Saturday, February 5, 2011

Southern Fried Road Trip (Part 2)

This is the day we ate four southern-sized meals in twelve hours.  As painful on my intestinal tract as these twelve hours were, it was honestly one of the best food days of my life.  The day had come for us to finally meet some proper Carolina BBQ, as well as that good 'ol Southern soul food.  This was pretty much the only part of our trip that we had actually planned out but it was also bit of a Hail Mary play.  We had learned about our two main destinations from Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt series, that had aired back in 2006.  He had touted them as the best bbq and fried chicken in the south.  It's been a bad couple of years in the states, so we weren't sure if these places would still be around.  We decided to take a gamble all in the name of great food discovery and a bit of adventure. 

We woke and went down to check out the "continental breakfast" at our hotel.  Expecting some packaged croissants and a bad coffee, we were surprised to find a buffet of greasy delights.  We enjoyed fresh baked biscuits topped with sausage patties and gravy.  The best part of the buffet was the bowl of fruit in the corner that had obviously not been touched since the last Canadians were in town and was slowly rotting.

Next up Carolina Smoke House in Cashiers, North Carolina.
As we drove for hours, up and up and up one of the windiest, most lovely tree-lined roads, deeper and deeper into the middle of nowhere, we were literally giddy with anticipation of our first mouthful.  Driving with the windows down we got intermittent whiffs of smokey pits filled with meat.  The anticipation was almost too much to bear.  When we pulled up in front of the restaurant, we were greeted by the sight of a group of bikers.  Thinking that we had pulled into a bit of a backwoods biker hangout, I left my vintage Louis bag in the trunk, so as not to appear too flashy.  We walked in and grabbed a table right beside four ladies right out of "The Real Housewives of..." - decked out with Louis bags (I suspect from the actual Louis store) and UGGS... ha!  I guess pit-smoked BBQ is the Holt's Cafe of Cashiers, NC.

On to the food...  Here is where I fell in looooove with sweet tea, and learned two things:
  1. Beverages only come in one size: gargantuan.  I actually needed two hands to lift the glass to my mouth. 
  2. Refills are always included (and expected!) and you are always offered a to-go cup, just in case the first 20 litres of liquid wasn't enough to satisfy your thirst.  But when in Rome, I say bring on the refills!  I probably drank enough sweet tea to drown a horse.
And now, the most important part of our journey.  The meat.  Zac ordered the chopped pork sandwich and I had ribs.  Both of them came with fries, coleslaw and texas toast.  The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender (well, the chopped pork didn't have bones, but you get it...) and had the most amazingly smokey flavour.  As I raised a rib to my mouth the smell of the smoker filled my nose, and when I bit in, my mouth was filled with a beautifully smokey sweetness, as the meat practically dissolved on my tongue.  I was in love.

Now here's the problem with our plan: it turned out that the two places we most desperately wanted to hit were only an hours drive apart.  There was no chance of us picking only one, so knowing that we would be having a second lunch in about an hour, we planned on eating enough to just get a solid taste for BBQ and leave room for a second course of soul food.  As you can see, we pretty much polished off our plates.  Oops.

Second Lunch was Shirley's Sole Food Cafe in Toccoa, Georgia.
Shirley's definitely jumps to the top of my list as far as favorite things we did during our road trip.  With to-go cups of sweet tea in hand, we packed ourselves back into the car and headed for Georgia.  As I mentioned before, this is one of the two destinations we actually had planned to hit and this was the restaurant we deemed least likely to pan out.  At least the Smoke House has a website that seemed to be up to date.  Heading to Shirley's was a bigger gamble, but we couldn't resist giving it a go.  After an hour's drive, we reached Toccoa, GA. and with baited breath we kept our eyes pealed for Shirley's.  As our GPS loudly proclaimed "arriving at destination on right" our hearts quickly sank when Shirley's didn't appear.  We continued to drive through the sad and dilapidated downtown, and just as we were about to give up, Shirly's appeared at the bottom of a hill.  It looked pretty deserted and the conversation turned to positive sounding banter about how the ride was fun anyway and we'd already had a great meal at the last place, yada yada.  We pulled over to take a look inside and when I tried the door, it was locked.  Suddenly, I saw someone inside and he was walking towards the door.  He was a very soft-spoken, very shy man with an incredibly thick southern accent.  From what I could understand, they were closed for the day because they were preparing meals for a fundraiser that was being held that night.  I began to walk away but he opened the door and asked if we were hungry and wanted to eat.  I excitedly, and somewhat quizzically said "yes?"  He went back inside to talk to Shirley, and came back shortly to invite us inside.  Over the moon doesn't even describe how thrilled I was.  Shirley explained that they were having a fundraiser that evening where people would be able to buy a pre-packed meal for $7 and all the money was being donated to a local shelter.  She happily sold us one (we politely declined a second.  After all, this was our second lunch in an hour).  We thanked her profusely as I exclaimed "we drove all the way from Toronto just to try your chicken!"  Takeout containers in hand we headed outside (so they could continue prepping) and plopped ourselves down in the parking lot to break into the goods.

Inside was one half of a roasted chicken, beans, coleslaw, a couple slices of Wonderbread, applesauce and a nice big cup of sweet tea.  As thrilled as we were to have been so lucky, when we opened the container, we were disappointed to discover that the chicken was roasted and not fried (we went to Shirley's specifically for the fried chicken), but were still beyond excited that we had an amazing stroke of luck and Shirley had opened her doors to feed us.  One taste of that chicken and all of our disappointment disappeared.  Here we were, trying to be all classy with our plastic forks in the parking lot, but one bite of that chicken had us quickly ditching our utensils so we could devour the meal as quickly as possible.  I'm pretty sure that we didn't even speak until the chicken had been picked clean.  BEST chicken of my life!  I'm seriously not exaggerating.  I still dream about it.  So Second Lunch, that we had decided we would just get a taste of, disappeared much like lunch number one.  When Zac reached for the wonder bread, I nearly lost it.  I couldn't believe that he was even considering eating it.  Turns out, he's a pretty clever gent.  One thing that was missing from our meal was napkins and it turns out that Wonderbread makes a pretty great substitute.

I wish I had had more time to chat with Shirley but she was really busy preparing all the meals for that evening.  I was so grateful that she had let us in and fed us that I didn't dare take up any more of her time.  Someday,  I'll have to go back to shoot a portrait of Shirley and try her fried chicken.

Dinner that night, which we barely managed to drag ourselves to, was at Greenwood's Restaurant in Roswell, Georgia.  Now this was an absolute gem of a find that we literally stumbled across. Everything is made in-house from scratch with local, organic, seasonal ingredients.  Everything that touched my tongue was almost too good to be true.  The fried chicken is made to order and has the kind of incredibly crunchy and sophisticated batter that I thought only existed in my dreams.  Even the sides were beyond words.  Zac and I spent the entire evening trying to figure out how they make the sweet potatoes... we're pretty sure one of the tricks is vanilla, but honestly, we'd never tasted sweet potatoes like these!  Oh! and the cheese grits... swoon.  Sadly, there are two things I regret about this trip and they both came about because of Greenwood's.  The first is not having had a piece of pie and the second is forgetting the leftovers in the hotel room fridge the next morning (this I'm pretty sure I'll never forgive myself for).
I would have to say that if you are in the Atlanta, GA area, Greenwoods is an absolute must.  A word of advice.  Go on an empty stomach.  Actually, don't eat for three days prior.  Get the fried chicken and share it between at least two people, and for the love of god, at least get the pie and take it home for later!

We rolled ourselves back to our hotel, bloated and over-satisfied, where we swore that we would never eat again.  After we brushed our teeth, I sneaked into our little fridge, where we had stowed away our leftovers, ate a mouthful of sweet potato and a piece of the crispy chicken skin, then crawled into bed to dream about the food I would eat the next day.

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