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Friday, July 20, 2007


It's funny what a little bit of water between us will do.

Everywhere I've been, such has been the case. In Tampa, we joked that St. Pete was home of the newly wed and nearly dead. San Franciscans have some weird hang up about traveling to the East Bay for any reason, but think nothing of traveling 3 hours to Lake Tahoe for the weekend. Jersey isn't really Manhattan and Manhattan isn't anything at all like Brooklyn – just ask your neighborhood Hasid.

And I'm sure you can go to Charleston and have a great Charleston experience, but I'm really glad we made it over to Mount Pleasant. Unlike Charleston, Mt. Pleasant is smaller, greener, and once off the main highway – actually pleasant. Imagine huge oak trees with Spanish moss swaying in the breeze, large historic homes, friendly locals, and breathtaking views of Charleston, the Charleston Harbor, and the coastal wetlands that surround it.

Back on the highway, Highway 17, one encounters a unique phenomenon – unusual even for the South. Scores upon scores of sweetgrass basketmakers and their makeshift shacks line the highway for miles; most shacks are empty, but a few basketmakers are out selling their wares – or at least trying to.

I imagine prices for sweetgrass baskets aren't as high as what I paid in the Old Market in Charleston, but then again I find it hard to complain. Whether you spend a little or a lot, your money goes to keeping this community of folk artists and their craft alive, so whatever they charge and whatever you spend – it's worth it.

Also worth it: Gullah Cuisine.

Like Hominy Grill, we had planned on eating here and I'm glad we did. Our dinner at Gullah Cuisine is what dragged us over that great suspension bridge and got us to explore Mount Pleasant. Perhaps Gullah Cuisine should get some kind of recognition from the local Chamber of Commerce, because we patronized at least 3 additional local businesses simply because we were there – foodie tourists that we were.

Despite what you may have heard or read, the Gullah/Geechee culture and language is very much alive and flourishing. While the culture is strongest and most prevalent in such places at the Sea Islands or in smaller coastal towns between Charleston and Savannah, its presence in the Charleston/Mount Pleasant area is palpable.

And palatable.

The cuisine of the Gullah community maximizes use of regional food resources, namely rice, corn, legumes, okra, and especially seafood. Classic lowcountry dishes like Purloo (a rice casserole), Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas and rice), and Shrimp and Grits are indicative of the culinary creations developed out of the African American experience in the lowcountry.

While you can't throw a stick down Meeting Street without hitting a plate of Shrimp and Grits, finding Gullah food cooked by Gullah people for non-Gullah customers is slightly more difficult. Lucky then for two white boys from Frisco there is one well-known restaurant right off Highway 17.

Gullah Cuisine, the restaurant, is housed in a modest, one-story brick building just a few miles down from those basket sellers I mentioned earlier. An awning stretches out over the front entrance and hanging plants dangle from around the periphery of it. Across the dark green canvas are the words "Gullah Cuisine – A Lowcountry Restaurant".

The interior is tastefully done in shades of beige and tan with framed paintings hanging on the wall and ceiling fans turning slowly overhead. White curtains and blinds struggle to beat back the late afternoon sun and heat that washes over the front of the building.

Our waiter is a tall young man dressed in a casual white button up shirt and black slacks. He has the longest eyelashes I've ever seen and for a moment I'm transfixed by them. We're here at a weird hour on a weekend and besides us there is only one couple in the entire restaurant. Eyelashes man and a cook are running the show and our waiter juggles several jobs all at once. Back in the kitchen you can hear plates and pots clash and clang, water shooting out of faucets into metal sinks, and the faint sounds of a garbled radio. The waiter occasionally swings open the rear kitchen door and shouts back questions and order changes to the cook. The cook's response is patient and final.

Our appetizer arrived not long after he took our order, along with a small plate of corn muffins. In hindsight, I guess Bruce and I ate a lot of fried green tomatoes on our trip. This didn't occur to me until now, but I reckon we were pretty eager to stay on course in picking what we thought were the most easily recognizable Southern specialties. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Gullah-style fried green tomatoes with ranch dressing.

While Hominy Grill takes a contemporary approach to traditional lowcountry dishes, Gullah Cuisine keeps itself squarely rooted in traditional soul food and the cuisine of the Gullah people. Here, green tomatoes are dipped in a thin batter containing various spices common to Gullah cuisine and fried until they are soft and a light yellow-green in color. The tanginess of the tomatoes and spiciness of the batter contrasts well with the cool and creamy dressing. The crisp crust of the batter gives way to a hot and tender green tomato.

A tall, cold glass of sweet tea doesn't hurt neither.

When our entrées arrive, I wondered why anybody would even bother to eat at those big box restaurants. Why, indeed, when fresh, hot, and authentic food can be found at a locally-owned business such as this.

Bruce's plate came with two large crab cakes, Gullah rice, and fried okra (came out after the picture was taken). Blue crab is the specialty in this region and 2 weeks after we were there Mount Pleasant was having a blue crab festival. His crab cakes were chock full of crab; more crab than him or I have ever seen in a crab cake. In addition, the Gullah rice was quite tasty, somewhat spicy with the odd shrimp thrown in, and smoky from the sausage added to it.

My two deep-fried whole soft-shell blue crab were battered and spiced with the Gullah spice, which gave them a little bit of a zip. Ummm, can I just say these crabs rocked my tiny, little, insignificant world? Just thinking about them now gives me shivers up my spine. Cooking soft-shell crab is no easy feat: these were cooked perfectly. Along with my soft-shell crab, I had a side of succotash (good, but nothing spectacular) and Hoppin' John, spiced with the same smoky sausage used in Bruce's Gullah rice. I've made Hoppin' John before, but mine always had a more black-eyed pea-to-rice ratio. I liked the fact that this Hoppin' John was more rice-heavy, but mostly because I regretted not ordering the Gullah rice (I think we have a house specialty here).

This being our second fabulous meal of the day (the first being lunch at Hominy Grill), I began to wonder if this day could get any better. After we paid our tab and said our goodbyes, we got in the car and headed up towards that shopping center we saw earlier – the one with the movie theater.

We were just in time to catch Spider Man 3.

Stuffed, we reclined in our highback movie theater seats; the theater was mostly empty. I propped up my feet on the seat in front of me and waited for the movie to begin.

This is what vacation looks like.



Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Classic or contemporary, as long as it's delicious, that's all that matters.

Lovin' all the fried goodness.

9:32 PM  
Blogger SteamyKitchen said...

Why didn't I meet you 5 years ago before we decided to move to the Tampa area? We left a lovely wine and food-filled life in San Fran and Napa Valley for the what I affectionately call home now, "Braden-tucky" (Bradenton)

why? why? why?

I wanna move back! I'll even live in Pleasonton!

6:05 AM  
Blogger Dive said...


That's funny! By the way, everyone knows Bradenton is the Death Metal Capital of the World. Of course, I'm not sure this is actually a selling point - most kids I knew from Bradenton were about as white trash as humanly possible and, for what it's worth, relished it.

However, take stock of those positive attributes you guys have that we don't:

A. Great (!) Cuban and Carribean food in abundance.
B. Awesome smoked mullet sold by the road - often by guys and gals sporting mullets!
C. Proximity to Tarpon Springs and the Everglades.
D. Proximity to Orlando (oops! Just kidding!)
E. Wonderful beaches in St. Pete and lots of dive bars in Ybor City.
F. Great deals on vintage furniture and clothing from all of the old people who retire to Florida then keel over!

What's not to love?

I miss Florida!


10:59 AM  

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