The abnormally arctic temperatures over the past month have made us all realize you can never truly outrun Mother Nature. Whether you’re a lifelong native or a “comya” that escaped winter for the year-round sun, sand and surf, it’s cold here right now.
Even when the temps hit the mid-70s during the day, by sunset it’s usually not eat-outside temperatures.
As much as we’re all trying to keep that New Year’s gym habit going strong into late January and beyond, it’s also the time when comfort food is beckoning us the most. We’re lucky in a warm climate that we don’t need that hot cocoa fix after shoveling out from under a foot of snow.
This is tricky for another reason. You ask most folks about comfort food and it’s all about Mom’s recipes that they cook at home. I’ve got mine for sure (more on that later), but we don’t always feel like cooking but still need that dish that, in one bite, delivers us a warm hug and kiss from Nana.
Cue the “Law and Order” music. Duh-DUH. These are those dishes.
Country Fried Steak, Cahill’s Market, Bluffton: I could have put a blank line in front of the restaurant name and said, “Insert dish here.” Every Cahill’s dish delivers on the promise of Southern comfort food. For me, it’s their catfish. Others will say the fried chicken, the fried pork chops, sweet potato casserole or collards. I must stop myself. I could name the whole menu. But when I pinned people down on which one delivers the biggest culinary Meemaw hug, it was this dish ri-chere.
Meatloaf and mashed potatoes, The Lunch Lady: This is the comfort food I get snobby about, because I simply have never gotten an eat-out meatloaf better than the tweaking I’ve done to my Mom’s recipe to make it my own. Mindi and Brandon’s meatloaf was a regular on their restaurant menu and they challenged me to try it when I shared my snobbery. I’m not willing to full-on concede, but the moistness and mix of tastes was a strong 1-A, I’ll say that. Sadly, the restaurant is no longer open, but you can still get this dish through catering.
Beef Cottage Pie and Carnoustie Chicken Pot Pies, British Open Pub: We’re always looking for the next hot thing in our lives, but sometimes, the OG’s still nail that dish. So is the case with BOP’s meat and chicken pies. They are scrumptious, as good as the shepherd’s and meat pies I’ve had in Dublin or Liverpool. To make this list, you have to have a history of delivering consistent excellence with the dish. This dish is the standard bearer for that principle.
Chicken Parmesan, Okatie Ale House: This is the dish I order the most when I’m out, because as adventurous as I want to be, there are just certain taste profiles I want in my tummy. Also, to me, if you’re an Italian restaurant, you must nail this dish or I won’t try the rest of the menu. And if you’re not an Italian spot and you nail it, then I know anything on your menu is going to rock. So is the case with OAH’s chicken parm. I’d estimate I’ve had this dish at 45 different spots up and down 278 and 170, from Port Royal to Calibogue Sound (including all the Italian spots) and the O’Gorman take is still the best.
Firkin Tots, Southern Barrel: Bluffton’s first brewery has a kick-arse pub menu to match their liquid creations. Personally, I’m a big fan of the 10 oz. Prop & Peller soft pretzel hung on a pretzel holder. The donuts and burgers are also delightful, but the fries and tots are stand-alone – and otherworldly when smothered in Hodhe’s mix of beer cheese, bacon and a melted cheddar blend.
Aloo hand pie, Okan: You’re going to thank us for this in six months after you’ve become addicted to the offering Chef Bernard at his new brick and mortar spot at The Bridge at Calhoun (set to open in late February-early March). For now, he has a groupie following of online stalkers waiting to see the next anchor spot for his food truck. We’ve been fortunate to sample his Western Caribbean offerings when we caught him as the featured food at Lot 9 Brewing Company. The flaky crust, cumin-spiced potatoes and Chadon beni sauce. The last bit here is a condiment mixing native to Trinidad and Tobago that I had previously never sampled and now can’t imagine living without. I fear this chef and eatery are going to be a James Corden-level of overexposed by the end of 2023. Try them now and you can say you were on it before it was cool.
Philly cheesesteak, Dominick’s: I’m not using words to justify this. Just go to their base in the Home Depot parking lot. You’ll see, and you’re welcome in advance.
Quesa birria tacos, La Birria Loca: Whoa, whoa, whoa. What’s with all the food trucks, Tim? Well, I raise my nose to your snobbery. The financial challenges of opening a brick and mortar may have fueled this craze but more and more, the folks that deliver one thing well in the truck do it better than most if not all sit-down eateries – and without me having to pay for their overhead. We will do a food truck update in the coming months, but this is one of the newer trucks that is slaying their specialty. Their mix tender, shredded meats and a mouth-watering, beg-them-for-the-recipe au jus make this a must inclusion on our list.
Red Cedar sandwich, Downtown Deli: This is like the twin that Bess’ Delicatesesen on the island has never met. She has been here longer and is still amazing, but Chef Ryan McCarthy has crafted a similar taste profile and made it distinctly his own – and I don’t have to cross the bridge to get it. Roast beef, melted cheddar, sauteed mushrooms and onions and horseradish mayo. Oh, baby! I am still befuddled as to why the meatball sub is off the menu (it would have made this list) and I desperately miss their breakfast sandwiches (they did breakfast back before there were 6,143 breakfast spots here), but this is a masterpiece that is even above those two past faves.
Pho, Saigan Café: Warm, salty, meaty, spicy. I’m short on words here, because more so than any dish on here, it’s the one words won’t do justice to (and I used way too many trying to explain Okan’s hand pie). This is a Vietnamese hug from ba noi.
Chicken pot pie soup, Nectar: Comfort soups is a whole other article, but I needed to include this because it’s so well done. We’re so happy to have this concept in Old Town. The chicken and waffles, the donuts, the tomato hand pie – again, plenty of dishes compete to dance with your taste buds here. But to choose just one, like in the case of Cahill’s, it’s this starter that truly fills you like a meal.
There will be many that feel cheated for not being on this list. The discussion will continue and this list will be fluid. For dishes like shrimp and grits and she crab soup, I don’t have a trusted consensus to name just one. The Huffman’s pulled pork at Bluffton BBQ, the Euro platter at Olive and Fig, the seafood chimi changas at Mi Tierrita, the fried chicken livers at Bluffton Room, the fried chicken at Duke’s or Olde House in Walterboro, any variety of Underground Burrito, the entire menu at Da Shack and Chef B’s Eatz, and yes, the pasta e fagioli at Olive Garden … all deserve love here.
And I need to get on the treadmill after typing all this.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. email@example.com.