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Carolina Dine Around - December 26, 2021

Tenth anniversaries and a rather tepid boom

Lawrence Barbecue was one of the notable new arrivals on the Triangle's BBQ scene
Lawrence Barbecue was one of the notable new arrivals on the Triangle's BBQ scene (Anna Routh Barzin)

By Robert F. Moss

It’s time for a special day-after-Christmas edition of the Carolina Dine Around, our weekly digest of food and beverage news from around the Carolinas.

Thanks to the holidays, it was a rather slow news week on the F&B front. Despite nervous glances at spiking Covid-19 charts, restaurants were hopping in the run up to Christmas, and restaurateurs and their teams had their hands full just keeping up. Meanwhile, most of the food writers and reporters in the Carolinas seem to have filed their last dispatches of the year and are now off cooking a goose or whatever they do when they aren’t scribbling away on deadline.

But we did manage to turn up a few items of note this week. So let’s dig in.

Charleston

The Grocery Decade

The Grocery is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month, and the restaurant posted chef/owner Kevin Johnson’s opening menu on its Instagram feed this week, accompanied by one of those wide-eyed, eyebrow-raised emojis.

One of the things that changed during the restaurant’s first decade is the organizational concept of the menu. The original from 2011 was arranged by size, with five $4 “snacks” followed by ten “bites”, eight “tastes”, three “plates”, and three big “table” entries that included a whole roasted fish. The current menu has just three sections that group dishes by main ingredient—produce, seafood, and meat—regardless of size, so country pâté ($14) and strip loin with potato gratin ($38) appear together under “Meat”.

A single dish from the opening night’s menu is still there today: the fried oysters with deviled egg sauce, which was a “bite” back in 2011 and is “seafood” today. Here’s how I described it in my review of The Grocery for the Charleston City Paper in February 2012, just two months after the restaurant opened:

The fried oysters ($10) have a down-home twist. Oyster half-shells are spread with a bright orange “deviled egg sauce,” the fried oyster placed back inside and topped with a floppy bread and butter chip. The deviled egg sauce adds a splendid richness to the crisp oysters, and the tangy bite of the bread and butter pickle at the end caps it perfectly.

By the time I visited for the review, the price of those oysters had already gone up a buck from the opening night’s $9. A decade later they cost $14, which, considering menu pricing trends in general, doesn’t seem like all that big of an increase—especially when you consider how damned delicious they are.

Happy first decade to Kevin Johnson and the whole team at the Grocery.

Sign of the Times

In a Post & Courier piece this week, Parker Milner profiles Kim Onam Brown, who has run the much-beloved Korean restaurant Mama Kim’s on King Street since 2003. My favorite detail from the interview captures in a nutshell how much our dining culture has changed in just two decades.

When Mama Kim’s first opened, Milner reports, few locals knew anything about Korean food, and most of those who did had served overseas in the military. Not these days.

Kim recalled one young woman [recently] who ordered from the menu like a pro.

“You must be from military,” Kim remembers telling her.

The girl replied she was not, but had instead learned the terms from K-Pop . . .

See? We are much more sophisticated these days.

Tiki Takes a Dive

Karalee Nielsen Fallert of All Good Industries, the restaurant group behind Taco Boy and the Park Cafe, announced on Instagram this week that her group’s tropical-themed Wiki Wiki Sandbar on Folly Beach will close at the end of the year and re-emerge in the spring as a new iteration of the group’s popular downtown dive bar the Royal American.

Triangle

Still Waiting for That BBQ Boom

Brisket and turkey are among the not-so-traditional North Carolina offerings at Lawrence Barbecue
Brisket and turkey are among the not-so-traditional North Carolina offerings at Lawrence Barbecue (Anna Routh Barzin)

Almost exactly two years ago, Drew Jackson of the News & Observer boldly predicted that 2020 would be the year when “Raleigh will become a barbecue capital.” And then that whole Covid-19 thing happened.

But hope springs eternal, and Jackson is back at it again, asserting this week that “the promise of barbecue glory remains” for the Triangle and that “our great NC barbecue revival, slowed by the pandemic, will heat back up in 2022.”

I’m not so sure about that. As I reported a few months ago here in the Dispatch, it seems that Raleigh’s barbecue future has already arrived, and the details from Jackson’s own story support that notion. He tabulates the new barbecue restaurants that did manage to open since March 2020—Prime BBQ in Knightdale, Lawrence Barbecue in the BoxyardRTP development, Sam Jones BBQ in downtown Raleigh—and he notes that a few other existing restaurants have additional locations in the works.

But these are just a fraction of the planned openings that sparked such barbecue optimism at the end of 2019, and many of those projects have been canceled permanently. The few places that did open, as Jackson’s piece underscores, tend to cook in more of a new-school barbecue style than in traditional North Carolina ones (Sam Jones BBQ being the notable exception). That means Texas-style smoked brisket sliced to order and served on paper-lined trays.

There’s nothing wrong with that mode of barbecue—indeed, both Prime and Lawrence made my recent list of the Best New BBQ Joints in the South for Southern Living. But simply having a few respectable brisket joints isn’t likely to transform Raleigh into a must-visit BBQ capital.

If you happen to live in the area then it’s nice to have a few promising new options for good barbecue (especially if your definition of good barbecue involves brisket.) But is anyone going to book a plane ticket to RDU just to eat barbecue? Would anyone even drive in from Asheville or Charleston to check it out, bypassing Lexington or Ayden along the way? I doubt it.

Maybe we can call Raleigh a new barbecue county seat and leave it at that.

Charlotte

Keeping It Cool in Charlotte

Symphony Webber of Axios Charlotte tallied up the new restaurant arrivals in Charlotte in just the 4th quarter of this year and came up with 14 “cool openings,” including museum restaurant Mariposa, tropical cocktail bar The Royal Tot, enthusiastic donut shop OMG Donuts, and square pizza company Emmy Squared. No report on how many lame openings there were.

Asheville

The new Asheville outpost of Linton Hopkins’s Atlanta restaurant Holeman & Finch opened December 2nd, and Eater Carolinas sent Kay West and Luke Van Hine in for a first look.

Bite of the Week

The chicken liver mousse (second from top) leads the all-star line up on Slightly North of Broad's charcuterie plate
The chicken liver mousse (second from top) leads the all-star line up on Slightly North of Broad's charcuterie plate

The best bite of my week was hands-down the chicken liver mousse at Slightly North of Broad in Charleston. Years ago, SNOB was the first place I encountered a serious charcuterie plate, back at a time when few restaurants served charcuterie in any form much less made their own in house. Some two decades later, their plate (and, yes, it comes on an elegant earthenware plate, not a rustic board) remains as good as any in the city, and the rich, luxurious mousse is the best thing on the palte.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the founder and publisher of The Southeastern Dispatch as well as the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.