True Lowcountry Cuisine (Slideshow)
December 17, 2013
A culinary trip through South Carolina’s Lowcountry
Charlotte's Gullah Cuisine
Charlotte Jenkins has been cooking since she was 9 and opened Gullah Cuisine in 1997. She is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University and also operates a successful catering company. Her cookbook Gullah Cuisine is one of our favorites on the topic and features the artwork of the famed Gullah artist Jonathan Green. At Gullah Cuisine, the atmosphere is very festive and caters to a lot of large groups. They feature a large buffet filled with fresh foods that are replenished often. Specialty items on the menu also include the Gullah shrimp boil, Awendaw fish head stew, gator tails, crab balls, and lots of meats and seafood. Gullah Cuisine is one of the only places with salads and they serve brunch on Sundays. They also have a kids' menu, which offers standard items but is a nice option to have. Best of all, Miss Jenkins will teach you how to cook with her series of cooking classes she offers that includes dinner served to you after you take a class.
Hannibal’s’ Kitchen is one of the only places on the tour that serves breakfast, which is just what we ordered on our visit. Based on recommendations, we tried the sautéed crab and shrimp that comes oozing over a bed of grits. It was the best version of shrimp and grits we have ever tasted in Charleston and can’t wait to go back and try it with other toppings like salmon, fresh whiting, shark, and liver for the more adventurous eater. The corned beef hash was also served over grits and was delicious. You can order any of the seafood as sides for breakfast or other meats as well. They open at 7 a.m. and stay open until 11 p.m. serving daily specials like a meat and two sides, specialty rice, lima beans, okra soup, or a collard green plate. On Fridays, they serve the oxtail special, which goes quickly so we recommend getting there early. When asked how long Hannibal’s Kitchen had been open our server told us, "For years, older than me." With counter seating, nearby banquettes, and a separate room with tables, the place is a great place to hang in downtown any time of day.
It was at Bertha’s where we experienced our first line, and our first mix of diverse diners. We don’t like a line, but it was great to run into friends while waiting. It is a great mix of locals who come together to eat great food. Bertha’s décor is some of the best and the open kitchen features all Bertha’s daughters and their daughters (and sons) cooking and serving. Talk about family — it is as good as it gets. You order down an assembly line and can choose each day from a long list of items. Their specialty is their pork chops and okra stew but we also dug the fried chicken, beef stew, lima beans, and mac and cheese. We plan to come back and try the oxtail and BBQ pig feet that were not available on the day we visited.
The funny thing about Dave’s is that it closes down and reopens at various times during the day and you never know when it will be open. That was the case during our first visit. We were so tired of all the eating and needed a cold beer, so decided to go to Two Boroughs Larder, located right next to Dave’s, before we got some fried shrimp. This turned out to be a poor decision, because when ready to go order, the place was closed. We have not made it back but have heard the fried shrimp are some of the best in town.
Ike’s Hot Chicken, Fish and More
One of the newest places on the tour, Ike’s is in a mini strip mall right off interstate 26 on Meeting Street. Painted bright yellow with its name listed across the front, it is hard to miss when you drive by. Inside the décor is pretty plain and is the least exciting of the places that we visited. Ike himself greets you as you enter and takes your order at the counter. He explains the menu and when asked will share how he got into the business. Ike recommends the shrimp and crab rice as his most popular dish. Intrigued, we ordered it and were pleased with the choice. It was unlike anything we had already consumed and it had a nice flavor to it. Ike also recommends the daily meat and two side specials and promotes his special menu on Fridays which includes turkey wings and fried fish. Apparently it goes fast, so come early to order. He also brings out his cook Alice’s fried deviled crab, which is a specialty item and very tasty. We recommend Ike’s as a place you call and order from to take out and spend time in some of the other long-standing places for the charm and personality.
After being stuck behind a stalled train and then looping through a nearby neighborhood, we stumbled upon K&W Seafood. It was not on our list because it has only been open a year but we recommend it as the best of the tour. A small converted home (we are convinced the owners live upstairs) located next to a Church’s Fried Chicken, it resembles an old-timey diner with a row of counter seating. K&W Seafood serves breakfast with lots of items featuring grits with a seafood item or a variety of meats served on top. They have daily lunch specials and oxtail and rice was the special of the day when we visited. The oxtail fell off the bone and was juicy and tender. It mixed well with fresh cooked vegetables and was paired with the best steamed cabbage of the tour. Cornbread was on the side and it again was the best we had all day. Other specials of the week include smothered pork chops, okra soup, BBQ pork ribs, and fish with red rice. Their menu says it best with the quote, "We specialize in food that warms the soul." We agree wholeheartedly.
Martha Lou’s has to be the most famous spot of them all. First, it’s located downtown and is one of the closest to the main hub of area restaurants. You cannot miss the large mural on the side of Martha Lou herself or the hot pink color the building is painted. Martha Lou’s has also been featured in articles in The New York Times and Saveur and is a favorite of chefs like Sean Brock’s. The best part about the place is that Martha Lou sits in the front in a lounge chair and greets you as you enter. If you are lucky, she takes your order and then goes back in the kitchen to place it. We ordered the chitterlings and rice, something that we had not seen on any of the other menus. Martha Lou questioned our choice and gave us a sample to try. We agree it is not the dish for the average diner, but we were on a mission to try the various delicacies so we went with it. We also ordered a batch of the fried chicken, which is cooked to order and takes at least 15 minutes to prepare. The menu is fairly small and allows for you to select from the classics (chicken, fish, shrimp, pork chops, and wings) and then select from a long list of sides. The place is tiny but filled with photos, framed write-ups, and distinctions and awards like the ones from the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Charleston Wine + Food Festival. Martha Lou is proud and should be at all she has accomplished. All the accolades have also made the place charge the heftiest fee of them all — $20 for the lunches, our largest bill of the day.
Be prepared to eat lots of seafood, and fresh seafood at that, when you arrive at Marvin’s. Mostly a fish market to come and grab your catch of the day, it also serves as a place for commuters to stop in and grab a quick bite to take for lunch. At their lunch counter, you can get items like fish sandwiches (with or without bones), shrimp, deviled crabs, crabcakes, clams, and a mix of all the above. But their real specialty is their fried crabs. It is not listed on the menu but instead hand-written on a sign that is hard to see above the grill. For $1.99 a crab, you can order them as garlic or plain and they come packed perfectly in a to-go box. It was our first time eating a whole crab (shells and all) and we promise it will not be our last.
You have to drive a little farther to get to Workmen’s Café. It is located in a small house right off Folly Road as you head out to Folly Beach. We got there right before their 4 p.m. closing time and think it was too late to really enjoy the menu. When you walk in, the food is waiting for you in a long buffet in the entrance. By then, everything looked a little tired, as it had been sitting out since noon. The owner, Angie Bellinger, sits behind the counter next to the kitchen and while we were there, worked on a new menu. She recommends coming in right as the buffet is filled each day. We ask about her business and she shares some hardship stories about opening, then closing, and then opening again. Business is tough being so remote, but she seems determined to make a new menu that works. We ordered the meatloaf and gravy with some sides and the pork chop, essentially all that is left. It was good but again we think would be even better if fresh and right when service begins.
Charlie Brown Seafood
While similar in its menu to Marvin’s, this seafood market is a little larger in size and scope. At Charlie Brown’s Seafood, you never know what to expect. That’s because the cook seems to be on her own time schedule of doing things. When we arrived, she was not ready to prepare and then within seconds seemed to be in the mood. She also shouted that she was out of one type of crab but seemed to have another. Confused, we ordered the "Jacksonville Style Garlic Crab." We lived in Jacksonville for a few years and had never heard of this type before. We wished we had because they were amazing! This version of crab comes steamed and for $12 you get an order of 10 crabs. Talk about a bargain. As you wait for your order, you can sit in a mixed-matched chair and your eyes immediately wander to all the "stuff" on the walls — old Happy Meal toys, a few fish tanks, and lots of other knickknacks. The real action is the people coming in and out ordering mostly from the market. The signs above the fresh fish are full of rules and we learn quickly that if you want to order conch you need to call ahead — it takes five hours to cook. The daily menu features fried oysters, fish and grits, conch, gator meat, and a "boom boom" shrimp. We plan to stick with the crabs and come back for more for our next party or outdoor cookout.