Monday, August 6, 2012

Adventures in Deep South 2012

By now, you may have figured out that the Hackknife Household usually takes its annual North Carolina beach vacation during the last month of July, and this year was no exception. Of course, it's nice to have quality time with the progeny and extended family without the usual distractions of home (except for Mrs. Hackknife, who ended up sacrificing most of her week to the incessant demands of the work gods); however, from a pure foodie standpoint, I always look forward to this trip as an infrequent opportunity to immerse myself in the cuisine of the Southern USA, if only for a brief time. The family truckster left the Commissary very early on a Friday morning not long ago and motored along through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee (where we encountered an 8-mile backup on I-75 due to construction), and the mountains of North Carolina, where we eventually pulled into the parking lot of our favorite Asheville eatery, Tupelo Honey (TH), in time for a late supper. TH is one of the South's farm-to-table gems - our first visit last year for lunch made me envious that we had no comparable establishment in Chicago (although Vie in Western Springs comes close) and this time only enhanced its standing in my eyes. While I sipped on an Ode to Muddy Pond (consisting of Maker's Mark, Muddy Pond sorghum syrup, muddled basil, and Blenheim Ginger Ale - yes, I've succumbed to the bourbon-cocktail craze), our table happily dined on house biscuits with homemade blueberry jam (cue eyes rolling back into head here). Mrs. Hackknife and I split a heavenly plate of tomato and mozzarella salad (which included both red and green tomato slices) before receiving our entrees - I opted for the root beer glazed-pork tenderloin, served with smashed sweet potatoes, green apple salsa, and smoked jalapeno barbecue sauce. I'm always a little leery of ordering restaurant pork since it's easy to overcook, but this piece was perfectly fork-tender and quite delicious, a great combination of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors (especially when paired with the green apple salsa). Mrs. Hackknife was very pleased with her chicken breast and she even let me snag a bite of her mac and cheese side, which was made ultra-creamy by the addition of pimento cheese, a Southern staple (more on this later).

Day 2 of our travel offered little in the way of noteworthy foods (other than the sloppy barbecue burger and fried pickles I consumed at a Huddle House in South Carolina, the very same one we stopped at for breakfast on the way home last year) and we arrived at Ocean Isle Beach drained from the long drive. Luckily, my dad's family spares no extravagance when it comes to dining at the beach house - Uncle Bob provided the nightly wines and Aunts Mary/Monica/Maxine (with support from others) prepared fantastic dinner spreads including grouper/snapper/flounder, blue crabs, shrimp, pastas, and ribs (not all on the same night, of course). Each dinner was preceded by a full round of appetizers too numerous to mention. Not only did I remain stuffed pretty much for the duration of the week, I came home determined to obtain recipes for both the beach house cornbread and a spicy banana pepper relish (almost like a giardiniera) for use at the Commissary (stay tuned for these). When not pigging out inside, the Sunset Slush Italian ice cart was a welcome sight on the beach every hot afternoon. The Hackknives probably contributed about $50 to the Sunset Slush coffers during the week, indulging on flavors such as mango, blue vanilla (creamy and sweet, almost like a snow cone), and lemon lime.

Not all of the trip was spent within spitting distance of the ocean. Like last year, we picked a day to take the progeny to the Wilmington Children's Museum, about an hour's drive away. Although we didn't have as much opportunity to explore downtown Wilmington this time, we did manage to have lunch at another Southern farm-to-table joint called The Basics, located in the old Cotton Exchange Building on Front Street. The proprietors are originally from Athens, GA and the restaurant reflects more of a casual rock-and-roll aesthetic than the genteel surroundings of Tupelo Honey, but they both share the commitment to higher-quality traditional Southern food. This was evidenced by the decadent grilled pimento cheese sandwich I had (see below), served with a side of Hoppin' John in lieu of the tomato soup listed on the menu.

Here were two truly Southern dishes I'd yet to experience. Pimento cheese is basically a cheese spread, a mixture of sharp cheddar, mayonnaise, chopped red pimento peppers, and salt/pepper. Some versions may also contain cream cheese, although I couldn't tell if mine had it or not. Allegedly, this sandwich (either plain or grilled) has been a favorite lunchbox item for generations of southern schoolkids and I can understand why - it's pretty tasty. My chosen side, Hoppin' John, has roots in West Africa and contains black-eyed peas, rice, onion, and bacon. If you think that sounds like a winning combination, you'd be right. The only thing that would have made this meal even more stellar would have been a Southern dessert (hummingbird cake, banana pudding, and Coca-Cola cake were all available); alas, Mrs. Hackknife had to take another call and the kids were anxious to visit the USS North Carolina battleship moored nearby, so I had to defer sweets until a later time.

For the first time this year, we brought our own babysitter with us to the beach (a high school girl who lives 3 doors down from the Commissary), mostly so that Mom and Dad could enjoy a few evenings without being tethered to the condo after progeny bedtime. This enabled us to actually dine out in Wilmington one night at one of the city's finer seafood establishments: Catch, located away from downtown in a more suburban environment, stealthily situated in an average-looking strip mall (much like our own local hidden secret in Frankfort, Dan McGee). Chef Keith Rhodes is an alum of the last iteration of Top Chef (he didn't win his season, but hung around long enough to impress), which is where we first heard his name and took note of his restaurant's location for future beach trips. After getting assurances from Mrs. Hackknife that she would turn off her phone (work commitments intruding again), we settled in for a nice dinner. My bride selected the shrimp ceviche (which included avocado, key lime, cilantro, and oranges) while I went for the Carolina fried oysters with blue cheese slaw and Texas Pete aioli (Texas Pete being a famous brand of hot sauce in the South). For our entrees, I chose one of the specials, a plate of grilled Outer Banks scallops (perfectly charred on the outside) served with arugula and a cherry-goat cheese polenta that was fantastic. Even better was Mrs. Hackknife's special, a signature creation of the house called an "angry" lobster, 1.5 lbs of Maine's best cooked in a sweet chili whiskey glaze and propped up on the plate atop a bed of pineapple-foie gras fried rice. Its presentation alone was enough to turn heads from other tables (see photo below, which doesn't really do it justice), but the combination of the sweet lobster meat and the unbelievably rich fried rice blew both of us away (my only regret is that I wasn't able to secure more than a few bites).

Although Chef Keith's bona fides were clearly cemented by this point, we were let down a little by dessert. Mrs. Hackknife had a passable maple bacon ice cream (it was mostly maple and short on bacon) and my Basque cake was dry and uninspired, conjuring images of a Starbucks muffin. Apparently, next time, we'll skip dessert and just continue gnawing on the empty lobster shell.

On the last night of the trip, my aunts typically clear out whatever leftovers remain in the refrigerators instead of cooking dinner. By this time, most of the animals in the beach house have decimated what's left, so we'll often order take-out to minimize any meal hassles. This year, we decided to try out a popular Jamaican restaurant called Sugar Shack. At 5:30 on a Friday evening, the small building was packed to the gills with a long wait for tables and parking spots scarce. Even though we got our food to go, it still took a solid 30 minutes. Back at the beach house, we unpacked our goodies and got to work. While the kiddos ate chicken tenders, the missus and I split an order of crab fritters (they came with a lime salsa) and divided up a Jamaican sampler. The sampler had ample servings of 4 items - jerk pork (which I found to be average, a little dry), jerk chicken (better), tasty cod fritters referred to as Stamp & Go (often a breakfast item in Jamaica), and small savory pies containing spicy beef called patties (clearly an adaptation of the pies found in England, but with Caribbean fillings and spices). All told, it wasn't bad, but I'd like to experience the real thing in Jamaica sometime (unlike my last and only visit to the island, when I was a 22-year old mostly petrified of leaving the resort).

I had hoped to eat Carolina barbecue at least once during our trip; unfortunately, I wasn't able to do so until our journey back home. Having taken an alternate route in hopes of avoiding traffic delays (no such luck as high vehicle volumes from returning vacationers slowed us down again), we were able to locate a barbecue joint less than 10 miles from the interstate (albeit in Virginia) in a small, but picturesque mountain town called Galax. Mostly known for its traditional Appalachian music (think bluegrass) festival every year, Galax also has a smokehouse named, well, Galax Smokehouse right in the town center. Virginia doesn't appear to have a barbecue style of its own (rather, a hybrid of Carolina and Memphis), so the house offerings were pretty standard, namely beef brisket, ribs, rib tips, and pulled pork. Wanting to try more than one item, I chose the two meat platter (ribs and brisket) with barbecue beans, corn, hush puppies, and bread (see below). Both meats were dry rubbed, but not sauced - our waitress brought over 4 different bottles of sauce (house, sweet, mustard, and mountain, a sweet-spicy combo) to try with the meal.

Let's start with the good. The hickory-smoked ribs were amazing, pink on the inside with a nice charred crust. I can't say I was much of a fan of the mesquite-smoked brisket, which was dry enough that sauce was needed to swallow it down (my personal favorite was the mustard). I enjoyed the hush puppies, beans, and a couple of homemade potato chips I was able to pilfer from Hackknife Jr.'s plate. The corn and roll were practically inedible. Maybe the best part of the whole stop, however, was the banana pudding (yes, I finally got my Southern dessert), a luscious melange of bananas, pudding, whipped cream, and Nilla Wafers. I'd gladly return to Galax for this beauty and a slab of ribs, possibly combined together.

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