Restaurant Love Letters: Serial Grillers
In this new column, contributors, readers, fellow chefs, and casual diners share their “Restaurant Love Letters.” It’s our hope that this series highlights the spirit of hospitality, the importance of restaurants and dining culture to our economy, and more critically, to the fabric of our daily lives. This is our way of saying thank you to the industry, we appreciate you, and we’ll be waiting here for you when you get back.
Editor’s Note: Today’s love letter is written by Life & Thyme contributor, whose new book Serial Griller is available now. In today’s entry, Matt takes us on a tour of some of those restaurants featured in its pages.
As we are all stuck at home, my hope is that my travels provide a bit of respite and recognition to those folks who need our kindness and support. Eventually, we will return to a new normal, but certainly one thing will remain consistent—good food and good company will always survive.
There is perhaps one medium more important than any other that quantifies, highlights and celebrates our differences as people. I’ve forever espoused that cooking and sharing food with others is our chance to unify our world—to celebrate all that is good in us. Despite our differences, our sense of taste and desire for community can be bound and fostered completely in the world of gastronomy.
The art and experience of cooking over fire was just as relevant to our primal ancestors as it is today in Mumbai, Isfahan, or Greenwood, Mississippi, where I find myself poised on a street corner.
In Greenwood, for Sylvester and Mary Hoover—the proprietors of Hoover’s Grocery—it’s another Saturday where Sylvester fires up his charcoal grill to serve his 3 Down Ribs and BBQ Chicken to the community. Mary—or Ann, as Sylvester calls her—is busy inside whipping up her famous baked beans and peach cake.
Hoover’s is the last stop on my ten thousand-mile journey by road and in the friendly skies in my ‘76 Piper Cherokee to document subjects for my new cookbook, Serial Grillers. Having just finished promoting and touring my last cookbook and homage to barbecue, The South’s Best Butts, I wanted to ditch the “low and slow” barbecue mantra to discover all things hot and fast. The chef and author Martha Foose pointed me to Hoover’s, and boy was I glad to journey to the Delta to capture their story.
A few weeks earlier, I pass an afternoon in the hill country of Comanche County, Texas. Here, I met Jerry Baird—creator of Jerry Baird’s Seasonings & Rubs—a Texan who believes the Lone Star State is the brightest in the Union, carrying on the centuries-old tradition of chuckwagon cooking. Baird cooks up a mess of food throughout the afternoon—ribeye steaks, dutch oven yeast rolls, okra, and Sunday cobbler are all fashioned over hardwood coals. The food is delectable, and the conversation is even better. As the smoke rises and fire crackles throughout the afternoon, Baird tells the kind of tall tales (“cow tales,” as he calls them) that could entertain those who spend their lives isolated for weeks on the plains.
It’s hard to compete with a legendary man like Baird, but if there’s one strong contender, it would have to be Meathead. He’s perhaps the most well-known voice in our country on all things barbecue and fire. Standing in his backyard in Brookfield, Illinois, I’m reminded why a live fire feels so good while the March lake-effect winds bring in a bitter cold that chills my bones.
A former wine critic, Meathead pours a luscious bordeaux as we start in on a method he’s dubbed “redneck sous-vide”—perhaps better known as a reverse sear on a few dry-aged ribeye steaks. Part critic, part scientist, Meathead has staked a living as editor and founder of Amazingribs.com where he teaches the world how to perfect its backyard game. We fire up a few grills, and I trail him (alongside his golden retriever, Reese) as he cooks up a vast array of steaks using various methods, like the reverse sear, vigneron (over dried grape vines), and afterburner (over the charcoal chimney). Each method produces a unique result that makes you appreciate someone who lives out the art in name, but also dedicates practice to a delicious craft.
My wife often tells me my food writing and travels are my own personal journals—and that we could never work together. Nothing could be further from that statement for Marcus Jacobs and Caitlin Carney, the husband-and-wife duo running Marjie’s Grill off Broad Street in New Orleans. Marcus is a genius when it comes to working with beef ribs, crispy pig tails, and half-chickens over a constantly-burning live fire. He is heavily influenced by his years spent working with Donald Link, and also his travels to Southeast Asia, claiming his cuisine keeps “one foot in Louisiana and one foot in the Mekong Delta.” Marcus is also shy about his gifts. “What can I say?” says Caitlin. “He’s the talent and I’m his handler.” Caitlin’s front-of-house expertise and quirky design have established this place into the best restaurant in New Orleans. Perhaps this is a bold statement, but I’ll gladly stand behind it.
I once again find myself flying in my little Piper Cherokee, this time to God’s Country—Athens, Georgia, to track down one of the best hamburgers at my beloved Alma Mater, The Grill, which sits just north of the University of Georgia campus. Some purists might take aim, but cooking on a flattop is the best method for fresh-ground meat—the right mix of even char from the maillard reaction while the burger cooks in its own juices. The Grill was primarily my place of late-night refuge during my college years. At some point, you would think a place like this would start to take some shortcuts; but have no fear, they still grind their meat daily and cut their signature fries by hand each morning.
After a night in Athens, I hop back into the Cherokee to navigate Atlanta’s Class B airspace, landing at Fulton Brown field where I head another ten miles to south Atlanta. Normally, grillmaster Carlton Brandon—or Cadillac, as he’s called—is cooking delicious eats outside The Clermont Lounge, a late night Atlanta institution of revelry. But today, we’re in a nondescript neighborhood in South Atlanta where Cadillac has his smoker on the street, and an axe lies next to it; he’s chopping up his firewood to serve as a base for his flanken ribs, quail and spare ribs. I will forever remember the grilled jalapeno dipped in sea salt, chased with a fatty beef rib—the best bite of my tour.
For Edgar Caro, chef at Brasa outside of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina was exactly what led him to create his restaurant empire. Growing up in Colombia, Caro nearly put the lunch lady out of business at his school when he started making up his own sandwiches at recess and selling them to his fellow classmates.
When Caro came to America for University, he worked a few restaurant jobs pursuing his passion for high-end cuisine—until the high waters hit New Orleans. Having lost his way of living, he worked in construction to rebuild the city, using the funds he earned to start his first restaurant, which now includes a handful of locations throughout the city. I’ve come to Brasa, however, to get a taste of Caro’s authentic flare for cooking over live coals—or brasas—in true South American style.
For most “serial grillers” and restaurateurs, doing what you love also comes with doing all of the other little things. For Brooks Reitz, owner of Leon’s Oyster Shop in Charleston, South Carolina, that means picking up the trash around the restaurant, constantly arranging chairs and shaking hands, and small talk with all of the patrons and staff who want the acknowledgement from the head honcho. Reitz happily obliges, demonstrating a sense of Southern charm that makes his eateries so welcoming. Leon’s might be known primarily for its fried chicken, but I’ve set my taste buds on the char-grilled oysters. I ate a few dozen of the meaty, tender oysters throughout my day, chasing them with cocktails designed by Reitz’s other business, the Jack Rudy Cocktail Company, which specializes in tonics, bitters and other barware. Reitz is proof positive that you can be a jack of all trades, and master of many.
My travels to find the best of this kind of cuisine are quite vast, and every serial griller has their own local haunt. Mine happens to be less than a mile away from my home in East Nashville—GreKo Street Food. For cousins Bill and Tony Darsinos, GreKo is an homage to their homeland of Nemea, Greece. Most might think of beef and lamb gyros as cone concoctions that are sliced and served as bargain sandwiches for lunch or after the bars close; but true, authentic Greek street food couldn’t be further from this Americanized version. Souvlakis of tender pork collar are ordered by the dozen, alongside Athenian chicken with a honey-lemon drizzle and hand-cut fries dusted with mizithra cheese. The Darsinos cousins have been part of a restaurant empire in Middle Tennessee for over forty years, as their fathers opened pizzerias and other “safe” restaurants (those that American palates readily understood) when they immigrated to America to create a new life. But the smells and tastes of their youth wouldn’t give up, causing Bill and Tony to create one of the most unique restaurants in Nashville—or any part of the country for that matter.
I savor each and every moment with the subjects I met with, knowing each interaction provides a unique moment to capture a story and a place in time. The strange part of writing books is these stories often take years to find the light. Unfortunately, we lost Tony during that time. He was truly a light that lives on in story and in food.
Robert Frost once famously wrote “nothing gold can stay,” and as I’m stepping into Death & Taxes in Raleigh, North Carolina, for the final stop on this tour, I don’t want this journey to end. Chef Ashley Christensen is one of the nation’s most celebrated chefs, but she’s also quick to recognize head chef Lauren Ivey, her partner in the concept. “We’re having pork chops for breakfast,” Christensen tells me, and I feel right at home.
While I’m settled and comfortable at the restaurant, Christensen is insistent that we close the day at her residence. She’s onto something, as her backyard is filled with an array of grills and smokers. Although it starts to rain, Christensen maintains a barrel of hardwoods burning into coals as she finishes out dishes like grilled artichokes, soft shell crab, and embered sweet corn with lime and basil butter. Beyond the inviting interiors and comforting food, all of Christensen’s restaurants (Poole’s Diner, Death & Taxes, Beasley’s Chicken & Honey , to name a few) evoke a sort of social action to provide further motivation after a nourishing meal.
And the words “don’t forget kindness” are displayed on each of her restaurants’ exteriors.
Have a restaurant love letter you want to submit of your own? Reach out to us.