The Carolinas and The South as a whole are hot and I am not just referring to the weather in August. The food scene has been hopping for some time with a resurgence of interest in traditional ingredients, techniques and recipes as well as the growth of external culinary influences. I recently had the opportunity to return to the Southeast on a family vacation. As with all my vacations, food is of major importance and that was true for this one, too. I try to visit restaurants of interest and in areas where I can find outstanding product and have kitchen facilities, I like to cook, as well, utilizing the great local product. On this trip centered around a family-owned home in the Sea Pines Plantation of Hilton Head Island, I managed to do both.
We left early Saturday morning from our home in upstate NY in a rented Chrysler Town & Country minivan planning to hightail it down to Hilton Head Island in the span of a day. We made surprisingly good progress down I-95 until that dreaded corridor between DC and Richmond, where despite paying the extra tolls for the express lanes, we ultimately came to a crawl. Unfortunately, this dashed our hopes for making it to where I had wanted to stop for a dinner break – the Skylight Inn, a short detour off I-95 in Ayden, NC. The Skylight with Pitmaster, Samuel Jones is a BBQ place that I have been wanting to visit ever since I first experienced their fantastic whole hog BBQ at the Big apple BBQ Block Party in NYC (see here for my most recent coverage of that event). Alas, they close at 7PM and according to Google Maps, we weren’t going to get there until about 7:15. Looking for a good alternative, a friend recommended Wilber’s BBQ in Goldsboro, NC, also located not too far off I-95 and conveniently open until 9PM. Is there a better “fast food” option in NC than slow-cooked BBQ? Not that I know of, so we guided our rental to Goldsboro.
Despite surprisingly lackluster (and cold) hushpuppies, we weren’t disappointed. I ordered a Barbecue tray that included NC style pulled pork, the hush puppies and cole slaw. The slaw had a nice tang, but was a bit too sweet for my preference, but the pork was superb, with great pork flavor and a nice, acidic NC style flavor profile.
A side order of fried chicken livers provided a nice accent. The place itself opened in 1964 and looked like it hadn’t changed a bit since then other than having been well maintained over the years.
Adding to the overall sense of anachronism was the farm stand out front, where we purchased our initial supply of Carolina peaches and tomatoes.
It wasn’t long before we got back on the road, bypassing such notable locations as South of the Border and countless real fast food joints and family restaurants, making it to the house in Sea Pines by 1AM.
We took our time getting up the next morning and eventually made it over to the nearby Harris Teeter Super Market to load up on basic supplies. Being a Sunday, I didn’t have too much optimism about finding anything too special, but I was mistaken as there was a fresh, local seafood stand at the front of the store. Though not inexpensive, I purchased some already cooked stone crab claws from nearby Beaufort, SC and fresh Grouper out of Charleston to prepare for lunch. A southern delicacy, Pimento Cheese was also on the shopping list and we found a very good one – “Emmy’s Original” from My Three Sons Gourmet in Greensboro, NC.
Back at the house, the claws were cracked and eaten right from the shells. They were sweet, crabby and delicious.
I pan-seared the grouper filet and cooked a sauce from the fresh peaches and a can of Hatch chiles that we had purchased from the supermarket. The fish was superb with the combination making a satisfying lunch. Grouper is a fish that is quite difficult to find where I live as fresh and of the quality that we had found here.
I mentioned that this was a family vacation, and it nearly included our whole family. Unfortunately, one of our two college graduate sons, could not get away from work in NYC to join us, but the other was able to manage it. He took the train to Charleston, a bit over two hours away from Hilton Head, but we managed to make the best of that. Sundays in Charleston don’t leave as many choices as other days, but fortunately for us, all of the Sean Brock restaurants were open, including Minero, his new Mexican taqueria, which none of us had previously tried. We got to Charleston with plenty of time to spare before the train’s arrival so parked downtown across the street from Husk. It was a perfect time to try a cocktail and some nibbles at The Bar at Husk, a place that despite having dined at the neighboring restaurant on more than one occasion, I hadn’t had the pleasure of partaking of. The space is great with a rustic, old-time atmosphere. We ascended the stairs by the side of the bar to sit at a table on the level above.
The Tequila based “Kool-Aid Acid Test” was delicious, augmented by a bit of Vermouth, Branca Menta and a delightfully, vinegary watermelon shrub.
The 1763 recipe for the “Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch” incorporated Brandy, rum, peach brandy, black tea, lemon and sugar for a refreshing finish.
Our under-age son had a flavorful, non-alcoholic Peach Shrub as well as a “Shirley Dinklage” that combined ginger ale, grenadine and lemon into a very tasty concoction. It’s a rare bar that offers well thought out and constructed non-alcoholic cocktails like these, but then I suppose that this is a rare bar.
Benton’s ham and boiled peanuts rounded out our snacks, covering us just enough to get us through our trip to pick up our son at the North Charleston Amtrack station.
From the station, we headed back into downtown Charleston to Minero, the new Mexican place from Sean Brock and his crew. Sunday night around 7:45 and no reservations taken at the restaurant, meant a quoted wait of about an hour for our party of four, but they took my cell-phone number and promised a text when the table was ready. We decided to pop around the corner for an additional snack at McCrady’s. We each ordered a dish and shared. Of course just as the dishes started to arrive, I got the text from Minero. I called them and explained where we were.
In the meantime, the dishes at McCrady’s were sophisticated and delicious, a a great step in what had become a progressive meal. A cold salad of crab, sorrel, yuzu, radishes and scuppernong grapes was refreshing, light and novel.
Similarly light and refreshing, but with a different flavor profile was a dish of local shrimp with summer squash, charred shishito peppers, finger limes and shiso. Finger limes seemed to be gaining traction as an “it” ingredient a few years ago, then have mostly disappeared. They are a wonderful ingredient as expressed in this dish.
Tomatoes and watermelon have become a seemingly ubiquitous pairing of late, but McCrady’s version which also included grapefruit and pickled rose cream is a particularly good one.
Beef tartare is another dish seemingly found on every trendy menu nowadays, but seldom with the flavor and panache as we found here, augmented by crisp pumpernickel crackers, mustard seed and horseradish. While not particularly revolutionary in the combination of ingredients, it worked quite well and the presentation excelled, elevating the dish well beyond the norm. This proved to be a brief visit, but one that reminded us as to how Sean Brock initially developed his reputation and why this is still a restaurant worth dining at even amongst all the other fine choices currently residing in this fair city.
Minero turned out to be worth the wait. The most casual of the Charleston restaurants of Sean Brock (it is a Taqueria), it gives up nothing in terms of flavor and creativity that remains faithful to the food’s roots. As a taqueria, it is important for it to have good corn products, especially in the form of tortillas and other basic ingredients. The totopos that came with the guacamole that we ordered were crisp and greaseless with great corn flavor. They were an ideal vehicle for scooping up the creamy, green dip. The guacamole itself was good, though not extraordinary.
We ordered a number of different tacos to try. The carnitas, steak, chicken and al pastor tacos were all very good, but amongst the tacos, the biggest standout was the South Carolina inspired fried catfish taco with pickled green tomato tartar, cabbage and red onions. These were true to both the classic Baja version of fish tacos as well as to its own place, one of a number of dishes that achieved that difficult feat with aplomb.
Shrimp and masa grits with chili sofrito, chorizo, cilantro and scallions was a fabulous Mexican take on the classic southern Shrimp and Grits, but I would expect no less from a Sean Brock restaurant, as he has elevated that particular dish like no one else. He recently did an Italian inspired version of shrimp and grits during the Gelinaz Shuffle at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. In my opinion, whenever he has a version of shrimp and grits on one of his restaurant’s menus, it is a must order. This is no exception.
Mole is tricky. It is a difficult dish to nail as its complicated list of ingredients can easily fall out of balance. As used here in Minero’s enmolada, which means stuffed corn tortillas drenched in a mole sauce (an enchilada is uses a chile sauce), Minero offers one of the most well balanced and delicious moles that I have tasted outside of Mexico. It too is a must try.
The bar at Minero is what one would hope for in a quality Mexican restaurant with a good variety of agave based spirits like Mezcal and Tequila.
I sampled one of the special cask Tequilas from Corazon de Agave, a Reposado aged in Buffalo Trace Bourbon barrels. I’m not typically a fan of wood aged tequilas, but this was a nice blend of agave with Bourbon overtones.
We concluded our Tour de Brock and left Charleston to head back to Hilton Head. Driving through a few torrential Low Country downpours, we eventually made our way back, exhausted but very, very satisfied. Stay tuned for for much more!