Monday, October 19, 2009

Low Country Dining at Jestine's Kitchen

After checking out Hominy Grill in Charleston SC for some of its world famous shrimp and grits, I set my sights on another southern tradition: fried chicken. The recommendation came from an unexpected source: my friend's airport shuttle driver who doubled as a tour guide as she drove weary passengers into town. Her pick: Jestine's Kitchen. Located on Meeting Street near the heart of downtown Charleston, Jestine's even comes with a back story, and it goes something like this.

Jestine Matthews was a half Native American half African American woman who worked as a housekeeper for the Allison family in Charleston in the 1930's. Over the years members of the Allison family decided to honor the special bond they had with her and share with the world her home cooked recipes. Jestine died at the age of 112 in 1997 and the place is still owned and run by one of the members of the Allison family.

The menu was promising...comfort food staples like corn bread, collard greens, glazed ham, meatloaf. There's even something called Blue Collar Special: peanut butter and banana sandwich with potato chips. And southern whiting, which is a type of fried white fish. First things first though: traditional southern sweet tea, also known as Jestine's table wine and a small plate of pickles. Thirst quenching. Next, the starter: fried oysters over greens. I read that the oysters in Charleston were plump and juicy and perfect for frying. They were right. I can imagine these oysters in a Po Boy sandwich that would rival any in New Orleans.

And last but not least, the fried chicken. I will say after having some pretty good fried chicken in NYC such as the one at The Redhead, I was excited to try real southern fried chicken. With a side of fried okra, no less. Alas, my expectations were probably set too high. Don't get me wrong, one part of the chicken was great: crispy skin that is well flavored, not loaded up with batter so you can actually taste the skin. But the meat was a whole different story: dry and needed salt. And fried okra is not my thing...mushy and tasteless, nothing to write home about.

Still, I left pretty fulfilled, having beat the crowd (by noon the line was around the corner) and tasted a bit of Charleston history and home cooking. I had no room for dessert, but probably would have had a piece of Jestine's famous coca cola cake. With food like this, it's a wonder that everybody in Charleston isn't 500 lbs!

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