Friday, August 9, 2013

Adventures in Deep South 2013

It's that time of year again for our roundup of noteworthy food happenings from the annual family trip to the Carolina shore. Unlike summers past, this time we made the trek northbound from Tampa and managed to arrive at our destination (Ocean Isle Beach, NC) after only a single day of driving (hallelujah!). With less transit time to sample the Deep South's culinary treasures, our story had to begin before we even left town. First up was a visit to the local branch of Nicola's Donuts and Cupcakes (15006 N. Dale Mabry), which receives my vote for the area's best fried dough. My plan was to pick up a half-dozen donuts to tide us over until our mid-morning breakfast stop (we were planning to leave home under a cloak of darkness around 5 am) the next day.

It's a little challenging to find Nicola's Dale Mabry location since it recently moved into a shared space with one of the latest frozen yogurt operations (in this case, the Yogurt Spot) that seem to be popping up around here like mushrooms following a rainstorm. In fact, there's only a little pink-and-orange Nicola's sticker on the window to indicate to unsuspecting passersby that high-quality donuts are inside. The gal working the counter (who herself appeared a bit befuddled about the whole yogurt-donut shop arrangement) told us that Nicola's still makes all of their baked goods at the flagship store on Busch Avenue and drops off fresh product every morning.

The available offerings were impressive - I opted for all cake donuts, including chocolate choco iced, red velvet, vanilla coconut, vanilla maple, and chocolate sprinkles (see photo above). I also tried a chocolate lava drop cupcake and ate it on the premises before leaving; unfortunately, it looked better than it tasted (too much frosting). As for the donuts, I was a little concerned that they might not be so fresh the next morning (Nicola's specifically advises customers to enjoy them the same day as they're not made to last), but I can tell you that day-old Nicola's still beat the pants off of the same-day product you get from most other donut purveyors. Our stash was completely gone before we made it to Jacksonville.

Upon arrival in North Carolina, we spent the majority of our week of sun/surf simply overstuffing our bodies with the ample traditional vittles prepared by my aunts in the beachhouse kitchen. We didn't actually explore areas off the island until Thursday, when we made our now-traditional trip up to Wilmington with the progeny in tow to visit the local children's museum. Rather than head straight back to Ocean Isle Beach, we made a detour over to Carolina Beach (which appears to be sort of a mini-version of the Jersey shore) to find another celebrated donut shop called Britt's (we did actually eat things other than donuts on the trip, although I'll forgive you for thinking that).

Snugly nestled within Carolina Beach's two square block boardwalk, Britt's has been serving up hot glazed (and only glazed) donuts during tourist season since 1939 (see photo above). What the store lacks in creature comforts (like air conditioning, sand-free floors, and comfortable seating), it makes up for in flavorful goodness.

Saveur Magazine recently included Britt's among the top 50 donut shops in America (that's where I first heard of them) and I can clearly see why. Day after day, Britt's turns out mass quantities of featherlight, ethereal fried yeast dough circles that are like a warm, sugary pillow for your taste buds (see photo above). Not the least bit greasy or cloying, these beauties put my previous hot glazed donut champ (Krispy Kreme) to shame. No one looked at us askance when we ordered 2 dozen to go (I got the impression that this was not an unusual request) for the rest of the family back at the beachhouse, who promptly consumed the whole lot before sunup the next day.

Oh yes, you can also get seafood near the ocean. makes note of a popular seafood restaurant called Crabby Oddwaters in neighboring Sunset Beach (you can follow the link here), which we decided to check out on the last night of our trip (Friday night is usually reserved for consuming leftovers out of the beachhouse refrigerators in lieu of a cooked meal). The service at the joint wasn't exactly stellar, but I can't complain about the bill of fare. First up were a gratis basket of to-die-for hush puppies (accompanied by a sweet butter spread, not that they needed it) and a half-dozen Oysters Rockefeller (see photo below):

For an entree, I went with one of the house specialty buckets (which arrives at the table not in a bucket, but in a large roasting pan). The Islander features a smorgasbord of delectables, including some giant oysters, clams, sweet mussels, shrimp, corn on the cob, sliced red potatoes, and a slab of sausage similar to kielbasa, all steamed in a broth of white wine, garlic, and butter (see photo below).

I needed my big boy pants (presumably for the extra room) to get through this beast and I still came up a bit short. The bucket comes with a shucker to open up the oysters, a few of which were so challenging that I had to retain the assistance of our server (and even she had some problems). Here's hoping the local levels of heavy metal contamination are low because I ended up with a whole lot of the ecosystem in my belly.

When the time came to depart for home, I hatched a plan I'd conceived long before our trip was ever on the calendar. If we left the island around 6 am, my calculations told me that we'd arrive in Charleston, SC just as the front door of Hominy Grill opened at 9 o'clock for their Saturday brunch service. For the uninitiated, Hominy Grill has been serving up dining classics of the Carolina Lowcountry (shrimp and grits, for example) out of its historical digs in Charleston (about 10 minutes from the harbor) for almost 20 years and is beloved to the point that its owner/chef (Robert Stehling) is now gaining national recognition for his efforts. Of course, with notoriety comes demand, and my fear was that we'd arrive to find a large crowd ahead of us all waiting for their weekend morning fix. Amazingly, we pulled into the parking lot next to the barn-like structure (see photo below) at exactly 9 am and were able to stroll right in.

The Hominy Grill decor can be best described as modern farmhouse, all wood and whitewash and consistent with the stick-to-your-ribs cuisine. I had to resist my urge to simply order one of everything on the menu and chose the lowcountry omelette (Charleston red rice with shrimp gravy, home fries, and toast), which I was extremely pleased with (see photo below) until I had a bite of Mrs. Hackknife's "big nasty biscuit", a mindblowing melange of fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese, and sausage gravy on a homemade biscuit, at which point regret set in.

I needed this piece of buttermilk pie to make me whole again (and it certainly did):

By the time our server brought our to-go box of the house banana bread and we made a quick restroom visit (the lavatory gets points for being spacious, clean, and private enough to change 2 kids out of pajamas/brush teeth), the wait for tables had reached hour-long status; luckily, we were free to proceed onward with our journey home. After such an elaborate breakfast, I opted to go lowbrow for lunch, pulling off I-95 near Brunswick, GA to grab some burgers at Krystal. I was vaguely aware that Krystal is the South's version of White Castle, but I'd never had the opportunity to pop into one until now. Unfortunately, I don't know that I picked the best place to stop (it wasn't exactly the most hygienic restaurant I'd ever set foot in), but we pressed forward with our order nonetheless.

What you're looking at above is the famous Krystal burger, and if you think it resembles a White Castle slider, you'd be right. The Krystal chain was founded in 1932 (a good 11 years after WC) and rumored to have been inspired by those dirty Yankees running White Castles up north. Interestingly, the two companies cover geographical territories that are nearly independent of each other, with the exception of Kentucky and Tennessee, where they somehow co-exist without civil war. Anyhoo, my personal assessment of the Krystal burger is that it's not quite as thick, onion-y, or flavorful as a slider, and truth be told, the mustard (which a slider does NOT have) doesn't adequately take the place of that little layer of grease that soaks into a slider bun. Still, it'll have to do in a pinch when I'm stuck in Florida craving a fast food mini-burger with no White Castles to be found within 700 miles (or maybe I'll just go to Waffle House instead)...

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