Shrimp and grits – check.
Pit-cooked barbecue – check.
Cornbread and collards – check.
Think you’re done with your tour of South Carolina’s best eats? Not by a long shot. The Palmetto State is rich in culinary traditions and always on the cusp of new trends destined to sweep the South and beyond. Let us thrill your taste buds with flavors – some fresh, some time-honored, some a bit of both – that help define South Carolina’s robust food scene. Here are 10 recommendations to add to your foodie bucket list.
1. Garlic Crabs – If you like your crustaceans crunchy and spicy, this Lowcountry delicacy is a must. Fresh from local waters, hard-shell crabs are cleaned, seasoned and dredged, then fried up to crusty perfection before being dunked in spicy garlic butter. You can pick the plump meat but some garlic crab lovers waste little, chomping all the way down to the bottom carapace. Belly up to the counter of one of the region’s many crab houses – modest establishments with little-to-no seating – and snag an order. Then head to your nearest picnic table, porch or park and start digging in. Try Ravenel’s in Ravenel, Charlie Brown Seafood and Marvin’s Seafood, both in North Charleston,Nana’s Seafood and Soul in Charleston and Fishnet Seafood on Johns Island. Call first to check availability. Note: Bring plenty of paper towels and don't wear your best clothes. Eating garlic crabs is a messy affair, but every bit worth the trouble.
2. South Carolina Oysters – Oyster lovers will fall hard for the meaty bivalve beauties harvested from South Carolina’s bays, salt marshes and tidal creeks. With taste profiles ranging from sweet and salty to bold and briny, the state’s oysters are considered some of the tastiest in the nation. South Carolina is home to several stellar oyster farms that harvest from September through April. Dine out for a sampling of their best; call establishments first to confirm availability. Among the many restaurants serving up locally sourced oysters in season are Nance’s Creekfront in Murrells Inlet, Amen Street Fish and Raw Bar, The Ordinary, Husk and Bowens Island Restaurant in Charleston, and a bit further south, Bluffton Seafood House, the dining arm of the state’s only traditional oyster house.
3. Pimento Cheese Burgers – For Columbia-area burger lovers, the question isn’t “Where’s the beef?” but rather “Where’s the cheese?” Pimento cheese, that is. Indeed, the creamy, gooey spread has been the crowning touch of choice in capital city burger joints for more than five decades. The taste mash-up of char-grilled beef and sharp, tangy pimento cheese is a match made in hamburger heaven. Sure – you can likely find pimento cheese burgers all over the state. But head to the original birthplace for a taste of tradition at old-school sandwich shops such as Mathias Sandwich Shop in Irmo, The Kingsman in Cayce and, in Columbia, Rockaway Athletic Club and Rosewood Dairy Bar.
4. Gourmet Goobers – When South Carolinians want something lip-smacking to munch on, chances are they have a hankering for warm boiled peanuts. These gently cooked and seasoned legumes are breaking snack-time barriers and making surprise appearances in the most unlikely dishes. In fact, they are commonly referred to as “the Caviar of the South.” While, for many, eating these soft and salty goobers on the half shell is the preferred method of enjoyment (and you should definitely follow suit if you’ve never had the pleasure), don’t be shy about going rogue if you see a boiled peanut dish on the menu. Statewide, chefs are adding them to salads, whipping them into hummus, serving them up in soups and featuring them in dishes such as baked beans and succotash. For starters, curious culinary tourists might try the tomato, corn and boiled peanut salad at Charleston’s Fat Hen. Or dip into the boiled peanut hummus at Husk, also in Charleston, Soby’s in Greenville, and Liberty Tap Room & Grill in Columbia, among others. Of course, if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can always snag a bag of boiled peanuts from a roadside stand and substitute them for the beans in your favorite recipes.
5. Southern Field Peas – Fresh field peas are cropping up on menus across the state. For more than 300 years, these humble legumes – also called cowpeas – provided affordable sustenance to South Carolinians. Now, they are delighting a whole new generation of diners thanks to chefs dedicated to honoring the state’s culinary legacy. Each mouthful of peas delivers an earthy, authentic taste of South Carolina. Venture beyond the ubiquitous black-eyed pea and try crowder, purple hull, cream, Lady Island red and other varieties. Look for them on the menus of some of the state’s most lauded eateries, where the field peas are often served “Hoppin’ John” style with rice or smoked with greens. You can also find them freshly hulled at area farmer’s markets in the warmer months or order them dried from suppliers such as Anson Mills. It will be your good luck to experience this quintessential South Carolina delicacy either way you go.
6. Carolina Gold Rice – Whether forming the foundation of a shrimp purloo, appearing side by side with field peas in Hoppin’ John, or served buttered as a side dish, South Carolina Gold Rice is a stand-out. Its distinctive fluffiness and sweet taste can heft the simplest dishes to extraordinary levels. That’s why chefs and cooks rely on it to give their creations authentic South Carolina flavor. Carolina Gold Rice made its way here from Madagascar and was first planted in the late 1600s, effectively launching the state's 200-year history of rice cultivation. A major cash crop in South Carolina during the 1700s, rice saw its glory days wane in the wake of war, economic issues and hurricanes. Eventually, Carolina Gold disappeared altogether from the fields of South Carolina. But it's back, thanks to operations such as Plumfield Plantation in Darlington County, where the rice is grown and sold under the Carolina Plantation brand. You can purchase bags of Carolina Gold in many grocery stores or order online. Cook up a pot and bring a taste of 18th-century South Carolina to your dinner table.
7. Carolina Reaper Pepper Sauce – If you know someone who brags about their hot sauce prowess, here’s your chance to take them down a notch. South Carolina is home to the Carolina Reaper, the hottest pepper in the world – a distinction confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records. You can take the hot pepper challenge by stopping by the Puckerbutt Pepper Company in Fort Mill. There, you’ll find a host of tasty sauces made from the Carolina Reaper pepper, which measures a whopping 1,569,300 heat units on the Scoville scale. Pepper-heads from around the world stop in to test their mettle on this pepper that’s so hot, one tiny bite caused their cultivator, "Smokin’ Ed" Currie, to fall on the floor and hallucinate. Don’t say we didn’t warn you …
8. “First Flush” American Classic Tea – Despite the unappetizing moniker, the term “first flush” is your clue that you’re about to taste the champagne of locally grown tea. If you time it right, you can indulge in a sample at Charleston Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island, the nation’s only commercial tea operation and home of American Classic Tea. A reference to the rapid growth of new tea leaves that occurs with the onset of spring – typically in April or May – first flush tea is said to deliver a pure and unparalleled tea drinking experience. In Britain and European countries, this tea was only served to kings, queens and other dignitaries.
9. Peach Enchiladas – Just outside the sleepy town of McBee (FYI: pronounced Mac-Bee, just in case you need to ask directions) lies the sprawling orchards and fields of McLeod Farms. More than 20 varieties of peaches are grown here, harvested and shipped out across the US and to Canada. California is the only state that produces more peaches than South Carolina, though we think ours are tastier! In fact, South Carolina peaches are so popular that they are the official state fruit. While McLeod Farm’s Mac’s Pride peaches are super juicy and sweet, locals and travelers come to the farm’s onsite market to indulge in something that’s even more delicious: buttery, cinnamon-sprinkled peach enchiladas. The multi-award winning recipe, in which fresh peach slices are wrapped in dough, baked up and served with a scoop of ice cream, are in high demand at the shop’s ice cream parlor and bakery. Enjoy a decadent peach enchilada from the comfort of a porch rocker as you look out over the bucolic landscape. And do keep the directions to McLeod Farms in your GPS – you’ll definitely want to come back for more peach yumminess.
10. House-made Charcuterie – Order it as an appetizer or enjoy it as a light meal. Either way, you’ll be glad you did. When Charleston chefs first began creating charcuterie from locally sourced meats, it started a movement that spread across the state. Curing meats for charcuterie is a science and an art, with a little culinary magic sprinkled in to bring them both together. You can taste the mastery of South Carolina charcuterie wizards when noshing on spicy salami, sausage, smoky ham, prosciutto, mortadella and creamy pate arranged on boards alongside cheeses, pickles, breads and smears of grainy mustard. Some establishments where you can pursue the finest charcuterie pleasures include American Grocery Restaurant in Greenville, Motor Supply Company in Columbia and, in Charleston, Edmund’s Oast, The Granary, The Grocery, The MacIntosh and Slightly North of Broad, where even head cheese has been elevated to a food of the gods.