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A Weekend in Charleston: I've Got Friends in Low Places

"Wow, that's, um, er, . . . adventurous. You'll enable the GPS on your phone just in case, though, right?"

That was the general consensus when I told some friends that I was planning to spend President's Day weekend in Charleston's Low Country with a woman named Sue, whom I'd never met.

And that our accommodations for the weekend would be provided by Sue's friend Missy, whom I'd never met, either.

Of course, I don't usually recommend jumping on a plane to meet up with strangers you find on the Internet, but when the offer includes a free beach house and a three-day binge on pig parts and punch bowls, you'd be crazy to say no.

Or at least just crazy.

Sue and I became acquainted online a few years ago after I wrote a three-part blog post about my food-filled weekend in Charleston, where she lived for nearly 20 years before moving to North Carolina in 2013 to care for her aging mother. We bonded over a mutual love of everything from fried chicken skins to watermelon martinis, communicating online about food, travel, and where we might travel next for some food.

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That turned out to be Charleston, thanks to Sue's friend Missy, who generously offered us the use of her beach house on Sullivan's Island for a long weekend. Weeks of obsessive planning about where and what to eat and drink ensued, with menus and cocktail lists whizzing through cyberspace while Sue and I bombarded each other's inboxes with photos of pork chops, cheese grits, and bourbon drinks. Which sure beats the usual contents of my inbox, which usually consists of the secrets to enlarging certain parts of my body and shrinking others.

Finally, the appointed weekend arrived. Sue drove down from Greensboro and I flew down from New York, and in the 20 minutes it took to drive from the airport into downtown Charleston, Sue and I had already decided to pace ourselves for not one but two lunches and were debating about a snack in between. How could I not like her?

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We parked the car and ambled in the sunshine over to Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, which was one of the spots I ran out of time for on my last visit. (Hence the two-lunches-a-day schedule this time around. Live and learn.)

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Famed for its gorgeous oyster-shell chandeliers, Amen Street is bustling and bright, and we were happy to discover that we'd arrived just in time to avoid the one-lunch crowd.

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I knew had to try the "Owner's Famous Frozen Peach Bellini," which is made with both Champagne and rum. If one lunch would not suffice, you can bet only one booze wouldn't.

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Sue went with the Bloody Mary, which she loved. Me, I don't like a lot of random vegetables coming between me and my liquor.

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You know what's better than a corn dog?

That's a trick question: Nothing is better than a corn dog. But a shrimp corn dog comes pretty close.

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We also split an order of shrimp ceviche and a third drink, the Chef's Old Fashioned, with bourbon, muddled orange, and brandied cherries. Of course, we didn't really need a third drink, but I'm pretty sure all the rules go out the window when you find yourself eating corn dogs at 11am with someone you just met an hour ago.

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After lunch we milled around for a bit, taking in the sights and enjoying the warm sun on our faces.

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Soon, however, it was time for lunch. Again. And so off we went to the Obstinate Daughter on Sullivan's Island.

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The restaurant's unusual name is an homage to the Battle of Sullivan's Island during the Revolutionary War, in which the defenders of Fort Sullivan foiled the British fleet’s attempt to capture the city of Charleston. This first American Patriots victory inspired a London political cartoon of Miss Carolina Sullivan, one of the "obstinate daughters of America," whose large hairdo concealed fortifications, cannons, and battle flags.

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The restaurant's web site notes, "To us, the Obstinate Daughter is a beautiful reminder that the stubborn refusal to change one’s course of action can change the course of history."

That is true. Because, although we were still plenty full from our corn dogs and cocktails at Amen Street, we forged ahead with our planned course of action. Onward, soldiers! The mighty cannot be felled, neither by gluttony nor by gout!

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The O/D, as it's called, was until recently a beloved Sullivan's Island institution called Atlanticville, which was one of Sue's favorite haunts. So she was understandably a bit leery about giving the O/D a try. But I don't think she had anything to worry about.

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Although it was mid-afternoon, the place was pretty busy, so instead of waiting for a table, we decided to grab two seats at the bar.

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After a short bout of indecision, Sue settled on the Low Country shrimp roll with tasty little fried polenta sticks called "geechie fries," which she paired with the Swamp Fox cocktail. Made with bourbon, maple syrup, Luxardo cherry liqueur, Fresno chilies, and bitters, the Swamp Fox probably should have tasted like that vile cayenne-pepper lemonade people drink to lose weight, but instead tasted like the kind of well-made, sophisticated cocktail people drink to wash down their second lunch of the day.

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After finding myself unable to tear my eyes (and just barely my fork) away from my neighbor's delicious-looking entrée, I ordered the same thing: Homemade gnocchi with short rib ragu, horseradish, and pine nut gremolata.

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Although nearly everything on the O/D's cocktail list sounded amazing, I went with the Palmetto Log Colada, which started off traditional with rum, pineapple, and coconut milk, then veered into interesting with the addition of crushed ice and a sweet surprise: blueberry honey.

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We'd just finished eating when another patron ordered this:

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That is a sticky bun with caramel and pecans. Have you ever seen anyone actually make a sticky bun? It's like spreading an oil tanker full of butter onto half a slice of toast. But after shrimp corn dogs and short rib gnocchi, what's 10,000 more calories? The bartender told us it was too late in the day to order one, but I think the look on my face made it clear that he had two choices: Get the kitchen to make me a sticky bun, or get the manager to come and break up the fistfight I was going to start with the person who ordered the day's last sticky bun.

He got me the sticky bun.

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That afternoon we explored Sullivan's Island a bit.

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Finally, it was time to head back to what Sue referred to as "the beachiest beach house ever." And it was. Spacious, airy, and unfussy, the house radiated the simple charm of a lived-in beach cottage, the kind where everyone is having too good a time to fret much over sandy feet on the floors.

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My room was bright and cheery, with lots of fluffy towels and a warm, soft quilt on the bed.

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By the end of the day we were both too tired and too full to follow through on our original dinner plans, so Sue suggested the appropriately-named Stack's Evening Eats in nearby Mt. Pleasant for snacks and wine instead.

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There, we sat at the bar with a couple glasses of crisp white wine, a plate of fried oysters, and the best Brussels sprouts I've ever had.

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The Brussels sprouts were fried till crispy, then served with a creamy, savory smoked tomato and herb dipping sauce. That might sound fancy, but in the South, "dipping sauce" is just a euphemism for "mayonnaise," much like "I'll have a side of bacon" really means, "Just bring me the whole hog, and be quick about it."

Or, maybe they just call it dipping sauce because they know that's what you'll be doing with your fingers as soon as those Brussels sprouts are gone.

The next day dawned cloudless and sunny, but also freezing. And I don't mean southern-style, it's-65-degrees-where's-my-parka freezing. I mean freezing-freezing: Accounting for the wind chill, the day's high was roughly 40 degrees. Luckily I came prepared.

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Sue steered us to the Boulevard Diner, where we could wait for a table in the small vestibule instead of out in the cold. After a bit of exercise to warm up, that is.

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That gave us time to peruse the menu and take in the old-school diner décor.

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I really wanted fried pork chops, but Boulevard Diner was serving brunch. Luckily, though, this is South Carolina, where fried pork chops at Sunday brunch are as commonplace as pacemakers at Sunday dinner. And so I had the fried pork chops with scrambled eggs, cheese grits, and toast.

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Sue went with a classic: shrimp and grits.

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If you're going to start the day with things like fried pork chops and cheese grits, there's no guarantee you'll make it to the end of the day. So you might as well go for broke with some creamy coconut cake and a rich chocolate mocha pecan torte for dessert.

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After brunch we continued our exploration of Sullivan's Island, along with neighboring John's Island.

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It's not the $1,000 that gets me. It's that extra $40, tacked on like a bad toupée.

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And forget looking out for jellyfish. Here, the hazards include things like deep holes and marauding coyotes, which make the deadly currents seem somewhat redundant.

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Worried about the land mines they probably forgot to mention, we headed inland a bit so Sue could show me the local neighborhoods.

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Just when I started to think the houses all looked the same, a spaceship landed on this guy's lawn.

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His neighbors, however, refused to be outdone by some lousy flying saucer.

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After a little more driving around, we ended up at Vickery's on Shem Creek for an afternoon pick-me-up (and drink-me-down).

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With its wraparound decks and outdoor bars, Vickery's is the perfect place to take in the view with a cocktail in hand.

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That evening we had plans to meet Missy downtown at the Cocktail Club to share a party-sized punch bowl before grabbing dinner downstairs at one of Charleston's hottest new restaurants, the Macintosh.

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Sure, a giant punch bowl might sound like a bit much for just three people, but that's why Missy brought her friend Jill . . . and Sue brought me.

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On Sunday nights, the punch bowls at the Cocktail Club are only $20, which is just $5/person for a really good buzz, or $10/person for a really good coma.

Of course, you could probably get a punch bowl for $20 in NYC, too. At a flea market, where it will come with a big crack down the middle and two used Dixie cups.

We chose to fill our punch bowl with the Beachcomber No. 2, which contained white rum, brandy, pineapple and lemon juices, cinnamon syrup, ginger beer, nutmeg, and the fantastically named "Velvet Falernum," which sounds like something a natty gentleman might wear but in fact is similar to a low-proof rum infused with lime zest, ginger root, cloves, and almonds.

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After recounting our weekend adventures for Missy and Jill, Sue asked if Missy would mind if I stored my luggage at the house the next day while exploring Charleston solo, since Sue planned to depart early to beat some impending bad weather. Of course, this being the South, not only did both Missy and Jill offer to stow my luggage at their respective houses, but both of them offered me a ride to the airport to boot. If two strangers in New York City ever make you this same offer, it is very likely that (1) you will never see your luggage again, and (2) no one will ever see you again.

Soon it was time for our dinner at the Macintosh, where, in a textbook case of nominative determinism, a chef named Jeremiah Bacon is turning out bacon burgers and other divine swine in a chic TriBeCa-meets-Charleston space complete with exposed brick walls, reclaimed floors, and caged pendant lights.

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The room was too dark for photos, but I did manage a few of the pork shoulder ravioli, which are blurry not because of the dim light, but because your head is likely swimming at the sight of this puffy pocket of porkalicious perfection. For while pork on its own is good, pork that has been submerged in fat and cooked for eight hours is even better, particularly when whatever has fallen off the bone is stuffed inside a giant ravioli, along with some pork stock and crème fraiche.

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Sue wanted to get an early start on the drive back to Greensboro the next day, so we woke early and made a beeline for one of her old favorites, Page's Okra Grill, a Low Country legend that offers "Local Food for Local Folks."

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As well as, "Giant Rocking Chairs for Porch-Deprived New Yorkers."

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After breakfast, I texted my new friend Jill to find out whether her offer to let me store my luggage at her place still stood, or if that was just the previous night's punch bowl talking. She responded with the most fantastic text I've ever received from a complete stranger: "I won't be home till 1 but have left a key for you. Two overly friendly cavalier spaniels will greet you. If you go out, just lock up and put key back in place. Make yourself at home. What time do we need to head to the airport?"

I was gobsmacked. Oh, sure, stranger from New York City who could be an axe-murderer. Just take my key and let yourself in and make yourself at home. And if you haven't robbed me blind and kidnapped my dogs by the time I get home, I'll even take you to the airport!

And so I dropped my luggage at Jill's house, which turned out to be a manse in the heart of downtown Charleston, complete with two adorable spaniels.

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After saying my good-byes and thank-yous to Sue, I had about two hours to kill in Charleston before my flight. Naturally, I spent them eating.

I didn't have a ton of time, so I headed over to Gaulart & Maliclet, a tiny café also known as "Fast & French."

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The space was tight and the seating communal, so it wasn't long before I got to chatting with a lovely woman named Kimberly Glenn, an interior designer whose firm you should definitely patronize because she is warm and friendly and has excellent taste . . . in dining companions.

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We both ordered the lunch special: French onion soup, cheese and bread, and a glass of house wine.

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Fast & French lived up to its name, leaving me with just enough time to take in some sights before heading back to the airport.

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One of Charleston's many hidden treasures are the tiny gardens, alleys, and nooks tucked among the city streets.

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As promised, Jill gave me a ride to the airport, and we chatted along the way about the pleasures of meeting strangers and offering hospitality and trusting that your new friend isn't a serial killer.

And when I got out of the car, she didn't even drive off before I could grab my luggage.

Southern hospitality indeed.
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Posted by TraceyG 15:21 Archived in USA Tagged charleston stacks low_country sullivans_island obstinate_daughter amen_street page's_okra_grill the_macintosh cocktail_club boulevard_diner Comments (9)

Charleston Part 1: The Yankees Invade (Again)

Historic Charleston, South Carolina fairly oozes the genteel manner of a bygone era. Flickering gas lamps illuminate the city's gracious homes, while horse-drawn carriages roam her cobblestone streets. "Sir" or "ma'am" is the proper way to address someone, and even insults are softened with a gentle "bless her heart" at the end.

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Indeed, cultured Charleston has been named the "Best-Mannered City in America," a designation bestowed by etiquette expert Marjabelle Young Stewart, herself better known as the Queen of Couth.

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Yes, I know: The irony is killing you. But everyone knows that a trip report written by an ill-mannered barbarian is way more fun than a regular report, so stop your snickering.

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Most historians agree that Charleston was originally part of the Carolina territory that was granted to eight Lord Proprietors by Charles II in 1663. The Lords arranged for the first settlement, Charles Towne, as it was originally called, to be established by English settlers from Bermuda under William Sayle in 1670.

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There is, however, a little-known alternate theory, which is that Charleston was founded by a group of greedy orthopedists who conspired to create the most treacherous, uneven sidewalks in the entire 13 colonies.

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They fiendishly arranged the craggy flagstones in a haphazard jumble, then sat back and reaped the windfall that resulted from the never-ending parade of twisted ankles and busted kneecaps. While their fellow settlers delighted in the peal of the town's many church bells, these bastards delighted in the unmistakable thud of yet another unsuspecting pedestrian taking a header.

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We arrived on Friday morning to bright blue skies and warm southern breezes so, after dropping our luggage at the hotel, we decided to take a leisurely (read: painstakingly slow and wobbly) walk up to Hominy Grill in Charleston's Elliotborough neighborhood. Housed in a former barber shop, Hominy Grill is rumored to have some of the best Southern food in Charleston, so I prepared by donning my best elastic-waist expandable dress, and off we went.

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There was a bit of a wait when we arrived, so we sat on the patio with a few drinks to, er, grease the skids for the abomination of fat and cholesterol to come.

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I decided to try a John Daly, which is a boozy version of an Arnold Palmer made with local Firefly Sweet Tea vodka and lemonade. You can almost picture the advertising exec who thought that naming a mixed-up drink like iced tea and lemonade after famous golfers would make the game seem less boring. Nice try, but you could post strippers at all the odd-numbered holes and golf would still bore most people, um . . . stiff. Heh-heh.

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Our meal began with a complimentary basket of boiled peanuts. Boiling the nuts renders them delicious, salty, and addictive, made all the more so by the fact that the softened peanuts are almost impossible to remove from their shells in one piece. So you could end up eating an entire basket just for the challenge of finding the one or two peanuts that come out completely whole. Hypothetically, of course.

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Before I could get that far, our fried green tomatoes thankfully arrived. Although there is probably no one on the planet who loves tomatoes more than I do, fried green tomatoes are not for me -- the texture is just too off-putting. Luckily these came with a serving of homemade Ranch dressing, so I ate the fried breading dipped in Ranch (which is surely the official dish of at least one Southern state), while Angel ate the denuded tomatoes. Teamwork!

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Next up was Hominy Grill's famous shrimp 'n' grits. Although I thought grits might be related to crowder peas or okra or some other little-known confederate vegetable, grits are actually made from a familiar ingredient: ground corn. Which are then prepared with butter and cheese and topped with bacon, which means they could be made out of sawdust and I'd still eat them. I may be a Yankee, but I'm a Southern girl at heart, y'all!

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Angel went with the creole shrimp, which was a little bit spicy and a whole lot delicious.

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I'd heard that Hominy Grill's vegetables were worth a try, so I went with the (mouthwateringly vinegary and salty) cucumber and onion salad . . .

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. . . and the macaroni & cheese, which is vegetarian, so close enough.

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After lunch we picked up a couple of those walkers with the tennis balls for feet so that we could safely navigate around town, then shuffled over to East Bay Street to look around and grab an afternoon cocktail.

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We decided on drinks at Squeeze Bar, which bills itself as the "tightest bar in Charleston." Obviously the owner of this place has never seen a NYC closet.

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Like almost every place we visited in Charleston, Squeeze Bar is a model of cool interior design, with repurposed egg-basket light fixtures fitted with bare Edison bulbs; rough exposed brick; a chocolate brown and pale blue color scheme; nubby ostrich upholstery; and a bartender who looks like he was born to serve up small-batch whiskey.

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After successfully not dropping dead after that lunch at Hominy Grill, later that evening I decided to double-down . . . with some fried chicken skins at Husk. I know what you're thinking: Is it actually possible to improve upon chicken skin? In fact it is, if you deep-fry it, then serve it with a sticky-sweet dip made of honey and hot sauce.

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Also amazing was the bread at Husk, which is so soft as to be almost ephemeral, and topped with a thin, buttery crust dotted with pretzel salt. The result is a bread so good that it doesn't even need butter but, this being the South, you can bet your bippy there is butter aplenty. But not just any butter: pork fat butter. I can practically hear Paula Deen cackling maniacally in the background as I type this.

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The other dishes we ordered -- pimento cheese with country ham as a second shared appetizer, and the cornmeal-crusted catfish for Angel's entree -- were good, but the pork chop I ordered as my entree was, unfortunately, the fattiest, most gristle-and-bone filled piece of meat I've ever had the displeasure of leaving, almost entirely uneaten, on my plate (and which the waiter astonishingly failed to notice when he came to clear them). And so, if you are contemplating a meal at Husk, I'd recommend sticking to the bread and the fried chicken skin, and perhaps a nice after-dinner angioplasty.

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Saturday's weather was just as glorious as Friday's had been, so we planned a walk from Meeting Street west to Colonial Lake, then south to the Battery, finishing up at East Bay Street. Not wanting to undertake such a long journey without proper provisions, we stopped at 82 Queen for brunch, which we chose just as much for the food as for their lovely courtyard.

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Having decided that if the combination of fried chicken skins and Charleston's sidewalks hadn't killed us, nothing would, we each started with a bowl of 82 Queen's award-winning she-crab soup, which is made by combining a 55-gallon drum of heavy cream with 1 cup of crabmeat (measurements are approximate).

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I decided to stick with sweet tea, while Angel tried the Raspberry Spritzer. Secure in his masculinity, that one.

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I tried to go a little lighter for my entree by ordering the Oven Roasted Creamy Chicken Salad. Now, you might think the word "creamy" would be a dead giveaway that there was nothing healthy about this salad, but this is the South. The fact that they added a few pieces of lettuce to the plate automatically qualifies it for the spa menu.

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My plan to eat lighter was foiled in part by the industrial-sized jar of mayonnaise that was surely used to prepare that delicious chicken salad, and in part by Angel ordering this:

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That's right: Just when Hominy Grill had convinced me that adding butter, parmesan, and bacon was the ideal way to prepare grits, the evil genius behind the stove at 82 Queen goes and dumps a whole fistful of cheddar cheese on them instead. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!

After lunch we waddled over to Colonial Lake, which was notable for the fact that even though it was a gorgeous day, and a Saturday to boot, the lakefront wasn't completely overrun with people. Put a lake like that in the middle of NYC, and on a sunny Saturday you're liable to be trampled to death by an army of women pushing $1,000 strollers.

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Later we made our way down to the Battery, where we took in the massive oak trees at White Point Gardens.

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Oh, and the massive piles of bricks on Murray Boulevard, East Battery, and elsewhere.

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Why be repetitive when you could also be redundant in addition?

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CLICK HERE for Part 2!

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Posted by TraceyG 17:30 Archived in USA Tagged south_carolina charleston fig 82_queen hominy_grill low_country husk Comments (5)

Charleston Part 2: Breakfast of Champions

Some of Charleston's most exclusive addresses are found along its waterfront, where the homes are priced out of reach for all but the wealthiest scions of polite society. These upper-crust folks are distinguishable from us commoners by their penchant for wearing tennis outfits even when it's raining, hiring midgets to entertain their party guests, and guarding their homes with stately fake animals.

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Of course, the homeowner with the concrete animals AND the marble entryway automatically wins. You just know he's got a gold-plated toilet seat in there somewhere.

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Well-off Charlestonians have also opted for a less manicured, more kudzued look than is prevalent in the northeast.

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Of course, no walk around the Battery would be complete without an afternoon pit stop for refreshments.

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Sure, Angel is cute, but the person who owns this bike bell is my true soul mate.

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That evening was dinner at FIG, which stands for "food is good," and is also the understatement of the year. This is particularly true at FIG, which was our favorite meal in Charleston, hands-down. From the autumn-inspired allspice martinis we started with, to the salad of baby lettuces with ricotta salata, buttermilk-herb dressing, and the most succulent heirloom tomatoes I've ever tasted, to the Carolina white shrimp escabeche marinated in fall vegetables, ginger, and fresh herbs, everything was fantastic, and that was just for starters.

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For my entree, I went with the snapper barigoule, prepared with artichokes and white wine sauce, along with those same sweet tomatoes, plus turnips, carrots, and a giant blue-crab-filled raviolo. Angel decided to try the grilled triggerfish with Capers Inlet clams, sweet potato, butternut squash, fennel, and lipstick peppers, which was also delicious. A spirited fork duel then ensued, with each of us trying to defend our own dish while simultaneously stealing bites of the other's. I think you can guess who won.

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As if there weren't enough reasons to love FIG, they were burning the most deliciously fragrant Milkhouse Creamery candle in the ladies' room, which was Ginger and . . . Fig. When they care enough to match the candle to the restaurant, and I care enough to notice, you know you've got a match made in OCD heaven.

After that, we certainly didn't have any room for dessert . . . so we stopped by O'Hara and Flynn wine bar across the street for a glass of red wine. To aid with digestion, of course.

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On Sunday morning we made our way over to East Bay Street for brunch at High Cotton.

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Spending time in the South took some getting used to, what with people looking us in the eye and holding doors open for us and such, but perhaps the hardest thing to get used to was the fact that people get dressed up to go out to eat. I actually saw a man in a suit! At brunch! Show up for brunch in NYC wearing anything fancier than your pajamas or last night's clothes, and you'll get the stink eye from every hung-over slob in the place.

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After a round of regular mimosas, I decided to try a pomegranate one, while Angel went with the Huck Finn, which is made with huckleberry-infused vodka, fresh lemonade, and a splash of soda. I hereby nominate this incredibly tasty concoction as the Official Drink of Brunch, Lunch, Dinner, Supper, Breakfast, 4pm Snacks, and Midnight Snacks.

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I decided on the banana nut bread French toast with berry butter, Blis bourbon maple syrup, and applewood smoked bacon. After everything I've eaten thusfar on this trip, would it be wrong to complain that my dish didn't contain enough bacon? Two skinny slices just ain't gonna cut it, especially in a town where lard is its own food group.

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The bourbon in the syrup was a bit overpowering for my taste, and the nut bread was rich and dense, and so between the two I only ate about half of my French toast. A-ha! That explains why I needed more bacon.

Angel went with the buttermilk pancakes with spiced apple whipped cream, and managed to eat all his bacon before I could even figure out that I only had two measly slices. Hog.

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In addition to being unaccustomed to Charlestonians' charming manners, we sometimes found it difficult to remember that it was 2011, not 1954.

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After brunch we stopped by the Powder Magazine, which was originally a military storage area for loose gun powder. The Powder Magazine's walls are three feet thick, and are supported by four enormous arches designed to implode on themselves in the case of an explosion.

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A group of schoolchildren were there on a field trip when we arrived, and the guy in the skirt was telling them all about how the roof was cleverly built with sand stored in it, which would drop down and smother any fire in the event of an explosion. Sure, that was interesting, but all I could think about was how lucky I was to have grown up in Pennsylvania, where our field trips included a visit to the kitchen at a Wendy's and a trip to the Meadows Racetrack and Casino. Good ol' Pennsyltucky!

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Later that afternoon we decided to join one of the Preservation Society of Charleston's house and garden tours. Now, you may remember that we did a similar tour in Key West back in February, which ended in tears and thoughts of suicide. Charleston's tour wisely heads off such unseemliness by granting participants a mere peek into the homes on the tour: At some houses only the gardens were open to visitors; at others, only certain rooms were available for viewing. And unlike the tour in Key West, there was certainly no poking around in Kenny Chesney's closet . . . no pun intended.

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After the house tour we decided to make our way back to the hotel via King Street, which happily coincided with "Second Sunday": On the second Sunday of every month, the street is closed to vehicular traffic and becomes pedestrian-only for the afternoon. This gives residents the rare opportunity to walk on smooth, flat pavement and provides a much-needed respite from worrying about face-planting on one of the misaligned tectonic plates that pass for sidewalks around these parts.

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Tonight was the night we'd designated for tackling the Peninsula Grill's famous 12-layer coconut cake. In order to make sure we'd have room for the cake after dinner, we decided to eat at Magnolias, where they offer "small plates" in addition to their regular entrees.

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Thus, in keeping with Operation Save Room For Cake, I dutifully ordered from the small plates menu.

So I had the grilled meatloaf with butter-whipped potatoes and mushroom-sage gravy.

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And a side of macaroni and cheese.

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And a cup of tomato bisque.

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And a complete lack of willpower.

Angel had the parmesan-crusted flounder with jasmine rice and creek shrimp pirloo with sweet corn, tomato, and asparagus salad; lump crab; and a sherry beurre blanc. No, we don't know what pirloo is; it's just another of those southern words that sounds vaguely dirty to northern ears, like cattywampus or hoecake.

I could tell that our waiter, though unfailingly polite, was disappointed that we didn't order one of Magnolias' classic southern specialties, like the fried chicken or the shrimp and grits. But I didn't want to explain that I was currently engaged in Operation Coconut Cake (which would have been perceived as a direct assault on Magnolias' pecan pie), nor did I have a plausible explanation as to why eating an entire meatloaf was actually in furtherance of said operation, so I said nothing, even though I felt bad that he was left with the mistaken impression that I hadn't eaten everything in Charleston that wasn't nailed down.

And so it was on to the Peninsula Grill. I'd worn a dress and heels for the occasion, to go along with Angel's blazer, as we understood that jackets were recommended for men. So imagine my surprise when we arrived at the Champagne Bar, only to see at least two patrons in jeans, one of whom was also wearing a jean jacket. I'm sorry, but jeans + a jean jacket = a crime not only against fashion, but against all people with eyes.

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The Ultimate Coconut Cake, as it is called, should probably be the Penultimate thing you eat before you die. (The Ultimate being a feast of lasagna, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, potatoes au gratin, fried pork chops, meatloaf, and macaroni & cheese . . . but I digress). It is a whopping 5" tall and extremely dense, so much so that it looks like it might be dry as dust -- but is actually so moist that the cake sticks to your fork.

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The layers of super-moist cake are alternated with layers of a decadent coconut cream that's been infused with fresh vanilla. And just when your eyes have rolled almost completely back in your head, you discover that the outside of the cake is completely covered in a butter-and-cream-cheese frosting, and that is covered with freshly toasted coconut.

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Angel and I shared one slice but still could not finish it, and so we did the next best thing: We ate half at Peninsula Grill, and the other half for breakfast the next morning. Wheaties, Schmeaties.

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CLICK HERE for Part 3!

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Posted by TraceyG 17:29 Archived in USA Tagged charleston low_country high_cotton peninsula_grill coconut_cake magnolia's Comments (2)

Charleston Part 3: Fit to be Fried

Monday morning started off cloudy with threatening skies, so it wasn't the best day for the lunch we had planned, which was to enjoy the view of the water from Fleet Landing. However, Monday also happens to be Fried Pork Chop Day at Fleet Landing, which means we were going there regardless of whether we received 3 inches of rain or 3 feet.

Housed in a 1940s structure built by the U.S. Navy as a debarkation point for sailors, Fleet Landing's interior design is what the restaurant refers to as "maritime chic," and what others might call, "Where the hell are all the cute Navy officers I was expecting to see?"

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Angel said he'd just have a few bites of whatever appetizer I chose, so I seized the opportunity to order one of the world's great artery-cloggers: spinach and artichoke dip. The northern version of this dip is made with, in order of appearance, spinach, artichokes, and a bit of cheese to bind it all together. In Charleston, however, this dip consists of an entire bowl of cheese and cream bound together with a single spinach leaf and a pea-sized piece of artichoke. In other words, it was divine.

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But the real star of this lunch was the fried pork chops. I mean, knock me down and steal my teeth! Butter my butt and call me a biscuit! Lordy be, but these were some dang good pork chops!

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Oh, and Angel had some food, too.

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These interesting light fixtures are made from blocks of syrofoam. Our waiter said they were to help with the acoustics of the large space, but I think it's to muffle the sound of people yelling "HOLY #$%^!" when they finally get a taste of those pork chops.

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After lunch the rain really picked up, so we instituted our rainy-day contingency plan, which was to walk up to the South Carolina Aquarium. But we'd only gone about two blocks before my shoes started squishing like a soaked sponge, so we called a cab and headed on up.

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This is an albino alligator. I can't remember his name, but judging from his skin, I'm guessing it's not Marshmallow.

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Call me paranoid, but the large seam running down the middle of this aquarium is less than reassuring.

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By the time we were ready to leave the aquarium, it was a full-blown monsoon outside, complete with pouring rain and whipping wind.

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Indeed, the weather was so horrible that by the time we got back to the hotel, I did what any reasonable person who'd been caught in a semi-tropical storm would do: I peeled off all my wet clothes, then took to my bed with a martini.

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For dinner on our last night, we decided to save the best for last. Cypress, you ask, or S.N.O.B.? McCrady's, perhaps? Well . . . not exactly.

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That's right: Where there's a 'Shroom, there's a Tracey.

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In the grand tradition of wanting whatever I can't have, Mellow Mushroom ranks near the top of my list, given that the closest one to my house is in Washington, D.C. As soon as I discovered that there was a Shroom right in downtown Charleston, visions of pepperonis began dancing in my head.

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Having decided that free-flowing arteries are completely overrated, Angel ordered the aptly-named Holy Shiitake pizza, which consists of grilled shiitake, button, and Portobello mushrooms and caramelized onions on an olive oil- and garlic-slathered crust. This fungilicious delight is then topped with mozzarella and Montamore cheese (a sort of parmesan-cheddar hybrid, the inventor of which should win the Nobel Peace Prize), drizzled with garlic aioli, and spritzed (yes, spritzed) with black truffle oil, then garnished with shaved parmesan. One slice is estimated to be 17,000 calories, or 2 additional belt notches.

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Mellow Mushroom's pizza has a unique taste, probably because the crust is made using spring water instead of tap water, and the crust does not contain any refined white sugar. That sounds suspiciously like some sort of health food, which is why I wasn't foolish enough to actually finish mine. Well, at least not all of it.

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Our last day began with Angel and I dragging ourselves to the gym in a futile attempt to undo the damage inflicted by a thousand mushrooms the night before. As Angel leisurely pedaled away on his exercise bike, I decided to spring on him the surprise I'd been harboring for weeks: I was taking him to Chick-fil-A for lunch. So I leaned over and, as casually as possible, said, "You know, you're gonna have to pedal alot faster than that if you want to go to Chick-fil-A for lunch today!" At which point, after the shock wore off, Angel pedaled so fast that the fake wheels fell off his exercise bike and the electronic speedometer went up in smoke.

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Now, if you've never been to a Chick-fil-A before, you're probably wondering why all the fuss over a simple fast-food chicken sandwich. All I can tell you is that Chick-fil-A serves the most tender, juicy, almost sweet piece of all-white-meat fried chicken ever to be placed on a soft, pillowy, perfectly buttered bun. Each sandwich is served completely plain so as to not distract from its fowly fabulousness, save for 2 or 3 small bread-and-butter pickles tucked underneath the filet. Although I don't actually eat those, the remaining pickle juice adds just the right je ne sais quoi to the sandwich, resulting in pure poultry perfection.

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Sadly, we were forced to enjoy our meal in full view of a bunch of students from the College of Charleston, all of whom can down twice the amount of Chick-fil-A that we can, because they have twice the metabolic speed. As if that weren't reason enough to hate them, they also get to spend their days wandering around what has to be one of the world's most gorgeous college campuses, burning off all that Chick-fil-A and Mellow Mushroom.

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After lunch we took another walk down King Street to do a little shopping.

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The patrons and owners of this adorable Italian place off King Street have taken a blood oath of secrecy, which is the only possible explanation for me not finding out about it and then proceeding to eat them out of house and home.

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The pull of the mother ship. Strong, it is.

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This adorable little store is the Savannah Bee Company.

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All of the honeys sold here are produced for a different purpose, such as sweetening your tea, drizzling over cheese, or adding to a marinade for grilling, and are available to try at their tasting bar.

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Although I didn't taste any discernible difference among them, I am a sucker for both cute stores and cool packaging and therefore purchased one of each.

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We were strolling along when we noticed this interesting gate:

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We followed the shady path to the cemetery at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, which is hauntingly beautiful during the day with its weathered headstones and overgrown foliage, but would surely scare the bejeezus out of you after dusk.

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This has to be the saddest little headstone I've ever seen. You spend, 50, 70, maybe even 90 years on this planet, and all you end up with is a headstone the size of a potholder? What a ripoff.

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As is liable to happen in the Holy City, we came across more churches than you could shake a stick at during our walk. To avoid mixing up their names and exposing myself for the heathen that I am, let's just call them all St. Elmo's in honor of the best movie of 1985.

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Inside one of the churches, Angel knelt in one of the pews and said a short prayer of thanks for our lovely trip to Charleston, while I took some pictures and concentrated on not bursting into flames.

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Soon it was time to return to the hotel and prepare for departure, so we decided to take the scenic route back. Not that there's any other kind of route in Charleston.

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Along the way we spotted these two adorable wine bars, which immediately made me curse the fact that I'd wasted time walking around and taking pictures when I could have been doing something worthwhile, like drinking.

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Although we didn't have any more wine, we did stop by the Southend Brewery & Smokehouse so Angel could sample their beer, which is brewed on the premises.

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Unfortunately none of them could live up to the Palmetto Espresso Porter he'd had at Hominy Grill earlier in our trip. The way Angel was stalking that beer all over town, you'd think it was a hard-to-find chicken sandwich or something.

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Do you know what lots of beer plus Charleston sidewalks equals?

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Top billing in the next Jackass movie, that's what. They can just pay me in pork chops.

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Next up, we're headed back to Anguilla, where the beaches will be beautiful, the rum punches will be potent, and the cheeseburgers will be plentiful . . . and then to Key West, where the beaches will be rocky, the drinks will be free-flowing, and the amount of weird will be off the charts. Hit the "Subscribe" button located in the box on the right-hand side of the page and you'll receive an e-mail alert when a new report is posted!

Posted by TraceyG 17:28 Archived in USA Tagged south_carolina charleston mellow_mushroom low_country fleet_landing Comments (5)

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