Finally, done with final exams and my 2nd Bachelor’s Degree!!! The feeling is amazing, and what better way to celebrate than starting the story of our journey to Charleston, South Carolina? Oh yeah, and also asking my wonderful girlfriend to marry me! So, like any good tale, let’s start at the beginning.
Before we left for Charleston, we had been talking about when we would get married and types of engagement rings Janice wanted. In fact, she was the occasional Debbie Downer thinking that I might never pop the question. Little did she know I had already ordered and secretly stashed the ring at home. *Cue maniacal laughter* Once we got to the airport, the game was afoot. Through a series of strategic positioning choices while walking, like holding her left hand in my right hand because the ring was in my left pocket, and taking advantage of classic airport situations, like the madness at the security lines and Janice’s subsequent rage at everyone’s incompetence, I managed to sneak the ring in my backpack. This is where it would stay until later in our trip. Keep that in mind, readers. The flight and nighttime jaunt to our Air BnB was relaxing, and we were ready to explore the city the next day. We woke up to a slightly cool day that was punctuated with plenty of intermittent rain and wind as we were off to brunch at our first Charleston restaurant. From the outset, we knew this was going to be an eventful day since we were greeted with biblical floods throughout downtown Charleston. Not only were we learning the streets, but we were also playing our own version of Oregon Trail in our rental car which also oddly had a dial instead of an actual gear shift. Definitely was freaking me out.
Fording all of those rivers really whipped up our appetite, and we finally arrived at Hominy Grill (thankfully we didn’t lose any oxen!). This tastefully and colorfully decorated historical Charleston house was a symbol of the deep roots that run through the east coast port town. Charleston was one of the richest cities in the original 13 colonies due to cash crops like rice, indigo, and timber that were harvested by the slaves that were subsequently brought over to do all the dirty work. Although the institution of slavery is based on the concept that one group of people is viewed as being less than human and more like chattel or general investments, the power of good food can still make the oppressed class make their voices heard even when other parts of their culture might be done away with by the ruling class. In fact, it is often the case around the world that some of the best food comes from the lower classes since they have to make the most of what they could afford. That would be a common theme throughout our trip as we ate signature Southern American dishes that have African roots but appeased the taste buds of the English colonists. Hominy grill brought plenty of this blended South Carolinian culture. We loved the antique interior which also kept the quaint colonial vibe when I noticed they weren’t playing any music in the restaurant. I don’t know if it’s a Chicago thing, but we more often than not have music going on in restaurants. So, it was a welcome change to just hear the sound of families and friends enjoying good food. The meal began not with a bread basket rather a paper container of boiled peanuts. While these are now a common Southern snack, they trace their roots back to Africa. They are commonly sold as a street food in Ghana even to this day, and in the South they can also be called “goober peas” which reminded me of a popular Civil War my mom would randomly sing. I had actually never had them, so we tucked into them. It was weird because the normally crunchy shells peeled off like a loose skin, and the peanuts had an almost meaty quality to them. I can see why they could be a good snack food, but I prefer my honey roasted variety. I did like that we got more than we bargained for because for some reason it seemed that there were a lot of three and even four nut shells. We kept the food festival going with two appetizers in the form of fried green tomatoes ($6) and hushpuppies ($5). I had had hushpuppies before, but never like this. The first people to have made them were Native Americans in the Southern United States, but they became popular during the Civil War. Their name supposedly came from the Confederate soldiers using them to make their dogs be quiet or “hush the puppies”. I can see why because I was making my barking stomach curl up and sleep in a food coma. I didn’t really get the jalapeno flavor or spice in them as advertised in the menu, but the subtly sweet sorghum butter was a fitting compliment to the crunchy and salty crust. The real star of the appetizer round was the fried green tomato plate. It was another Southern fried treat which consisted of unripe tomatoes coated in batter and fried with a side of ranch dressing. It might have been the Midwesterner in me which embraced the ranch dressing, but the creamy richness was a match made in heaven with the semi-juicy and sour interior and crispy exterior. As if that wasn’t enough food, we managed to move on to our entrees. Hominy Grill is a Michelin starred restaurant with not super Michelin prices serving plenty of Southern comforts, and we stayed true to what Hominy Grill is good at. Janice ended up getting the Shrimp and Grits ($19) which was different than most grits I’ve ever had. They were more like a very fine risotto compared to the creamier grits that I tried in Georgia or have seen at soul food events. The shrimp were perfect and the scallions and bacon brought a savory edge to the smooth plate. Then there was my choice: the Nasty Biscuit ($10.50). If there was one plate to sum up Southern cuisine, this tried to roll every element into one meal (minus delicious barbecue). It was a buttermilk biscuit with a piece of fried chicken in the middle bobbing in a sea of sausage gravy and cheddar cheese. Straight. Up. Nasty. (in a good way, naturally) There was no easy way to eat this symbol of Southern madness/genius, but it was as heart stoppingly good as you might imagine. I wouldn’t have to eat for another week with the amount of calories this bomb contained, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants something that’s more southern than Colonel Sanders, the Dukes of Hazard, and Nascar combined. We also got a side of collard greens since Janice likes them, and we needed to keep the southern food train rolling. I never really tried them before this moment, but I would liken them to an earthier spinach. Not something I’d go out of my way to eat, but thank God I got something green to eat in this sea of deep fried goodness. Somehow, some way we managed to make room for their famous homemade buttermilk pie. Good lawd, I have never had a pie like this, but it was the lightest pie I’ve ever eaten. First, it was chilled which made it seemed more lithe than the cumbersome fried food we had before. Then the filling was like consuming a sweet treat that was like a suave vanilla custard that caressed our overworked palates. Finally, the crust. It was minimally intrusive compared to your typical lard based pie crust which made all the difference in this belt buster of a meal. We came super hungry and left super satisfied. Can’t praise the Hominy Grill restaurant and staff enough.
Thankfully, we walked like crazy afterward along Charleston’s harbor. Since the weather was craptacular, we thought we could wait out the rain in the Charleston aquarium, but unfortunately we missed the last tour for the biggest draw: the sea turtle hospital.
We cut our losses, and got tickets for the next day and instead went to Fort Sumter which just so happened to be next door. Well, actually it was the national park museum commemorating the flashpoint of the beginning of the Civil War, and it was chock full of historical goodness that we appreciated. The actual fort consisted of us getting on a ferry boat and going out to an island in the harbor. It was windy and cold, and I was smart enough to not bring a jacket (or I’m just that tough). We landed and it was the perfect time to go since the weather scared away the hordes of tourists. The fort was a mere shadow of its former self, but I could imagine how terrible it must have been for the defenders to be behind its ramparts and being shelled day after day. My favorite part of the visit consisted of the flag lowering ceremony that was similar to how the former Union defenders would do at the end of each day. It was an extremely windy day, and it was more challenging than you may think. Think about a fifty foot piece of heavy canvas flying and whipping at you violently, but luckily teamwork saved the day. Going back on the ferry, thankfully the weather let up to take in the many beautiful views of Charleston skyline and bridge. I later learned that Janice had thought I was going to propose to her on the ferry which surprised me. That big event will come later in the story at a more unique location! Instead, we continued to walk off our heavy lunch along the broad avenues of Charleston’s historical downtown. I could not get enough of how much history was around every corner. Surprisingly, we were hungry again, so we had to try a little place called Husk. It is in a late 19th Century mansion and led by a James Beard award winning chef, so we threw ourselves at the mercy of their menu. Janice wisely got reservations before we even landed in Charleston, so we checked in just below the steep staircase. We still had to wait for a table though since the entire establishment was hopping. Thankfully, they had a smaller guest house next door that was converted into a two tiered bar. The drink menu was Charleston through and through with references to parts of the city (the Four Corners of Law) and southern flavors. We were quickly seated upstairs at one of their rustic wooden tables. We started off with a Turcotte’s Tipple ($11) and a Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch ($9). Janice’s tipple drink was an homage to the rider of the Triple Crown winner Secretariat, and it was a bourbon based, grapefruit-infused drink that was as fleet footed as its steed namesake. If you’re looking for a light, understated fruity drink for a hot summer day, this is your best bet. As for mine, it was taken straight from a 1783 recipe from the archives of the Preservation Society of Charleston. It was much stronger than Janice’s front porch refreshment due to the rum and the peach brandy, and it combined with black tea and lemon juice to add a spiked sweet/iced tea flavor to the mix. I’d liken this drink to a British version of a Manhattan. Even though we were next door, Husk’s staff actually came to get us upstairs in the guest house to lead us to our table in the main house. Now that’s what I call service! We were shown upstairs past their homemade pickled vegetables and firewood for the ovens to one of the front dining rooms that had a view of the second floor porch. Janice also got a Copperhead ($11) which a whiskey with a hint of absinthe that was like a licorice infused Old Fashion. As for food, we got a complimentary basket of fresh pretzel rolls that were small, warm orbs of heavenly dough with a side of whipped creamy butter. The culinary dream that happened soon thereafter was the stuff of legend. First, we got fried chicken skins with kimchi mayo, black garlic mayo, and scallions ($11) and glazed pig ear wraps ($12). The former was continuing with the southern fried theme from our Hominy Grill lunch. The people at Husk could sell them at any national chicken chain as a guilty pleasure and make a fortune. They were just the right amount of crunchy, salty, savory, and spice with the kimchi mayo. As for the glazed pig ear wraps, they were like a southern version of Korean ssam bap. The cook had similar strips of pork that were a bit tougher than kalbi, but they did have some pickled cucumbers and red onion to keep in line with this Korean fusion dish. I would highly recommend both of these appetizers. We moved on to the entrees where Janice got the heritage pork ($34) and the bacon cornbread ($8) while I got the flat iron steak ($34). I thought that combining the hottest ingredient/breakfast food since sliced bread with a delicious southern staple would have yielded an unforgettable pairing to our flawless dishes, but alas, we were not impressed since it was actually on the dry and crumbly side. Thankfully, my flat iron steak was assembled to perfection with medium rare steak, mushrooms, broccoli, and shishito peppers. The steak were burgundy nuggets of bliss and the vegetables were expertly sauteed. Kudos to the addition of the shishito peppers that gave the mostly mild ingredients a nearly undetectable hint of sweet spiciness. I thought Janice’s pork plate was ok, and she didn’t feel it warranted the price tag. I could see why because the pork, while flavorful, was too much of the same flavors. There wasn’t that element, like my peppers, that always kept you guessing with every forkful. Finally, there was the dessert, and what a dessert it was. It was a caramel bread pudding that consisted of a brown butter crumble and cinnamon ice cream with flower blossoms for decoration. Now, I’ve had my fair share of bread puddings, some good and others not so good (contrary to popular opinion), and this was hands down the best I’ve ever had. It wasn’t too hot or too cool. The crumbles were spiced and just in the perfect ratio to the soaked bread below that was filled with luscious caramel. The warmth of the skillet made the cinnamon ice cream atop this work of art melt and soak into each spoonful. I was having my own When Harry Met Sally moment by the time we sadly hit the end of our metal clad sweet secret. After we paid and did a short nightly jaunt around one of Charleston’s main streets, we made our way home after a successful first day in Charleston. Stay tuned for the next chapters in our journey and the road to our engagement proposal!