Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Adventures in Deep South 2011

The Commissary is back on line again after our annual weeklong visit to Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. While this trip mostly features extended sun, sand, and overeating courtesy of my good-cooking Ohio relatives, a journey wouldn't be a journey without some attempt to collect blog fodder in the process. Unfortunately, a mid-day departure from Chicago (instead of early morning) and Hackknifette's flu bug motivated us to drive more and stop less than last year so we could reach our destination as soon as possible. Still, we managed to find time to make an impromptu visit at a Waffle House just outside of Columbia, SC on Day 2 to have a late lunch and try to shunt around a beach traffic jam clogging up I-20 (for those of you unaware, Waffle Houses are as ubiquitous in the South as Denny's is up North). Mrs. Hackknife was blown away by her waffle and I quite enjoyed my Texas Angus Steak Melt (burger w/grilled onions and double cheese served on Texas toast), at least until Hackknifette upchucked up on me the juice box she had just shotgunned. Changing shirts in the parking lot in true redneck fashion, I had a brief moment to ponder the fact that they serve numerous varieties of hash browns in lieu of fries before we piled back into the car to continue our journey seaward.

Upon arrival at the beach, the first days of the trip were a little on the difficult side: sick kids (Hackknife Jr. eventually caught the bug, although fortunately not as bad as his sister) and heavy rain showers prevented much outdoor activity, until finally on Day 4, we opted to punt and take the kids to Wilmington, NC (the nearest large city) in the hopes that our absence would improve the weather for the rest of our party staying behind (it actually did). After a few hours at the local children's museum, we stopped in for lunch at an old haunt just a couple of blocks away in downtown Wilmington, Dock Street Oyster Bar. Mrs. Hackknife and I had eaten here on our last visit to Wilmington in 2005 (when we were still technically childless, although she was pregnant with Hackknife Jr.) and found it to be just as good the second time around, not to mention very kid-friendly (noodles and quesadillas on the kid's menu - perfect). We dove into a sampler platter of 6 oysters, 3 prepared Rockefeller style (bacon, spinach, and hollandaise sauce), the other 3 topped with bacon and a backfin crab mix (referred to as "Imperial" style). For entrees, Mrs. Hackknife chose the crab melt sandwich, while I had the day's special of blackened mahi-mahi with pasta salad. We continued our culinary tour of town by heading over to the Gourmet Market just up the street, featuring groceries, beverages, and ice cream served up with a hefty dose of New Age vibe, the type of place where you find incense sticks in-between motor oil and cans of tuna. Trippy music aside, the ice cream was great, made by a local artisan (he was at the counter taking an order from the owner while we were there) and loaded with flavor. The mango sorbet I had was the ideal antidote to the steamy temps outside. Our last stop before heading back home was Front Street Brewery to taste some brews over a basket of homemade chips. The house sampler featured five different beers, including a Hefeweizen, raspberry wheat, IPA, Kolsch, and a tripel bock, all of which I found to be mediocre at best (apparently, Wilmington rivals New Orleans with respect to poor beer culture).

Day 5 brought what I considered to be the foodie highlight of the trip: a visit to Scott's Bar-B-Que, located in Hemingway, SC (about 90 miles from our condo) for lunch. I had recently read about Scott's in the June/July issue of Saveur, which was heavily devoted to the barbecue arts in America. Scott's specialty is slow-cooked whole hog roasted overnight atop homemade charcoals, and it's prepared only on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. After polling our group to see if I had any takers crazy enough besides me to make a long drive into the backwoods for cooked pig (no one volunteered), I set out in the minivan to the hamlet of Hemingway (population: about 600), a quiet place where locals wave to you on their riding mowers as you pass by. Just on the far end of town is the shack harboring Scott's Variety Store, which appeared more rickety to me in person (see Photo #1 above) than the picture on the website. Gently closing the screen door so as not to knock down any timbers, I scanned the brief, hand-written posterboard doubling as a menu over the counter and placed my order of 1/2 lb. pulled pork, doused in the house BBQ sauce and served with two slices of white bread. I also ordered a couple dollars' worth of pig skins "off-the-hog" to go on the side. The lady working behind the counter scooped up my pork from a large pile of shredded meat on the back table, slapped it into a foam container along with the sauce and bread, put together another container with the skins, and off I went. I sat at a little bar opposite the counter and munched on my food while looking at the merchandise available in the "store" (mostly consisting of gum, bug spray, and matches as far as I could tell). The pork itself was quite tasty, although not as life-altering as one might expect for a rural joint gushed about in a big city magazine. The sauce (vinegar and mustard, not tomato-based, in keeping with Carolina tradition) was pretty spicy, yet pleasant, and the skins were, shall we say, challenging, not light and crunchy like a bagged pork rind, but calling to mind more like a rawhide chew toy that a dog might enjoy (I feared that I was being made fun of by the counter ladies as they watched this cracker city boy trying to gnaw on hunks of pigskin). Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I ordered a 2nd half-pound of pulled pork to go (no sauce this time) and grabbed a couple of bags of kettle-fried pork skins to share with everyone (these were much more like pork rinds, although still quite crunchy and robust, alternately fascinating or repulsing those who tried them back home). When mixed with my Aunt Monica's homemade tomato-based bbq sauce (I know, heresy to the locals), the second batch of meat was delicious and went quickly. I'm glad I made the trek all the way to Scott's, but next year, I think I might stay on the North Carolina side of the border to explore other far-flung roasted meat options.

Day 7 brought the end of the trip and the beginning of our long trek home. Having left the island before sunrise to beat the traffic, we pulled into a Huddle House for breakfast somewhere between Florence and Columbia, SC. Apparently, Huddle House is a competitor of the Waffle House chain with locations mostly in the South and Southeast and we found the two to be very similar. I ordered a monstrosity called the Southern Smothered Biscuit Platter, which included an open-face biscuit topped with sausage, hash browns, sausage gravy, cheddar cheese, and 2 scrambled eggs (I held the extra bacon to help reduce the cholesterol content) - it was nothing short of sublime. Bellies full, we proceeded north and made a quick detour in Columbia to Abbott Farms, a quaint operation offering the world's best combination of peach products and fireworks all under the same roof. Not being a pyrotechnics expert, I can't speak to the quality of their fireworks, but the peach-related merchandise was great: breads, salsas, ice cream, jams, syrups, sodas - you dream it up, they can probably engineer a peach version of it. We bought a bunch of foodstuffs, including a very spicy ginger ale manufactured by Blenheim, a small bottler known for its potent ginger ales, that had my sinuses buzzing like a hornet (and this was the MILD version).

Soon, we rolled into Asheville, NC to meet up with my sister and her significant other (who were also traveling home from the beach) for lunch at Tupelo Honey Cafe, a local institution known for farm-to-table comfort food (it reminded me a lot of Northdown Tap, which I recently blogged about). This was our 2nd attempt to dine there, as last year we were rebuffed by the long wait at dinnertime on a Friday night and ended up settling for Mexican food down the street. We only had to wait about 15 minutes this time and we were rewarded by some fine food and drinks, starting with a rosemary/peach lemonade that went down mighty easy on this hot July afternoon. I ordered an open-faced veggie melt that had fried green tomatoes, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, lemon aioli, spinach, and melted havarti, while Mrs. Hackknife got a southern fried chicken BLT that looked amazing (see Photo #2 above) and tasted about as good. The sides, while interesting, were a little lacking - I tried the brown butter brussels sprouts and they were just ok. Some local beers (including Green Man and Highland Breweries, based in Asheville) were also sampled and were a bit disappointing as well. Of course, my palate might have been adversely affected by the 1,200-calorie breakfast that I had consumed just a few hours earlier. In any case, our appetites were completely sated until well into the evening and our arrival in Lexington, KY, where we spent the night. Exhausted and just looking for a quick, casual meal so we could get the progeny in bed, we found an El Chico Mexican restaurant near our hotel. I'd never heard of El Chico, but it's a chain with a smattering of locations in the South, Southeast, and, somewhat inexplicably, Egypt and the UAE (I wasn't aware that Arabs had a hankering for enchiladas). Anyway, the chips/salsa were fine and my brisket tacos were surprisingly good. Kiddos were happy because they could get Kraft mac & cheese (the real McCoy) for dinner. I'll be tempted to look for these guys if I ever find myself in Dubai tired of kebabs and couscous.

Our final travel day home found us passing through Indianapolis at lunchtime, giving us the perfect excuse to try Boogie Burger, hailed on Yelp as Indianapolis's best burger. They recently moved to a new location to mitigate issues regarding large customer volumes (the Yelp curse, as it were) and the new restaurant still had that new building smell, with a line of hungry people to boot. We managed to find 4 stools and a counter in the back of place to eat and I jumped in line to place our order. I picked a blue moon burger (1/3 lb. with blue cheese) and Mrs. Hackknife tried the Wild Wild West (1/3 lb. with cheddar cheese, bacon, onion rings, and bbq sauce), both of which were phenomenal. We also split an order of garlic fries, tossed w/fresh garlic and parsley - these were also great, about as good as the garlic fries at Fat Tommy's back home (and not as greasy). We make fairly regular trips to Indianapolis to visit friends and, based on our experience, I'm sure we'll be back to Broad Ripple and Boogie Burger as soon as we get the chance.

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