Humble and homely, the avocado has made a name for itself, infiltrating nearly every menu in Charleston. It's been instagrammed into ubiquitousness, derided as "basic," and even blamed as the reason Millennials can't buy homes. Although no one's really buying that last one, the fruit also known as the alligator pear was pleasing palates long before hipsters made avo toast a hashtag. A recently discovered recipe for smashing avocado onto toast is dated 1885.
You can find this life-sustaining dish at brunches, breakfasts, and even bars in Charleston, and chefs are quick to defend why. Park Cafe operating partner Xan McLaughlin says avocado toast encapsulates his restaurant's entire philosophy: "classically inspired, technically driven, and simply presented. It is one of the most simple, delicious pleasures you can come across."
Chef Emily Hahn, seen on Bravo's Top Chef, echoes this warm fuzzy feeling. "You're getting nice, freshly baked warm bread, and a beautiful avocado — you're getting a lot of bang for your buck. There's something to be said for someone who can season it well and not have to put a lot of things on it."
For Michael and Melody Shemtov of The Daily, Butcher & Bee, and Workshop, there's even more romance. "Our honeymoon was the first time we'd seen it, mid 2013, in Indonesia. We had it for breakfast every day and loved it," says Melody. There was no question about whether it would make the menu. "We both love avocado, and since we make our own bread in-house, it was a no-brainer for us."
Perhaps you balk at paying between $5-$11 for toast. But this isn't lunch-box grade bread and you didn't narrowly avoid injury while pitting that avo. "I have a guy that comes in on Sunday and crushes 18 avocados," says Hahn. It's his job. The ingredients are carefully selected, from the avocado purveyor, who can provide consistent quality and quantity, to the choice of seasoning sprinkled on top. "It would be easy to use mediocre, commodity bread and cheap kosher salt with only a smear of avocado and your margins would probably be higher," says Shemtov. But at The Daily, each slice of toast uses an entire avocado, so "it's always piled high."
The Shemtovs use a sourdough they bake daily at Butcher & Bee. Hahn favors a loaf bread from Brown's Court Bakery as the base. McLaughlin collaborated with a local baker, taking a month to settle on the perfect bread recipe. Once that was achieved, the baker realized they didn't have a slicer large enough to handle the loaf, so Park Cafe split the cost with them.
Whether classic or fancy, the toppings make the dish sing. Here's a run-down from around town:
Park Cafe: Lemon squeezed on top, with salt and chili flakes
The Daily: Salt, pepper, za'atar spice and olive oil
Cannon Green: Lime, harissa and farm eggs
Vintage Coffee Cafe: Sliced avocado instead of mashed, spread with an onion-tomato marmalade
Leon's: Radish, sprouts, and sesame seeds
Blind Tiger: Lemon zest, arugula, tomato, sunflower seeds and house-pickled shrimp
Caviar and Bananas: Shaved radishes, pickled red onions, cotija cheese and fresh herbs
Why is avocado toast everywhere? Because people like it, and it's now a member of the canon of comfort foods. According to Hahn, "It's part of that middle ground between healthy and affordable. It's one thing people can be familiar with, in case they're afraid of my congee or musubi." (Rice porridge and Spam sushi.) Between the good fats and the fiber, it's as filling as eggs and bacon, but a bit more heart healthy. It's familiar, but with room for variation. "It is so popular," says Shemtov, "that this past year we created a line of shirts that read I HEART CHS, but instead of a heart, it has an image of avocado toast."
As an experience, a comfort, and a personal pleasure, avocado toast has risen above its station of simple sustenance. One of Hahn's favorite co-workers goes all-out on his: four soft boiled eggs, a couple pieces of bacon, a slice of tomato and lots of sprinkles. "He's over there cramming it in the box, I see the lid close. He comes back the next day telling us how delicious it was to go home and eat it alone in the darkness," says Hahn. Offering what could be some sound advice, she adds, "If you need a good avocado toast and a cry, do it."