clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

In Search of Charleston’s Soul Food and Seafood Treasures

Oxtails appear only once a week, on Thursdays, as a special at Addielee’s in North Charleston. At some soul food restaurants, the cooks braise these cuts to the point where the meat reaches tenderness yet still clings to the bone, requiring a tug of war using a fork or your teeth. Here, owners Ann and Charles Whitlock stew the oxtails to utter submission. The beef renders into pot-roasty hunks, and the bones drift in a broth enriched by their collagen. It comes over plain rice, though the staff will happily spoon the oxtails instead over tomato-tinted red rice: Its pluckier seasonings anchor the meal more firmly in the cooking traditions of the surrounding coastal land.

"The chicken burger is our specialty," Ann Whitlock says leadingly while my friend and I study the menu. We sidestep her suggestion in favor of a contorted fried pork chop, collards, lima beans cooked nearly to a puree, ruddy okra soup, mac and cheese, and of course the oxtails. (Turkey wings and fish tacos are about the only items we skip.) Whitlock comes over to check on us while we’re eating. She casually slips in that she’s demo-ing her chicken burgers at a local grocery store over the weekend. She’s vying to distribute them wholesale. We give in, laughing, and tell her that we’ll split a chicken burger, too. The thin, finely ground patty comes stacked on a bun dressed with the works, including the addition of banana peppers. A healthier option surely, but I’m sticking with the oxtails.

Going slightly afield helps break through the antebellum fantasy that the city’s epicenter can engender.

The Lowcountry's sultry, historical charms and its surfeit of tourism make Charleston one of the most thoroughly documented food destinations in America. A dozen or so deserving restaurants get recognition again and again: titans like FIG, Husk, and Hominy Grill as well as newer casual upstarts like Two Boroughs Larder, Butcher & Bee, and Xiao Bao Biscuit. Going slightly afield to places like Addielee’s, though, broadens the grasp of the culinary culture. It also helps break through the antebellum fantasy that the city’s epicenter can engender. At soul food mainstays in working-class neighborhoods and seafood shacks along juts of shoreline, skilled hands make straightforward recipes. The roots of tradition show through unpaved and proud. Even when the food occasionally underwhelms, the atmospheric character tends to provide its own kind of nourishment.

SOUL SURVIVORS

Among longstanding soul food establishments, Martha Lou’s Kitchen — housed on the city’s northern fringe in a squat building the color of strawberry ice cream — earns perpetual raves for fried chicken and whiting cooked to order, giblet rice, and bread pudding. And locals dote on the flounder encased in delicate batter at Dave’s Seafood (also known as Dave’s Carry-Out) a few blocks from Hominy Grill.

Lately when I visit the Holy City, I make a beeline for lunch to Bertha’s Kitchen, way up the main thoroughfare Meeting Street Road near the border of industrial North Charleston. Some days the line of cops, construction crews, and dapper businesspeople flows out the restaurant’s lilac-purple door, and the wait can drag on. Albertha Grant, who passed away in 2007, started the restaurant in 1979; her three daughters continue to prepare her specialties with precision and heart.

Bill Addison
Bill Addison

Bertha's exterior and fried chicken with mac and cheese and cabbage

Bertha’s, like Martha Lou’s and Addielee’s, serves several dishes that harken to the regional Gullah communities — those descended from West African slaves (many taken specifically from the rice-growing areas of Sierra Leone for their expertise with the crop) who toiled on plantations and then established themselves in hamlets near Charleston and the nearby islands. Lima beans are ubiquitous, and it’s hard to decide which restaurant does them better. Each kitchen simmers them to creaminess with ham hock or smoked turkey necks, the shards of pink meat adding toothy savor. Lowcountry okra soup, sometimes called a gumbo, typically includes tomato and meat, often beef.

I relish the rhythm of Bertha’s as much as the food: The Grant sisters and other family members cook and serve urgently, passing blue or yellow trays down the line from the steam table to the register with military assurance. While waiting, I keep an eye on whatever protein most recently emerged from the fryers or stoves — fried chicken, baked chicken, fried whiting, fried pork chop — and then I ask for a corner square of mac and cheese with the chewy scorched bits and cabbage or collards. If the kitchen momentarily runs out of main dishes, the staff hands over your sides and then delivers the rest of your meal when it’s soon ready.

Lima bean supper with rice and smoked turkey necks at Hannibal's Soul Kitchen

Charleston friends recommended I also try Hannibal’s Soul Kitchen, an Eastside long-timer known particularly as a breakfast seafood destination. Two of us went at dinner, when the vibe of the place leaned more toward scruffy watering hole. A gathering of men (one rowdy talker, others dead silent) sat at one end of the dining room; a family and a solo eater sat on the other side near a man dozing in a booth. A few near-empty bottles behind the counter comprised the bar. We ordered crab and shrimp rice, another Gullah staple, and noticed a sign hanging near the kitchen window that said "lima bean supper." The woman behind the counter told us it was beans piled with rice and smoked turkey necks. The seafood rice had an unappetizing fishy whiff — maybe the dish is best in the morning? The heap of limas, though, was the kind of culinary sedative I’d take home and shovel down while binge-watching an entire season of The Americans.

IN SEARCH OF SEAFOOD

"Take this card to the oyster room," a staffer at Bowens Island tells us. We follow signs out from the restaurant’s main level down to a bottom floor space that is little more than a concrete bunker. In dim light, a ponytailed guy in wading boots rinses clumps of oblong oysters covered in green mud and then dumps them into a pot to steam. This is a quintessential oyster roast (the cooking method misnomer is part of the tradition). After only a couple of minutes he shakes the bivalves onto a tray. The mass looks prehistoric and impenetrable. We drop a few dollars into the tip bucket and, with thin oyster knives in hand, we make our way back upstairs to settle in and tackle these tiny brutes.

This is a quintessential oyster roast

Bowens Island, situated on a wide bend of creek near Folly Beach about 20 minutes south of downtown Charleston, has been around since 1946. The road toward the building (which is really little more than a shack) crosses marshland and then passes a thicket of trees covered in Spanish moss that conceals a few stately houses. It has been a draw for decades and remains luring both for its ramshackle funkiness and the gut-level goodness of its food.

A couple of other outlying stops for seafood didn’t quite measure up. A tip regarding shad roe, the seasonal delicacy from a bony fish that spawns upstream through the South and Mid-Atlantic in springtime, led me to The ’Wich Doctor, a pizza and sandwich shop on Folly Beach that also offers some ambitious specials. A pizza topped with bottarga made from cured shad roe along with almonds, mint, chiles, and capers generally worked (the crust leaned to the tough side of sturdy). A special of pan-fried shad roe over a Thai-influenced noodle dish with lemongrass, broccoli, and fried egg took things too far. Shad roe needs little more than bacon and maybe some grits to make it deeply gratifying.

Above: Lowcountry oyster clusters at Bowen's Island; Below: Frogmore stew at Bowen's Island and the exterior of The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene

The Wreck of the Richard & Charlene sounds like a Lifetime biopic about a nasty divorce; it’s a no-frills operation in Mount Pleasant, just east of Charleston over the Ravenel Bridge. The name refers to an old trawler that smashed into Shem Creek, the site of the restaurant, during the onslaught of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The menu revolves around simple fried, grilled, or broiled seafood preparations. At a recent meal the fried shrimp and soft-shell crab didn’t arrive overly hot and the batter had lost its crackle. The deviled crab (essentially a spicy crab cake) tasted tinny, though to be fair March is months away from high crab season.

Back at Bowens Island, we tackle our oyster clusters. (They grow that way in the Lowcountry reefs.) Even finding the openings of individual shells is a treasure hunt, but when we pry them apart they reveal plump specimens, steamy and briny. It delivers the same hands-on satisfaction of a crab feast or crawfish boil. The oyster guy dropped a couple of unsteamed oysters on our tray to challenge us; neither of us can budge those shells. We eventually turn our attention to another local picnic-table favorite, Frogmore stew — a jumble of shell-on shrimp simmered with sliced sausage, hunks of corn, and new potatoes. I sip a lager from Palmetto Brewing Company. Couples and families gather around wooden tables with initials carved into them. The room fills with a social clatter. Charleston proper feels far away, and in the moment, my hands busy again with wresting oysters, I’m in no rush to return to its congested streets and crowded sidewalks.

ESSENTIALS

Addielee’s: 2705 Bonds Avenue, North Charleston, (843) 566-7833, addieleeskitchen.com

Martha Lou’s Kitchen: 1068 Morrison Drive, Charleston, (843) 577-9583, marthalouskitchen.com

Dave's Seafood: 42 Morris Street, Charleston, (843) 577-7943

Bertha’s: 2332 Meeting Street, Charleston, (843) 554-6519

Hannibal’s Kitchen: 16 Blake Street, Charleston, (843) 722-2256, hannibalkitchen.com

Bowen’s Island: 1870 Bowens Island Road, Charleston, (843) 795-2757

The Wreck of the Richard and Charlene: 106 Haddrell Street, Mount Pleasant, (843) 884-0052, wreckrc.com

Best New Restaurants

The 12 Best New Restaurants in America

Guides

New England's 38 Essential Restaurants

Guides

The South's 38 Essential Restaurants

View all stories in America's Essential Restaurants

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day