Roundtrip Ticket to Hominy Grill, Please
To know the lowcountry, one must see the lowcountry.
So, for Tammy Faye's sake, get off of those interstate freeways and get straight onto one of South Carolina's Heritage Corridors – it's the only way you'll ever see those Beautiful Places and Smiling Faces you keep hearing about.
We took Highway 78 into Charleston from Augusta, which sent us through some great little towns with fabulous old homes and commerical districts, past swamps and rivers and old graveyards accessible only by dirt country roads.
This is the country white European settlers thought they could tame, but was too wild, too tough, and too malaria-ridden. The people most suited to this environment were Africans brought over in the slave trade, and everywhere in the lowcountry one feels and sees hundreds of years of black American history.
The crown-jewel of the lowcountry - "arguably" would say Savannahians - is Charleston, a city graced (at least for white folks) by a strong, mosquito-hatin' breeze, cool summer temperatures, and a top-notch port and – conversely – cursed with earthquakes, draconian preservation laws, and the world's worst sidewalks (hope you're feeling better, Aunt Patty!)
To be sure, Charleston is a tourist town and summer abode for the rich. Grand old homes stretch for many city blocks in the southern part of town and provide for hours upon hours of green-eyed, house-gawking by married women and gay couples. Tourists flock to this area and the areas surrounding the old town, centered on the Old Market, with its numerous vendors – the most interesting and authentic of whom are the sweetgrass basket makers/sellers.
But Charleston is also home to many students, military families, and other working class folks – some of whom live in dilapidated 150-year-old homes in the northern section; homes which are too old to tear down and too expensive (and mired in bureaucratic red tape) to improve. This, actually, was one of the most interesting sections of Charleston which we found driving into town by way of Highway 78/King Street.
It was in this part of Charleston where we found perhaps one of the most exciting and distinctive of all restaurants in the New South. That restaurant is called, simply, Hominy Grill.
Hominy Grill is located in an old, stand-alone building that formerly was a barber shop. Separated by distance from the tourist area, it survives and thrives on reputation alone. Judging from the quality of their food – at least from our experience – that reputation is well-deserved, and then some.
It wasn't by accident that we came across Hominy Grill. Even before we left the tarmac at SFO, I had known this restaurant was a must-eats destination in the city of Charleston. However, I did not expect it to be as good as it was.
On our visit, we lucked out and missed the lunch rush literally by a few minutes. It had just finished clearing out when we were seated at the window box seat next to the front entrance. Bright difused light from the tall plate glass windows flooded the main dining room with its high ceilings, flat white vertical wood slat walls, and decorative tin ceiling tiles. Dark exposed wooden floors and tan-stained wooden furniture offset the stark brightness of the walls and centered the gravity of the room towards a comfortable middle. Bluegrass music played quitely in the background, perhaps a wink and a nod to those who would define "classical" music another way.
Right away we were casually greeted by a hostess and then seated. Soon after, a young waitress with the most charming Southern accent – and perhaps being a college student herself – introduced herself, informed us of the specials of the day, and took our drink orders. I guess I should mention that, at this part of the trip, anything other than sweet tea for me was out of the question. Bruce, being a true Californian, insists on drinking his tea unsweetened – partially out of taste, partially out of regional chauvanism (I kid).
Despite many of the wonderful things on the menu to choose from, I had made up my mind ahead of time to try the Country Captain, a "sauteed chicken breast in a tomato-curry sauce with currants and toasted almonds over jasmine rice." I had made country captain before (remember?) and wanted to see what the competition was serving. Plus, Hominy Grill was the only lowcountry restaurant I could find serving this classic lowcountry dish (yeah, I know – what the ???)
Another classic lowcountry specialty was the Shrimp Purloo, which is what Bruce decided to order. This dish is a sort of a gullah rice casserole with chicken, andouille sausage, and jumbo shrimp.
Before we got to the main courses, however, we've gotta talk She Crab soup, which is a wonderfully rich, buttery and creamy soup pureed with fresh blue crab meat and (what some call) the crab butter blended in, plus with a noticeable little dab of sherry eased in. Now, for some of you who don't drink and are terrified (as I often am) of consuming anything with alcohol, let me put your minds at ease. This soup is safe – but then, we all have our tolerances, so if having soup with a touch of sherry is going to psyche you out, it's better to go without.
But you should see what you're missing.
The other appetizer we enjoyed were the fried green tomatoes, which were fat slices that were uniformly breaded and quickly fried in oil, hot enough to brown the outside while just warming the tomato without overcooking.
Tradionally, fried green tomatoes are cooked at lower temperatures and they develop that tangy, almost citrusy, cooked flavor. These were left as close to their natural state as possible and is exactly what "putting a twist" on traditional Southern cuisine is all about.
To some of the purists, this might have seemed as odd as the homemade ranch dressing that accompanied the slices, but I'd like to think of Hominy Grill as a place were the old and the new are allowed to interact – while also creating some wonderfully good food.
Don’t' think Bruce and I held back – there's one more appetizer I need to mention, and this one really takes the cake! The shrimp and okra beignets with salsa and cilantro-lime sour cream were, literally, to die for. No, seriously, I felt my nipples harden as I took one bite of these hot, rich morsels. The combination of cool and warm, of savory and sweet, of heavy and light, of tangy and rich: it was all represented in just a few bites.
Let me show you what a bite of one of these can make one do:
Scary, isn't it?
Emotionally, I was just warming up to the main course. Our plates arrived quickly from the kitchen and it was one of those times where arriving at the tail end of the lunch rush really pays off. Hominy Grill's Country Captain, I'm proud to say, kicked my country captain in the ass – and I'm still taking lessons. The chicken pieces were tender, but it was the sauce which really stood out. Dark and rich, it was sweeter and less spicier than your typical curry house dish, while the almonds and currants seemed to drive this dish down a road nowhere near Brick Lane.
The shrimp purloo was hearty and satisfying; the smokiness of the sausage, combined with the chicken, shrimp and rice, spells out in flavor the wonderful mix of cultures and ethnicities that makes the lowcountry such a unique place in America. Surround that powerful concoction in a bright and spicy tomato-pepper sauce and you have the foundation of what makes a restaurant, like Hominy Grill, so important and so necessary.
Enjoy this food. Enjoy it with every bite. Don't worry about making room for pie. YOU WILL make room for pie, cake, or whatever you damn well like.
Generally, I look down upon dessert. Too often, dessert attempts to be the piece de resistance of a spectacular meal, only to be the Hershey's kiss of death. For me, I want my meal to culminate in a fireworks-exploding climax centered around the main course.
But y'all (lower chin quivering – eyes watering), you have got to try this damn pie. This is how I want dessert. This slice of buttermilk pie takes all of the love, all of those days spent walking together on the beach, and wraps it in its cool, soft but solid arms and holds you steady - giving sweet kisses on your lips. And then getting kind of freaky with the whip cream, but it's all good.
Equally as tender, loving, and a sheer joy to behold is the excellent coconut cake. I will say this: I grew up eating some of the best coconut cake in the world and this is definitely up there. Everything that should be in a cake is here: moist, rich, not too sweet, not too overpowering with just enough coconut flavor, you have to wonder which came first – the nut or the cake?
It would be a shame to spoil this moment by bringing up the subject of cost, but I think you'll be happy to know that this moment of dining pleasure and enlightenment won't enlighten your wallet or purse. Hominy Grill, for the quality and service, was so affordable Bruce and I seriously discussed flying back to Charleston in 6 months just to eat at Hominy again.
It was that good.