Chicken in soy sauce
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It’s no surprise, given this region’s history—the rice plantations, the West African slaves, the Gullah culinary tradition—that soul food plays an essential role in Charleston’s modern culinary landscape. Some components, like rice and okra and cowpeas, were direct imports from Africa (see also: hoppin’ John); some, like corn, tomatoes, and lima beans, were crops native to the Americas. Others were the cheap, undesirable castoffs given new life in slave kitchens across the South, from turnip greens and yams to chitterlings and chicken gizzards.
Over time, those recipes expanded to include certain (particularly delicious) dishes enjoyed by Southern whites, like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. All of these foods remain popular in Charleston today, with some greatest hits in this category including okra soup, hoppin’ John, red rice, lima beans with ham, fried chicken, fried pork chops, collard greens, pigs’ feet, and cornbread. These dishes are your best living link to the region’s past, and you’ll find them at the city’s Lowcountry soul-food restaurants—honest, unpretentious spots that are deeply rooted in tradition. If you can have just one meal in Charleston, this should be it.
Where: For real-deal Charleston-area soul food, it’s hard to beat Bertha’s Kitchen (843-554-6519; 2332 Meeting Street Rd., map), established in 1979 in industrial North Charleston, a short drive north of downtown. Bertha (Albertha Grant) passed away in 2007, unfortunately, but her three daughters have kept the two-story steam-table café in tip-top shape.
When: Mon-Fri, 11am-7pm. Cash only. Expect a lunchtime line; there’s a small dining room, but Bertha’s also does a brisk takeout trade.
Order: How much of the whiteboard-scrawled menu can you handle? Pictured is a fried chicken plate, served with white or red rice (we opted for red rice; see entry), cornbread, and two “vegetables”—we went with mac and cheese and pork-flecked cabbage—for $7.75. Everything disappeared fast; the chicken—get the dark-meat leg and thigh—was perfectly crispy and tender, the red rice fluffy and flavorful, the mac and cheese incredibly cheesy and addictively crunchy round the edges.
It’s a whole lot of food, but we had to add in a bowl of Bertha’s celebrated okra soup, which did not disappoint—thick with soft hunks of okra and their seeds, tomatoes, and ham, it is nearly a meal in itself (especially when paired with the thick, slightly sweet, super fresh cornbread). We’ve also heard great things about the ham-specked lima beans, the turkey prioleau (when available), the hoppin’ John, the pork chop—don’t think you can really go wrong here. Wash it all down with some sugary sweet tea and try to figure out how you’ll ever eat dinner that night.
Alternatively: We can’t overstate this: Don’t make the fatal error of focusing your attention exclusively on Charleston’s pricier, big-name restaurants, even those that are vaguely regional in nature. Those chefs take their cues from the city’s soul-food restaurants; indeed, they likely dine there themselves.
If not Bertha’s, check out Martha Lou’s Kitchen (843-577-9583; 1068 Morrison Dr., map) or Ernie’s Restaurant (843-723-8591; 64 Spring St., map), both in the same vein. Or try the more tourist-friendly (but still locally beloved) Jestine’s Kitchen (251 Meeting St., map; closed Mondays), downtown, celebrated for its fried chicken and “Coca-Cola cake,” or Dave’s Carry-Out Seafood (843-577-7943; 42 Morris St., map), where the fried shrimp, fish, and scallops are particularly great (but there’s also a mean fried pork chop and lima beans).
Over in Mount Pleasant, Gullah Cuisine (1717 N Hwy 17, Mount Pleasant, map) covers all the basics of Lowcountry soul food (though the restaurant prefers to think of it as “food that’s good for the soul”), and a bit further northeast, consider SeeWee Restaurant (843-928-3609; 4808 N Hwy 17, map), an off-the-beaten-path little gem in Awendaw.
Good to know: The so-called “soulful food” at The Glass Onion (1219 Savannah Hwy, map), a popular locavore-leaning restaurant west of downtown, includes a widely hailed Tuesday night fried-chicken dinner from 5pm-9pm; be sure to reserve ahead. Also, keep an eye out for Blue Plate specials—some restaurants that don’t necessarily fit the “soul food” bill will offer these at lunch (basically inexpensive meat-and-three-type meals), and they tend to include many of the dishes mentioned here.
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