The sausage, egg and pimento cheese biscuit from Callie's Hot Little Biscuit in Charleston, South Carolina.

Charleston: the lowdown on the lowcountry

Everyone knows that Charleston is a must-visit culinary destination. I experienced Charleston traversing up and down King Street, one of its major culinary thoroughfares, on an extended weekend sampling what the lowcountry has to offer.

Here are the places that I visited:

Xiao Bao Biscuit
Visiting Xiao Bao Biscuit in Charleston is like meeting up with your too-cool-for-school friend. Hip, yet demure. An obvious member of the Asian gastronome cognoscenti, yet coyly casual. Much like Asheville’s Gan Shan Station, Xiao Bao Biscuit has taken residence inside a converted filling station in downtown Charleston.

On a Friday night, the quarters inside were packed with young couples and groups of friends. The lively energy reminded me of a past visit to Danny Bowen’s East coast outpost of Mission Chinese in New York City’s Lower East Side, where a certain hipster swath flock to at night to feast on updated versions of classic Asian dishes by prepared by a modernist vanguard.Like many trendy eateries today, XBB doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait if you’re traveling with a large group. The restaurant’s Asian-influenced dishes are intended to be shared around the table, so also come prepared to order more than one.

A bowl of mapo tofu from Xiao Bao Biscuit in Charleston, South Carolina.
A bowl of mapo tofu from Xiao Bao Biscuit in Charleston, South Carolina.

The okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake made with a combination of shredded cabbage, carrots and kale, perhaps is too feeble in texture for easy divvying from plate to plate, but the flavors from the dish with a lattice dressing of Kewpie mayo, sriracha and frikake seasoning meld well together. For an extra savory component, you would be wise to add the fresh farm egg on top that oozes out when you sever it with your chopsticks.

If you want to skip something on the menu (unless you’re vegetarian), it may be the yu xiang, fried Brussels sprouts and Chinese eggplant liberally tossed in salty fish and soy sauce. But, the dish at Xiao Bao Biscuit not to overlook is the mapo tofu, perhaps the crown jewel at the downtown eatery. As advertised, it’s a mouth-numbing Sichuan crimson explosion of silky tofu, ground pork bits and hot bean paste. Authentic Chinese restaurants each have their own version of the traditional dish, and XBB veers towards the salty, with a manageable spicy level that is mitigated by the bowl of steamed short grain rice that comes with each order.

Xiao Bao Biscuit | 224 Rutledge Avenue Charleston, SC 29401 |

Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit
When Northerners descend onto Southern soil, they tend to seek out certain comfort food staples: barbecue, fried chicken and biscuits. Hailing from North Carolina, that wasn’t so much the case for me, but I still was curious about Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit on King Street.

On a Saturday morning, the line snaked outside the door and spilled onto the King Street sidewalk. Not surprising considering the cramped quarters inside the long and narrow confines of the biscuit shop that, according to the cashier at the front counter, used to be a hair salon.

While you wait in line after you decide which biscuit you want to order, you might find yourself rummaging through the bagged assortments of biscuit and grit mixes that Callie’s HLB sells on the side wall. Not surprisingly, the biscuit mixes (made with White Lily unbleached self-rising flour) and its prized pimento cheeses are amongst the best sellers.

The biscuit grease-stained box from Callie's Hot Little Biscuit in Charleston, South Carolina.
The biscuit grease-stained box from Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit in Charleston, South Carolina.

Swayed by the special written on the chalkboard, I opt for the sausage, egg and pimento cheese biscuit and a cup of its French press coffee. At Callie’s HLB, you order and then step to side alley way to wait in another long line to receive your order.

It’s a bit of strange set up to wait in the teensy alleyway and watch as harried and overtaxed employees scramble to assemble orders in the tiny kitchen. The view is unobstructed due to the low wall separating the customers from the kitchen staff and a pair of old-school whitewashed saloon doors that sway back and forth continuously as the barista struggles to keep up with morning French press coffee orders. Understandably, Callie’s is a casual, grab-and-go kind of joint, but I certainly expected that kitchen staff would have more than a portable burner to prepare scrambled and fried eggs that only exacerbate long wait times for biscuit orders.

Regardless, the breakfast biscuit sandwich at Callie’s HLB is a towering mass, and stuffed with heaping schmear of oozing pimento cheese, egg and sausage, a satisfying treat in the morning. Is it the best biscuit that I’ve ever had? No. Is it worth the special trip to seek it out? Perhaps.

At $24 for two sandwiches and two cups of French press coffee, it’s certainly not inexpensive, but I’ve definitely had better casual breakfast experiences at the same cost (I liked my experience at Asheville’s Biscuit Head way more). But, it’s probably worth it to see what the chatter is all about it. Especially if you’re from up North.

Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit | 476 King Street Charleston SC 29403 | 843.737.5159

The Ordinary
I arrived at The Ordinary in Charleston by way of an out-of-an-ordinary circumstance. I had been stalking the OpenTable reservations for FIG, its sister restaurant, for weeks until I was informed that it was going to be closed for renovations the weekend that I was in town.

So, truthfully, The Ordinary was a consolation prize, but not a shabby one. The restaurant on King Street operates as a seafood and oyster hall, one that they refer to as an American brasserie.Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of raw oysters, so my husband and I opt for the seafood leaning dishes. The steak tarte and crispy oysters dish is a melliflous symphony of flavors–one that packs a hearty punch of acidity.

The squid ink rice grits and grilled shrimp is an interesting take on a Southern classic though I fail to taste the briny flavor from the squid ink that I usually savor. My husband and I finish with a plate of lightly-battered rock shrimp and sweet potato that is fried to perfectly delicate crisp, but excuse the pun, didn’t feel anything of the ordinary.

In fact, what stands out the most at The Ordinary is the attentive service. Servers constantly attend to each table, retrieving dishes and refilling drinks, with the utmost attentiveness.

The Ordinary | 544 King Street Charleston SC 29403 | 843.414.7060

Peninsula Grill
The legend of the Ultimate Coconut Cake (it’s officially registered!) at Charleston’s Peninsula Grill preceded any expectations out of any dessert in Charleston, so one night when my husband and I were craving a sweet treat, we trekked over to Peninsula Grill and bought a slice to-go. The hostess did not seem fazed by the request and apparently, it was one that wasn’t too uncommon.

At nearly $13 a slice, trying the Ultimate Coconut Cake is not cheap, but the reward for the decadent dessert is worth it. The multi-layer cake, true to its reputation, is moist and flavorful, all without being overly sweet enough to make your judgy dentist shake his head in disappointment.

Ultimate Coconut Cake from Peninsula Grill in Charleston, SC
A slice of the Ultimate Coconut Cake from Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina.

The coconut and vanilla cream cheese filling is light and airy with a conducive density to slice through with a fork. The toasted coconut crumbs on the side gives the cake a nice crunchy texture to underscore the rest of the silky layered cake.

The Ultimate Coconut Cake is so sought after by its fans that customers can order the confection online. The price to get a whole cake sent to your doorstep? $130.

Peninsula Grill | 112 N. Market Street Charleston SC 29401 | 843.723.0700

Five Loaves Café
There any many times that I’m reminded that I’m not far removed from college and in my early 30’s now. Brunch at Five Loves Café in Charleston on a Sunday morning was one of those times.

The cozy café focused on serving no-nonsense casual, locally-sourced foods is clearly a favorite amongst College of Charleston students that live nearby. After sampling its Chicken Cobb Salad and a cup of its tarragon, tomato and crabmeat soup, I can see the reasons why by its popularity amongst the younger crowd–good quality food at a reasonable price.

The whole salad portion is gigantic and chock full of local greens, avocado, smoked bacon and bleu cheese crumbles. If I ever return, I’ll remember to order the half-portion. The tomato and crabmeat soup is particuarly piquant in herbacious flavor.

Though serviceable, the biscuits and gravy at Five Loaves are probably worth overlooking–the biscuits are a bit lifeless and not helped by gravy that seems to be an afterthought.

Five Loaves Café | 43 Cannon Street Charleston SC 29403 | 843.937.4303

Husk
Anyone familar with Charleston’s dining scene knows about Sean Brock’s Southern restaurant Husk on Queen Street. I won’t belabor the superlatives about the Charleston eatery that aren’t already well-publicized (that drink list!), but I will say that it didn’t let me down on a return trip.

The chicken entreé is executed immaculately so much so that I am bewildered by its moistness and perfect crispy skin on the outside. Surrounded by a melange of sweet peas and winter root vegetables, the only detraction from the dish is the pan-fried potato dumplings–the filling is just too mushy for my personal preference.

If I had to order again from that night’s menu, I might swing for my husband’s choice that night, a succulent serving of juicy duck confit served with barbecue cabbage and sweet potatoes. The unctuousness of the duck, restrained by the tartness of apple and tangerine, pairs well with the other elements in the dish to give a ying-and-yang complement of both the savory and the sweet.

The standard sides–the hot skillet of its famous Allan Benton‘s bacon cornbread and the Geechie Boy Mill grits are must orders for the uninitiated. Both are luxuriously comforting on a cold winter’s day.

Husk | 76 Queen Street Charleston SC 28401 | 843.577.2500

Extra note: If you’re walking along King Street and the main touristy drag searching for a good cup of coffee that isn’t from Starbucks, check out a place nearby called Kudu. The coffeehouse and craft beer bar has a good selection of local coffee and beers.

Though we explored Charleston through food that extended weekend, I’m still looking forward to explore even more next time.

On the to-try list for next time? 167 Raw, Halls Chophouse and Two Boroughs Larder

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