Foodie Travels: Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, Charleston, S.C.

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When we travel, we like to maximize our foodie opportunities to visit great local restaurants. You won’t find us eating at a chain establishment in a faraway city. But you might find us driving slightly out of the way to test out a restaurant we’ve seen or heard great things about.

On a recent trip to Charleston, one of the greatest and most diverse foodie cities in the Southeast and all of America, I faced a major dining dilemma. For months, I’ve been hearing about a place called Scott’s BBQ in the small community of Hemingway, South Carolina, a 90-minute drive from Charleston and way off the beaten path on my journey from and back to Charlotte, North Carolina. Scott’s, I’m told, is one of the best places anywhere to eat whole-hog, pulled-pork barbecue because of the emphasis on quality wood and slow smoking. But how could I sensibly add three hours to my trip for one meal, even if meant sampling some of the best barbecue out there?

A little restaurant research solved my quandary. (I recommend you always thoroughly research restaurants and cities before making your dining plans. Spontaneity can lead to great foodie adventures, but I’ve seen many Yelp and Trip Advisor complaints that could’ve been avoided with a little planning and scouting.)

Apparently the people of Charleston also wanted to enjoy Scott’s BBQ, enough that Rodney Scott has opened a location on Upper King Street to sell his delicious barbecued meats and sides. So, I got to go to Charleston and have my barbecue, too. And what an amazing barbecue experience it is!

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Scott sells ribs and chicken in his Charleston spot, too, but I had to try out his renowned whole hog pulled pork because that’s what I’ve heard so much about. (When we say whole hog, we mean the whole hog is cooked slowly for about 12 hours in the barbecue pit.) I’m proud to say I watched a Southern Foodways Alliance feature on Scott that reveals he shares my belief in the power of perfectly cooked meat that doesn’t need to drown in sauce. He offers his own spicy, thin barbecue sauce, but his meat is so masterfully and flavorfully smoked that you don’t even need it.

What you do need is to get a pork plate with sides of cornbread and macaroni and cheese. The moist cornbread appears to be brushed on the top with honey and comes with a cup of fresh cream butter. The mac and cheese is hot, gooey and oh, so creamy, too.

If you get cornbread on the plate, you will have double bread, as two slices of white sandwich bread come with the pork as well. I always love that style of service, as it’s what I’m familiar with from eating barbecue in Alabama and Kansas City, too. You can make a sandwich with some of your pork and your bread, and you might consider your sweet cornbread a dessert of sorts. That’s what I did.

Rodney Scott’s BBQ is like an alternate double world within Charleston, a city known so much for its culinary prowess, particularly food with lowcountry flair. Scott’s serves pork that I imagine mirrors the product in his hole-in-the-wall old joint up in Hemingway, but it comes in new-age digs that I found to be neat, tidy and without unnecessary frills. From door to counter to table, the service was incredibly friendly, too.

I’m sure glad I did my research before traveling through Charleston. If I hadn’t, I would’ve missed this prize in a city full of great food. For the barbecue lover, Rodney Scott’s is, as advertised, the must-visit BBQ spot in all of South Carolina, whether you’re in Charleston or can make it to Hemingway for the original.

Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, 1011 King Street, Charleston, S.C.

Foodie Travels: Carolina BBQ, Spartanburg, S.C.

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I’ve savored barbecue from corner to corner of North Carolina, but South Carolina is a different story. I realized recently that I couldn’t name even one prime barbecue restaurant in South Carolina that I could recommend to a BBQ-loving friend. So, of course, we had to change that.

Earlier this year we came across Carolina BBQ—perhaps the most common name for a barbecue restaurant in either of the Carolinas (seriously, there’s one almost everywhere it seems)—and I added it to my #FoodieScore scouting list for the state of South Carolina. (We receive a lot of “you have to eat here” recommendations, and each one goes on a list that changes almost daily. Thank you for your great suggestions!) Luckily, Carolina BBQ is in Spartanburg, which is about a 90-minute roundtrip from our home in Shelby, N.C. And it just so happens to also carry Southern Living magazine’s endorsement as the best barbecue in the state of South Carolina.

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Normally, I’d classify barbecue restaurants into two categories, legendary dives and modern Q shacks. Carolina BBQ is almost a solid hybrid of the two. From the outside of the place, you almost get the sense you’re about to venture into a decades-old kingdom of delicious meats and sides. When you walk in the door, it feels like a new-age take on the old lunch counter experience, with bar-and-stool and booth seating available.

Then you hit the menu, and you continue to toe the line of old school and new school. Carolina BBQ plates a hearty assortment of Carolinas BBQ favorites. We’re talking pulled pork (always my first meat choice at a Carolinas BBQ establishment, and theirs was a nice mix of meaty and seasoned), sliced pork and half chicken, the stuff you read on the menu of an iconic barbecue spot. But keep reading because there’s also St. Louis ribs, beef brisket and smoked turkey, and that’s just the meat.

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The side dish lineup is strong, including creamy, thick, hearty mac & cheese, the biggest fried squash you’ve seen in your life, creamy and crunchy coleslaw, and quite possibly the best Brunswick stew I’ve ever eaten. For folks not familiar, Brunswick stew is a thick soup that usually contains lima or butter beans, vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes and corn, along with shredded meat and spices for flavor. A cup of Brunswick stew is the perfect warmup on a cold day, and I’ve eaten my share of it from my days living in Eastern North Carolina. Carolina BBQ’s stew will also delight folks who are more familiar with the term “chili” or “chili beans” due to its warmth, richness and spice kick.

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Of course, a restaurant’s barbecue sauce of choice is always a heady question, and that’s one place Carolina BBQ functions as more of a modern Q shack. There’s no one sauce to rule them all. You get three on the table. When I think of South Carolina barbecue as shared by the traveling experts, I think of a mustard sauce, and Carolina BBQ’s is a good one, with a solid influence of mustard but almost a smoky-sweet side to it as well. There’s also a “mild” sauce that, to me, had more of a kick to it. And finally there’s a Cheerwine sauce that tastes more like Cheerwine than any Cheerwine BBQ sauce you’ve ever had in your life. If you love Cheerwine, you have to try it first, especially if you’re not already drinking the soda by the same name, so you can tell the difference. The sauce is a ringer for the taste of the North Carolina-based soda that celebrates 100 years in 2017. I had to sample all three sauces in separate areas of my plate, and I couldn’t pick a clear favorite. They’re all good.

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My pork plate came with two sides AND four hushpuppies (so did my wife Molly’s savory smoked turkey plate, of which there was so much that she took half home), so we had plenty to eat without dessert. But how could we resist either the deep-fried brownie bites or homemade banana pudding? We went with the banana pudding, which is unlike most you’ll find in our part of the South. The pudding is sweet, light and almost airy, not heavy at all, filled with fresh banana slices, and all on top of a crunchy pecan sandie-like cookie base. When you dig in with your spoon, dip all the way to the bottom to get a solid crunchy bite of that cookie as you scoop up through the pudding, the bananas and the whipped cream. For someone who likes to get creative in the kitchen, the Carolina BBQ banana pudding is a delightful new take on the classic Southern dessert.

Carolina BBQ offers both the classics as you’ve come to love them and favorites with new twists—and we loved both angles—so I might have to create a new “hybrid” category to describe similar barbecue restaurants. One thing’s for sure: This Spartanburg Q shop has plenty of choices for you, and they’ll all come at an affordable price. We savored two plates, two drinks and dessert for $23. Not bad at all for a filling Saturday dinner!

Carolina BBQ, 7115 Lone Oak Road, Spartanburg, S.C.

Legendary Burgers in the American South

#FoodieScore’s Matthew Tessnear ranks his 10 favorite burgers ever

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Nothing quite defines my culinary life like the experience of savoring a delicious cheeseburger enjoyed at a unique restaurant in the American South. It’s that very activity that provides a lasting snapshot of my childhood and my young adulthood in my home state of North Carolina and throughout the region. Maybe it’s a hereditary drive to find every great cheeseburger out there, thanks to my dad’s equal enjoyment of a delicious burger. Certainly, my love for cheeseburgers has never waned, and it’s only grown stronger since marrying my wife Molly, who’s become my #FoodieScore partner in crime.

My all-time favorite take on the American beef burger comes on a hearty bun with melted cheese. The cheese is non-negotiable, and I will tell you there is no such thing as a hamburger. Every other topping is unnecessary, but I do enjoy just minimal lettuce and a light dose of mayonnaise, which I find brings out the flavor of the meat, bread and cheese.

There are so many great restaurants across America that have perfected their own unique cheeseburger, but the South is the only region in which I’d consider myself a burger connoisseur because it’s the only section of the country that I’ve frequented enough to become an expert. I’ve sampled—ahem, devoured—hundreds of different restaurant burgers across the South, and now for the first time I’m proud to share my very favorites with you. These are my top 10 burgers in the American South, until I try my next new cheeseburger, at which time the list immediately is subject to change with the insertion of another classic.

 

Betty Bombers

The Classic Bomber at Betty Bombers in Savannah

 

  1. THE CLASSIC BOMBER
    Betty Bombers
    Savannah, Georgia

It’s always my first choice to enjoy a cheeseburger that, in some way, accents the key elements of beef, bread and melty cheese, even if it includes additional toppings. Betty Bombers does just that, serving up a burger cooked with ever the slightest grilled crust on the bottom and gooey cheese on top. The veggie toppings are just the right kind of dressing that don’t disrupt the essentials. On top of everything, you get to enjoy this delightful sandwich among World War II relics that celebrate the “Greatest Generation,” in a restaurant located inside the local American Legion post headquarters.

 

Burger Bar

“Move It On Over” at Burger Bar in Bristol

  1. MOVE IT ON OVER
    Burger Bar
    Bristol, Virginia

Burger Bar has captured an expert flavor combination with the smoky barbecue sauce, grilled onions and your choice of cheese on the “Move It On Over.” And I must suggest you try it with a side of sweet potato fries accompanied by a sweet aioli for dipping. This stop also offers a sea of memorabilia about country music legend Hank Williams who, legend has it, was last seen alive outside the restaurant.

 

 

  1. CHEESEBURGER
    Steak-Out
    Birmingham, Alabama

Steak-Out has the ambiance of a fast food restaurant that just so happens to deliver. So you wouldn’t expect to necessarily get one of the best burgers you’ll ever eat. But that’s exactly what they do. You get a premium-beef burger and high-quality toppings that tastes like it came off the grill at a high-end steakhouse. You can even get a baked potato as a side at this place. I’m not sure I’ve ever visited a restaurant or burger joint that so expertly blurs the lines between fast food and fine dining. (Unfortunately, I don’t have my own photo of the delicious Steak-Out Burger.)

 

Phillips Grocery

The Cheeseburger Single at Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs

  1. CHEESEBURGER SINGLE
    Phillips Grocery
    Holly Springs, Mississippi

It’s just fun to enjoy a cheeseburger inside a more than century-old building that once housed a lively saloon. On top of that, Phillips serves up a funky little cheeseburger with a standard topping combination I’ve never found anywhere else. The single gives you just the right amount of beef to enjoy the dressing of mustard, pickle, onion and muenster cheese. Well done, Phillips. It’s just an extra treat that you also get to enjoy the place’s general store feel with its furnishings of antique relics of the past.

 

Pawley's Front Porch

Kiawah at Pawleys Front Porch in Columbia

  1. KIAWAH
    Pawleys Front Porch
    Columbia, South Carolina

Pawleys exudes a college-town vibe in its location in the Five Points neighborhood, cozied next to the University of South Carolina campus. The shop’s burger menu salutes the state’s great resort island destinations, and it just so happens to include a tribute to my favorite getaway locale of all time, Kiawah Island. The burger’s topped with one of my favorite cheeses, brie, as well as marinated portabella mushrooms, and fire-roasted peppers. This is one of the juiciest, most flavorful burgers I’ve ever put in my mouth.

 

Cal Dreaming

Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger at California Dreaming in Charleston

  1. BARBECUE BACON CHEESEBURGER
    California Dreaming
    Charleston, South Carolina

Outside of the classic/basic/house cheeseburger style that emphasizes the meat, bread and cheese, a set of toppings with sweet barbecue sauce and bacon is my all-time favorite, and no one does that combination any better than California Dreaming. It’s the perfect amount of sauce and a generous helping of perfectly crispy bacon. There are a couple of California Dreaming locations—which also give you the feel of a fine-dining experience with their snappily-dressed servers—but the Charleston location has consistently had the very best burger of them, and it easily has the best setting with a panoramic view of the river harbor near downtown.

 

Al's Burger Shack

Kenny J at Al’s Burger Shack in Chapel Hill

  1. KENNY J
    Al’s Burger Shack
    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Al Bowers knows Chapel Hill (he previously worked at another local legendary restaurant, Merritt’s Store & Grill) and he knows a delicious, creative burger. His joint, just down the street from the University of North Carolina, tops its delicious patties with fun toppings like those on the Kenny J, which is both distinctly North Carolina and Southern with its Cheerwine barbecue sauce, not-too-spicy pimento cheese, grilled onions and bacon. I must also praise him for not completely splitting his buns, which allow the sandwich to envelope its toppings, making the burgers easier to eat. Additionally, he caters to your size preference with the buddy bite, Al and Big Al sizes. And if all of that is not enough, he may serve the most flavorful French fries (with sea salt and rosemary seasonings) I’ve ever had alongside a burger.

 

 

  1. EXTRA SHARP CHEDDAR STEAK BURGER
    McGuire’s Irish Pub
    Destin, Florida

Adjacent to the white-sand beaches and emerald-colored waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll find that this joint, with money taped everywhere, offers quite the valuable burger. McGuire’s calls its creations Angus Steak Burgers, and the quality is so good you’ll feel like you’ve got a tender steak on your bun. If that’s not enough for ya, try the $100 Grand Burger of Filet Mignon, caviar, merlot sauce and imperial champagne. Seriously. I’ve never sampled the high-dollar version myself because I haven’t seen a way to top the Angus Steak Burgers. (Sadly, I haven’t had a McGuire’s burger since 2006, and that was before everyone carried a high-quality camera phone, so I have no personal photo here. I need to fix that soon with a trip to Florida’s beautiful panhandle.)

 

Lankford Grocery

Old Fashion Hamburger (with cheese) at Lankford Grocery & Market in Houston

No. 2 OLD FASHION HAMBURGER (WITH CHEESE)
Lankford Grocery & Market
Houston, Texas

In this restaurant tucked into a friendly neighborhood between the Fourth Ward and Midtown sections of the nation’s fourth-largest city, you’ll find a remarkable cheeseburger that offers the freshest overall combination of toppings I’ve ever eaten on a burger. I enjoyed the softest bun, the greenest, leafiest lettuce, the crunchiest, most flavorful onion, and a fresh beef patty that is second in quality only to the No. 1 sandwich on this list. I’ve discovered that not all of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” spots are legendary in quality. This one deserves that status.

 

Kim's Kitchen

Cheeseburger at Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley

No. 1 CHEESEBURGER
Kim’s Kitchen
Stanley, North Carolina

Kim Millman’s cheeseburger has topped this list throughout my life because of a steady diet of the most important ingredient in a burger: the beef. You won’t top the fresh, hand-pattied, perfectly cooked beef on a Kim’s cheeseburger. You also get a substantial sandwich that’s an incredible value for your money, while adhering to Sheldon Cooper’s (of Big Bang Theory fame) burger formula that prizes the perfect bun-meat-condiment ratio. And you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a friendly table visit from Kim herself while you’re dining in this community fixture between Charlotte and Asheville.

Where do you get your favorite cheeseburgers? Share with us in the comments section, or share with #FoodieScore on social media. Follow @FoodieScore on Facebook and Instagram, or @Foodie_Score on Twitter.

Foodie Travels: The Real Deal, Spartanburg, S.C.

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The name says it all, folks.

The Real Deal crafts Philadelphia-style (Philly) cheesesteaks. And the combination of lightly toasted bun, tender seasoned beef, melty cheese and other toppings…well, it melts in your mouth.

We learned about this foodie stop from an Upstate S.C. resident while talking over a meal at a bed-and-breakfast inn. That should’ve been our first clue to take his advice, right? If you’re talking about other food while enjoying food, it’s a foodie match and a suggestion worth pursuing.

Less than a week after the recommendation, we made the short trip down I-85 to Spartanburg for a Saturday afternoon treat. We almost drove right past the restaurant and its simple signage, so pay attention on your route.

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Inside, the cooks behind the counter greeted us and told us they could tell we were first-timers by the way we studied the menu. I should’ve known the cheesesteak would be good by the cooks’ observations.

Molly and I both ordered the Liberty Bell, a cheesesteak with onions and melted cheese. She added mushrooms, and I added green bell peppers.

We decided to enjoy our cheesesteaks in the restaurant. I might not have known that was an option until the cook asked “for here or to go?” At first glance, it looks like a take-out-only place, but a step around the corner reveals a few tables for dining in.

Waiting on the food was a sensory experience all around. The walls are covered (and I mean covered) in photos of patrons. The cling-clang of the cook’s sandwich assembly rings. And the smell of cheesesteak ingredients wafts.

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Now, I must confess, when these cheesesteaks came to our table, we were so excited that we started eating without sharing a blessing for our food. In two years of marriage, we’ve never completely forgotten to pray for our meal, but these cheesesteaks were so inviting that we didn’t say a word of grace. Just “mmm” and “mmhm.” We realized it moments later and paused for a prayer.

Molly’s enjoyed an authentic Philadelphia-made cheesesteak, and The Real Deal was the next best thing, in her assessment. She also enjoyed that she could order Kool-Aid as a drink at this foodie destination.

There aren’t many places to get a cheesesteak in the South, and even fewer places offer such a sandwich that’s worth its price. I’m not a big fan of dining out to eat a sandwich because I often feel I can make something just as good at home and pay less for it. Not so at the Real Deal.

We’ve made cheesesteaks at home, and they were good. But they weren’t The Real Deal. If you like a cheesesteak, this place must be on your list.

The Real Deal

1311 Asheville Highway, Spartanburg, S.C.

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Foodie Travels: Carolina Cafe, Gaffney, S.C.

“Get there early.” That’s the advice we received from several sources about the Carolina Cafe, off Highway 11 in the Upstate of South Carolina. And when we rounded the corner and saw the parking lot of the place at 7:15 p.m. on a Friday night, we understood.

We were told to expect a 40-minute wait for a table for the two of us, but it only took 15 minutes before we were seated in a cozy, but very chilly, corner of the restaurant. That pleasant service surprise was the first of many fond moments during our dinner experience.

img_8314Warm yeast rolls and fresh honey butter arrived at the table along with our drinks, another check mark for a great dining outing. It’s always a plus when you get delicious bread with a meal; it’s a type of free appetizer, if you will.

The menu offers a little bit of everything you’d expect to find at a nice casual American family restaurant in the South. There are burgers, sandwiches, salads, steaks, seafood, ribs and more.

Molly ordered the shrimp and grits, one of her favorites. The grits were creamy, and the shrimp were plump, flavorfully sautéed and generously portioned. It was also a great deal at $10.99. You’ll often pay closer to $13 or $15 or more for this dish. And I often have a hard time justifying that cost, unless I’m eating premium shrimp and grits in a coastal area.

img_8316I decided to try the beef tips – a less-fussy compromise for a steak. As much as I love a great cut of beef, I often find my steaks come with too much fat, or not enough bites, not cooked as well as I like, or too much price for what I’m eating. I’m not saying any of those apply at Carolina Cafe, but restaurants in general have led me to the beef tip. And the version at this particular establishment was very satisfying: a great portion for $10.99, served alongside a flavorful baked potato.

We both got salads as part of our meals, and they were just as satisfying as the rest of the entree. Nice portion, fresh ingredients and just the right amount of dressing on the side. Outback Steakhouse serves one of my favorite side salads, and the Carolina Cafe’s salad matches it.

img_8323Our visit was a special date night on the spur of the moment, so we decided to order a dessert. Our choice: the $4.99 Caramel Apple Cheesecake. The piece we shared was a rich and creamy cheesecake, filled with small pieces of flavorful apple, topped with a caramel sauce layer and covered with pecans. Along with the Graham cracker-style crust, it was one of the tastiest cheesecakes we’ve sampled in recent memory. And we love a delicious slice of cheesecake.

Carolina Cafe impressed us at every turn, from that very first glimpse around the highway corner. The restaurant was full of families and couples all night, and a crowd was still waiting outside when we left. The recommendations we received to try this place were spot on. Similar to a well-known pancake house’s slogan, when you come to Carolina Cafe hungry, you leave happy.

The Carolina Cafe gets a $-$$ on our price scale of $ (cheapest), $$ (middle of the road), $$$ (expensive). You can go $ with burgers, or you can go $$ with steaks and shrimp. As always, it’s your choice!

Carolina Cafe

211 Old Metal Road, Gaffney, S.C.

CarolinaCafeGaffney.com