to hunt and peck for errant crumbs on the table cloth. The plate of fried chicken, which could have fed a family of four, has to wait until the end of the meal as the buttery, ham-laden collard greens scream out first. I don’t know if I’ve ever known love like this before.

Charleston cuisine

Shrimp and grits is a must (Photo by Emily Corak)

Matt: Fleet Landing

Many discussions with locals throughout the week lead to kind suggestions and heated debates about where to experience Charleston’s best seafood. There are too many restaurants for my week long trip, but I hear the name Hank’s dropped regularly for its fine dining atmosphere, and Bowens Island for unfussy fried seafood with an unbeatable view at sunset. But it is the name Fleet Landing that comes up over and over again, and the one restaurant Francisco tells me I would be a fool to miss.

It is here at Fleet Landing, perched directly on the water’s edge, where I heed the advice I keep hearing to try fried green tomatoes for the first time. I am converted as I devour rounds of crispy yet tender tomatoes punctuated with layers of crab salad. My waiter, Matt, a lifelong South Carolina resident, asks if I’ve saved room for the shrimp and grits I’d been eyeing, and it is with brooding disappointment I tell him I’ve filled up on the appetizer. “Have you had shrimp and grits since coming to Charleston?” Reluctantly, I admit I have not. “Well we have to fix that,” he says and brings out a sample size with the perfect dollop of creamy grits doused in ham hock gravy and fresh shrimp. Even if not for the kindness and hospitality, I will undoubtedly be coming back to Fleet Landing.

Before I go, Matt reminds me to try key lime pie. “You can find good pie all over this city,” he says, “but the secret is to avoid anything that looks too green. You want a nice yellow pie so you know it’s the real deal.” Later that afternoon I wander into Carmella’s Dessert Bar and find a yellow slice of pie speckled with lime zest – the exquisite balance of creaminess and tartness Matt described.

Key Lime pie does not need to be neon green (Photo by Emily Corak)

Alphonso: Hannibal’s Kitchen

By the end of the week I’m saddened by how many places I will not make it to – there’s more barbeque, pimento cheese, and sweet tea than I have time to try. But my last full day requires a stop to Hannibal’s Kitchen. It’s on a Gullah Tour with Alphonso Brown that I hear about this renowned family-owned restaurant that aims to “feed the soul of the city.” The tour aims to illuminate both the somber history and the celebratory contributions of Black Charlestonians, and Hannibal’s Kitchen is an essential spot to experience the rich history of soul food.

“Be prepared to wait,” Alfonso warns of the small restaurant, but when I go back later that night, it proves well worth it. The ambience is unassuming, laid back, and it appears I’m the only tourist in the dining room. Wanting to order it all, I settle on the collard green plate with pigtails and a side of macaroni and cheese, and I’m soon berating myself for not eating here earlier in the week. The heart and soul poured into this food is visceral – I order a second order of macaroni and cheese that I will savor alone in my hotel room, and I’ll inevitably regret not taking home thirds.

Charleston cuisine

Charleston cuisine is not to be missed, but neither is the natural beauty of this Low County city. (Photo by Emily Corak)

Kourtney and Ivan: The Oyster House

A few hours before I’m set to leave for the airport, I take in one last recommendation. “We’re known for our oysters; you can’t leave without trying them,” says Kourtney. She suggests Oyster House for a tasty and low key experience. Sitting at the bar, I chat with Ivan as he artfully shucks oysters and recommends I try the famous low country cup that proves incredibly delicious to a newcomer to the oyster scene. He also suggests I give she-crab soup another try, and I do. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia for my week in this enchanting city, or maybe it’s this restaurant’s take on the signature dish, but I am warming up to it. Later that night when I’m stranded at O’Hare airport after a missed connection, I will wish I had another bowl.

Charleston cuisine

You know the oysters are going to be fresh in Charleston (Photo by Emily Corak)

Lonny: Celebrity Chat and Doing Charleston Cuisine Right

As I’m preparing to leave Charleston and Charleston cuisine, I have one final chat with Lonny who drives me to the airport and tells me about his limousine company and his insider celebrity knowledge. (Bill Murray is seen around here all the time and Sandra Bullock ALWAYS eats at Magnolia’s when she comes to town.) “Hopefully you gained a few pounds while you’re here,” Lonny says. “That’s the only way to do this city up right.” No problem there, Lonny. No problem at all.

(Photo by Emily Corak)

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-All photos by Emily Corak, except as credited. Cover photo by Emily Corak.

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