Foodie Travels: Day Trip to Southern West Virginia

New River Gorge

The allure of West Virginia’s beautiful New River Gorge attracted us to visit. And while the gorgeous outdoor experience left an impression on us, we came home to North Carolina talking just as much about the delicious food we ate.

I’m not certain that’s only because we’re foodies. The area surrounding Fayetteville, W.Va., offers a broad menu through a deep roster of restaurants for a small town. Food must have factored into Fayetteville earning several honors as one of America’s “coolest small town” designees in the past decade.

I will go ahead and divulge that there are more restaurants we didn’t try in a single day in West Virginia’s southern mountains than what we did experience. There’s Pies & Pints, a well-known pizza and craft beer spot. There’s Vandal’s Kitchen, a delightful-looking take on Southern cooking. And there’s Gumbo’s, a cajun and creole option. Oh, and the temptation also includes West Virginia-based Tudor’s Biscuit World. Just look them up online and let your mouth start watering if you’re a biscuit and Southern food lover.

Those restaurants didn’t make our one-day cut in what was an extremely hard choice during a short visit. (Also keep in mind that as a travel tip we often surround our meals at delicious local restaurants with snacks from home and cheap breakfasts or lunches in between.) But we urge you to consider them if you travel U.S. 19 through Fayetteville. Here’s more about where we did eat, with a little bit about what we liked most at those spots.

Cathedral Cafe

Cathedral Cafe

This coffee shop, cafe and book store is located in an old historic church right on the main street through town. The building’s past and the eatery’s present offerings were what drew me to it during an online search of Fayetteville dining spots.

During our visit, we shared brunch for a nice light meal between a long drive and a hike to Long Point for a breathtaking view of the famed New River Gorge Bridge.

For drinks, we shared an Almond Joy iced coffee (which was so strong but also tasty) and an iced tea, which was less sweet than we’re used to in the Carolinas.

Since we were already past the breakfast menu, we decided to share a pair of appetizers: the chips and salsa and the salmon pita pizza. The chips were nice and salty and warm, and the salsa had a nice homemade feel that offered a tasty mix of restaurant-style and chunky.

The pita pizza was the star of the show here. A nice warm pita was topped with vegetable cream cheese, fresh salmon, greens and incredibly flavorful capers.

We made a good choice as the meal didn’t weigh us down on our long gorge hike, and we spent less than $20 combined for enough to fill us with energy for our hike. And, although the books were difficult to access with seating so close to them, we enjoyed the atmosphere in the Cathedral Cafe. The place even offers a small store upstairs.

Pita Pizza

Secret Sandwich Society

Photos of the most notable American presidents line the walls. A delicious American diner smell fills the air. A line of people stretches out the door throughout the afternoon and evening.

Secret Sandwich Society is not so secret, and that’s a good thing. This place has perfected the customer service end of the waiting list. Not only do they put your name on a Yelp list and then text you when your table is ready, they also offer a lounge upstairs that offers drinks (including sodas), music and a variety of seating where you can stay cool (or warm in the right season) while you rest and await your meal. We were very pleased with our accommodations during a 45-minute wait that started with our arrival around 4:45 p.m. By the way, that wait had stretched to an hour and a half by the time we finished our meal around 6:30 p.m.

When you make your way downstairs, you can sit inside or outside on the porch. If it’s hot, I absolutely recommend a table indoors.

Secret Sandwich burger

The menu is just what you’d expect from the name: sandwiches. But these sandwiches all come with a special blend of toppings, a home on a delicious fresh-baked bread and a unique name to boot. The burgers all have a tasty blend of well-seasoned beef that carries a signature name. The juicy chicken, roast beef and other meat options are accompanied by yummy toppings and the names of American presidents and other national and international leaders from the past.

Bring an appetite here, which is not difficult to do with all of the outdoor adventure sports in the area, because there’s plenty to eat. Along with our sandwiches, we enjoyed seasoned fries and our Cokes from the lounge. To top off the meal, we split a piece of Key Lime Pie, which I will remember for its very flavorful cashew Graham cracker crust.

This place was a hit for us, to the tune of what is probably one of my 10 or 15 favorite burgers in the southeast. And we were very pleased with the value for the $30 we paid.

Secret Sandwich Society

For more about the adventures awaiting you in Fayetteville, W.Va., click here.

Juicy Oven Burger Sliders

There’s a strong possibility these cheeseburgers will remind you of something you’ve tasted before if you’re familiar with a wide variety of basic restaurant cheeseburgers. Molly found a recipe for Aunt Kathy’s Oven Burgers online, and I modified it slightly to fit exactly what I craved at the time we tried it out. The result was one of the best burgers we’ve ever made in the #FoodieScore kitchen.

As much as I love a nice, thick cheeseburger, there are times when more of a slider sandwich hits the spot. There’s something about the bite-size option that’s really simple and satisfying. (And I don’t feel bad about eating more than one!) So, that’s the route we took on this burger creation, which is the first to find its way to our #FoodieScore blog by way of Pinterest. Most of our burger creations have actually started as recipes from one of two cheeseburger recipe books I have in our kitchen, or as on-the-fly tests that have popped in my head due to a craving for a specific ingredient combination.

This burger is unique for its sauce and its cooking method. Here’s how we made it. (You can always modify this recipe to meet your tastes and needs.)

Burger ingredients
(yields 6 sliders)

1 pound of fresh ground beef (Never use frozen beef for a great hamburger.)

6 small, fresh hamburger buns (A smallish regular burger bun will do.)

3 slices of American cheese (Change cheese depending on taste, but American offers a nice gooey factor.)

roll of aluminum foil

Sauce ingredients
(adjust accordingly for more burgers, bigger burgers or more/less sauce)

1/4 cup mayonnaise

1/2 tbsp ketchup

1/2 tbsp mustard

2 slices of dill pickle, finely diced

1/8 tsp garlic powder

1/8 tsp paprika

1 pinch of cayenne pepper

Directions

1. Mix a couple of dashes of salt and pepper into your ground beef and then separate and roll into six individual balls of meat.

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2. Press the meat balls into flat patties and round the edges.

3. Add the meat balls, three at a time, into a large skillet on medium-high heat on the stovetop. (Repeat this step and the next until all patties are cooked.)

4. Cook the patties until they’re almost done, and you can leave the slightest bit of pink in the center because they’re not done cooking. Drain the burger patties.

5. In a mixing bowl, combine all of your sauce ingredients with a whisk.

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6. On the inside of the top half of each bun, spread a generous portion of sauce.

7. Place each burger patty on the bottom of each bun and top with half a slice of cheese. Then put the sauce-covered top bun on top of the burger and cheese-covered bottom bun half.

8. Wrap each completed burger individually in foil and place all wrapped burgers on a baking sheet.

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9. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 12-15 minutes to melt the cheese and cook slightly.

10. Remove your burgers from the oven and serve.

Matthew’s Take: I expected this burger to offer gooey cheese and a delicious combination of pan-fried and oven-juiced meat. I did not expect baking the full burgers in foil to crisp the buns ever so slightly. I actually worried the sandwich might be a bit soggy with a sauce and a wrapped soft bun, but it was actually toasted perfectly. The sauce was delicious. The meat was juicy. Everything about this cheeseburger was delightful. And on top of that, it was fairly cheap and simple to make. I give it an A+ for taste, an A+ for ease and an A+ for cost. This would be a great cheeseburger on the cheap to make a batch of and serve for a group of children at a birthday party or other gathering, or just for your family one night during the week. And with the method of cooking and wrapping, you can save burgers you don’t eat in the fridge once they cool, take them out and heat them up for lunch or dinner for the next several days. I don’t know who Aunt Kathy is from the original recipe, but she had a great burger idea! What a #FoodieScore!

Molly’s Take: These oven burgers were a fantastic find on Pinterest. I took one look at a picture of the cheesy interior and decided we had to try our own variation. The original recipe called for twice the amounts of sauce, but I knew we wouldn’t need that much. Our recipe is halved already, and it’s the perfect amount of sauce for six burgers. Now, how do they taste? In a word, fantastic. The way the cheese melts and the juice cooks into the burger due to the oven method intensifies the flavor. And the sauce means you don’t need any other toppings once it comes out of the oven. I, too, was surprised at how the oven baking method using tin foil caused the buns to toast on top. Remarkably, nothing was soggy. It was perfectly cooked. These would indeed make a great party option, whether for a picnic or a cookout. The foil will keep them warm until ready to eat, but it’s also super easy to store them in the fridge until you’re ready to use them. This was one of my favorite burgers that we have ever made together, and definitely one we’ll try again. Confession: I even ate two!

Foodie Travels: White Duck Taco Shop, Asheville, N.C.

Mexican food is always a viable option when Molly and I are deciding what and where to eat. We’re attracted to the free or inexpensive appetizers of chips, salsa and queso dip, the ability to mix and match a variety of tortilla, chicken, beef and cheese entrée options, and the atmosphere you experience in each Mexican-style restaurant.

White Duck Taco Shop takes that experience to a whole new place altogether—quite literally in its Asheville River Arts District location.

We first discovered this place while on our honeymoon in 2015. The arts district was on our list of places to visit in the city, but White Duck wasn’t really foremost on our radar. That radar, by the way, wasn’t very accurate as we initially had a difficult time even finding the arts district along a beautiful but lengthy stretch of river.

A bit frustrated from driving around a bit more than expected, we came upon the taco shop, which we had heard of but hadn’t necessarily planned to visit. Hungry, we decided to make it our lunch stop.

White Duck 3

Already in a graffiti and creativity-covered waterfront section of an artsy town, White Duck’s setting in a colorful old industrial building gave us the feeling of being somewhere outside North Carolina.

When we walked inside and took note of the pub-style seating, the underground-feeling environment and the somewhat-hipster customers, we felt like we had stepped into a travel portal and out the other side in Europe. Upbeat music filled the air and a variety of drinks covered patrons’ tables around us as we surveyed the menu.

At first glance, you might think more than $3 for a taco sounds expensive. Normally, you’d be right, but these are unique and large tacos. We decided to order three and share all of them to make the most of our experience. We highly recommend the fish taco, the carnitas and the black bean variety.

You should expect to have a hard choice, as this place appears to offer about 10-12 different taco options on its menu each day, with slight variations depending on when you visit.

White Duck 2

White Duck’s tacos are packed with the kind of intense flavor that many Americanized ethnic food restaurants are lacking. The different meats were clearly seasoned in their own unique spices, the vegetables were fresh, the sauces added to the experience instead of feeling like a way to hide a lack of taste. And the portions were more than satisfactory for the price.

Past the tacos, most of your chip-and-dip combinations are also about $3 and are a satisfying prelude or sidekick for your main courses. And the side order offerings provide $2 choices that are a mix of traditional and unique for a shop that serves Mexican-style food. We had the options of black beans, cowboy pinto beans and chipotle cheese grits on the day we first visited, seeing a chance to mix Mexican and Southern recipes to accompany the tacos.

We liked White Duck so much we’ve referenced it ever since that first visit as a Mexican-American favorite within an hour of our home in western North Carolina. That affinity even led me to stop by to pick up takeout for dinner on my way home from a conference in Asheville earlier this year. There’s always room for tacos on our household’s menu, and White Duck is absolutely one of our favorites.

 

White Duck Taco Shop

1 Roberts Street, Asheville, N.C.

(There are also locations in downtown Asheville, the Charleston and Columbia areas in South Carolina and in Johnson City, Tenn.

whiteducktacoshop.com

Protein-Packed Smashed Avocado

Let’s just get right down to the point on what this dish is and what it isn’t. Smashed Avocado is an incredibly flavorful, unique and flexible option for a fresh and light breakfast, brunch or small meal option. It’s not something everyone will enjoy because of the ingredients or methods of cooking. But I will warn you that you’re missing out if you don’t at least consider it by reading through this post.

We recently experienced Smashed Avocado for the first time at The Collins Quarter, an Australia-influenced restaurant in downtown Savannah, Ga. Molly’s already an avocado fan, and Collins bills “smashed” as its signature dish. While their version was no doubt fancier and created with more culinary expertise, the plate we created at home was just as good in many ways.

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One of the best things about this dish is that you can mix and match so many of the ingredients. Collins served its Smashed Avocado on toast; we decided to use English muffins. The restaurant served its dish with a side of fancy greens and veggies; we used a simple mix of tomatoes and green peppers and added a little bit of bacon for flavor and crunch. You can switch up many of the parts as long as you have the basic elements of bread, avocado and egg.

That egg is traditionally poached for this dish, and I considered going another route since I had never previously poached an egg. I decided to expand my horizons and learn a new skill, and poaching an egg was much easier than I expected. Basically, I cracked the egg into a small glass dish less than the size of a coffee mug and then slid that egg straight into a pot of simmering (bubbly, but never boiling) water. The egg white eventually begins to cook around a yolk that stays somewhat soft. I used a sturdy metal slotted spoon to remove the egg to check its doneness and once the outside felt firm, I took it out of the water.

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On one half of each of the two toasted, open-faced English muffins, I spread the insides of a well-ripened avocado that I had only lightly salted (some recipes suggest you also add lemon juice in the smashing mix), and then I topped it with one poached egg. That was topped with a little crispy bacon, then a small sprinkle of shredded cheese, and finally diced tomatoes and green peppers.

That’s all there is to it for a dish that seems fancy but really doesn’t even require a formal list of ingredients or cooking steps to complete. Regardless, I will list the ingredients to offer a clearer picture. Remember: You can change many of these to meet your tastes.

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Ingredients

(yields serving for two)

2 English muffins, split into two halves

2 eggs (poached)

1 ripe avocado (skin should be dark and relatively soft)

Any additional toppings and seasonings you desire

 

Molly’s Take: This dish wowed my tastebuds at the Collins Quarter, so when Matthew suggested we try our own version at home, I was totally up for it. Poaching the egg was far easier than we thought, and the smashed avocado spread on an English muffin, even better in my opinion than on toast. I loved the addition of bacon, as it gave the dish a saltier taste and a great meat option. Smashed Avocado is easy and light, yet filling and packed with great ingredients that taste amazing, fit together well, and energize you for the day ahead. Want my advice? Go for it! 

Matthew’s Take: My affinity for this dish surprised me from all angles. I enjoy avocado and guacamole in several iterations, but I didn’t think Smashed Avocado on bread with a poached egg would be so good. A lightly salted avocado, smashed on bread and topped with the egg and veggies was such a flavor experience. It was so good that I wanted another one when I finished mine. If you’ve never poached a simple egg, you’ve got to try it. Not only was the combination of these ingredients full of flavor, altogether the dish was light and didn’t give me the heavy feeling that a traditional Southern breakfast of eggs, bacon/sausage/livermush and toast can cause if you eat a large portion. This one gets a perfect A+ score for flavor, a B for presentation (it is smashed avocado, after all) and an A- for cost, as the ingredients aren’t difficult to locate or particularly expensive, but outside of eggs the items aren’t necessarily staples in every kitchen.

Foodie Travels: Pawleys Front Porch, Columbia, S.C.

Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” (or DDD for short) resoundingly succeeds in sharing some of the most tasty, interesting and American restaurants from coast to coast. The show has served as a locator map for restaurants Molly and I have visited across the country, and it’s been a primary source of dining ideas for a couple of our trips this year alone.

When we planned to hit the road for a recent summer trip through South Carolina, Molly explored DDD options on our route. That’s how she discovered Pawleys Front Porch, an American food restaurant in the Five Points community of Columbia, not far from the University of South Carolina campus and the confluence of interstates 26 and 77.

Pawleys is a well-known burger spot in Columbia, receiving praise beyond just the Food Network. One of my mom’s friends even suggested it as her first choice when she learned we’d be traveling right through the South Carolina state capital.

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As if the menu’s primary reliance on cheeseburgers wasn’t enough to reel me in, this place names its specialty burgers after South Carolina islands. That’s a major selling point for me, since my family has frequented Kiawah Island south of Charleston for nearly 30 years as our vacation haven.

There’s a Kiawah burger on the menu, and that was naturally my easy choice. Along with an incredibly well-seasoned beef patty, I enjoyed the Brie cheese, fire-roasted peppers and portobello mushrooms as my toppings. And the burger was more than a mouthful in each bite.

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Other island options include Fripp, Edisto, Wadmalaw and Sullivan’s, with a wide range of toppings that make each burger a special experience. But that’s not all that we enjoyed about this place.

When Molly and I can travel to a restaurant that offers me a burger and her a Mexican food option like a quesadilla or taco plate, we’re especially happy. Pawleys delivered on those options, including a special shrimp taco offered on the day of our visit.

With burgers and a mixture of other food options, Pawleys has an atmosphere you’d almost expect to find at a more coastal location. There is a front porch with seating, as you’d expect with the name, but there’s also inside seating in an all-American restaurant kind of environment with college-aged wait staff members, which you’d expect with the location proximity to USC.

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We usually order water for drinks, but with that in mind this is a place where two can eat well for about $20. When we left, our stomachs were full, our tastebuds were happy, and I didn’t have any reason to complain about pricing or service. Give it a try if you’re traveling through the middle of South Carolina. I’ve had burgers from Greenville to Charleston to Myrtle Beach, and Pawleys’ was the best in taste, creativity and price.

Pawleys Front Porch

827 Harden Street, Columbia, S.C.

pawleysfrontporch.com