I have a recommendation as to where you should go for lunch: Charleston, South Carolina. Now, unless you’re in Hanahan or Folly Beach or Mt. Pleasant, it could take you a long time to get there. So you might want to leave soon. But you really should go, because Charleston has some of the very best food you will ever eat anywhere. There is a place there called Jestine’s Kitchen, which has become quite famous, and so often has a line of people waiting outside, and so also has lots of people who like to talk about food on the internet dismissing it as a “tourist trap” and inferior to other restaurants of its kind in the area, but you should go there if you like fried chicken, because I went there last Thursday, and it has the best fried chicken I have ever eaten in my life.
Maybe some other area restaurants of Jestine’s kind are in fact superior, I don’t know. I ate at as many places in Charleston as I could — in fact, my weeklong visit to the city was something like that movie Leaving Las Vegas, but with food — but, of course, there are more restaurants in Charleston than there are meals in a week. I couldn’t try them all. But even if there are some better places, I can not imagine they have better fried chicken. Before I tried the fried chicken at Jestine’s Kitchen, I could not have imagined fried chicken could taste this good.
I’ve eaten lots of fried chicken in my life. Some from the red-and-white striped buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken — including one time during the summer after first grade, when my cousins from Israel came and borrowed my parent’s van and took me driving all around the country for a month. I don’t remember what state we were in, but we had gone to Kentucky Fried Chicken and gotten a bucket to go, and found a picnic table near a stream in the woods, and gotten out and spread out our camping plates and started to eat when the thickest swarm of mosquitos I’ve ever experienced descended upon us. It was horrible, nightmarish. I remember we grabbed everything and ran back to the van, the mosquitos all our faces and eyes while we struggled with the door handles, and then a thousand of the things flew inside with us in the two seconds before we slammed the doors shut, and then slapping at them and being bitten and screaming while we didn’t even drive away, just sat there with the windows closed. I remember after everything calmed, looking down at the piece of chicken I still had in my hand, and seeing a mosquito, a huge one, all black and spindly, with white stripes on its legs, sitting on the batter crust, which I had been planning to eat. So I’ve never really liked Kentucky Fried Chicken since then.
I’ve had lots of good fried chicken, too. At sit-down restaurants, and pot luck dinners, at people’s houses, where they tell you it’s their grandmother’s recipe. With pitchers of beer at Baden Baden in Koreatown. (The name of which, because I’m helpless in this regard, I can never think of without hearing Master P’s voice.) I’ve never gone for the fried chicken dinner at Momofuku, which I imagine is wonderful, like everything else at that place.
Well, all that other stuff just faded into a duller, less-than-truly-delicious memory on Thursday, when I bit into the fried chicken at Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina. Whoever cooked this chicken (not Jestine, she died in 1997, at the age of 112!) seems to have figured out some kind of chemistry equation about breading and spices and retaining heat and succulence and fantastic, fantastic flavor inside a crispy outer shell of chicken skin. If you can get yourself to Jestine’s Kitchen, please do and order the fried chicken. Dark meat, of course. (What are you, crazy?) Oh, and get the fried okra as a side. But not the collard greens, which were not so great.
Amazingly (amazingly!) the fried chicken at Jestine’s Kitchen was not even the best thing that I ate while I was in Charleston. The best thing that I ate when I was in Charleston was probably the clams and sausage in hot-pepper sauce at Husk. Husk is different kind of place than Jestine’s. It’s upscale and super into the slow-food, local-ingredients, seasonal cooking thing. We went there for dinner, and it was one of things where the waitress was so psyched and enthusiastic about telling you every last detail about the food and where it comes from and the chef’s methods of preparation that you think that maybe she’s on ecstasy or something. But she was certainly knowledgable, and when the food came, it absolutely erased any complaint I might have had. Besides the clams, also super excellent were the smoked pork chop with lima beans, and a rabbit terrine cooked in goose fat and duck fat. (Rabbit can be a little dry, the chef at Husk thinks, according to our waitress. I agree. And I am here to report that cooking it in goose fat and duck fat is a judicious remedy.)
I have now been to Charleston twice. And it has become one of my very favorite places to visit. Besides the food (which we’ll get back to in a minute, if you’re still reading) it is about the prettiest city I’ve ever been. The southernmost tip of the city juts out into the harbor, and is filled with gorgeous old house with a lush, well-kept garden after gorgeous old house with a lush, well-kept garden. Impeccably preserved, all of them. Many of these houses are mansions, really, many of them built by plantation owners before the Civil War. (So there is lots of rich history there, some of it horrible.) Extending from the center of the city is the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, which is both architecturally attractive and will also carry you over the Cooper River into Mount Pleasant. Strangely named, Mount Pleasant, as there is no mountain there. But Ben Bridwell, of the lovely southern rock band called Band of Horses is from there, and so whenever I’ve driven over this bridge, I put on the car radio and hope to hear one of Band of Horses songs, which have a sound to match the way the surroundings look, and the town’s name, too.
Sadly, I’ve never been so lucky as to hear a Band of Horses song on the radio while driving over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, but I did hear Molly Hatchet’s “Flirting With Disaster” while doing so last week, and this was highly satisfying in its own way.
Out past Mount Pleasant, maybe fifteen minutes’ drive, is a smaller bridge which stretches over beautiful marshland to Sullivan’s Island, which is a sort of beach paradise that very lucky people get to live on. (One of those lucky people is my friend Sid, who I went to college with, and who is the editor of Garden & Gun magazine, which is a great magazine that just won a general excellence award at this week’s National Magazine Awards.) On Sullivan’s Island, a couple blocks in from the beach, there is a stretch of bars and restaurants, one of which is called Home Team Barbecue, and you should go here and order a Corona beer and a rack of ribs and have the vinegar sauce with it. If you do this, there is no way you’ll be anything other than very, very happy.
Here are some other things to make sure to eat if you go to Charleston:
1) The mafalde with saffron and crab at the Italian restaurant Lucca. (You know what? You should also get the fried mortadella and the cauliflower custard with egg yolk and pancetta from the starters menu if you go there.)
2) Biscuits at Poogan’s Porch.
3) Pork trotters with fried egg at F.I.G.
4) Pecan pie everywhere, at every restaurant, after every single meal.