Pimento cheese is, in many ways, a dish of the people. Its widely available ingredients — sharp cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, and pimentos — invite even the least ambitious home chef to whip up a batch. Of course, for the culinary minds that reside in the kitchens of Charleston's best restaurants, the creamy spread is an invitation to experiment, similar to what's been done with staples like grits or green tomatoes.
At its best, pimento cheese slips easily between peasantry and nobility, equally at home passed around on paper plates at a picnic or emerging from downtown kitchens as a piquant escort to haute cuisine. Executive Chef Don Drake of Magnolias calls pimento cheese Charleston's caviar, and that it is. Pimento cheese has a central place at the Holy City dinner table, but it also mingles the casual and the elegant. After all, when people are willing to pay $25 for a meal that includes an economical filling they once carried to school in a lunch bag, you know it's truly arrived.
Grilled Filet of Beef Topped with Housemade Pimento Cheese ($30)
185 E. Bay St.
Magnolias gives the joy of pimento-topped beef an upgrade. Instead of the ground burger, a slab of steak gets blanketed with a layer of gooey melted cheese. The filet, served over a Madeira sauce, is a tender, luscious delight, and it's been a staple of Magnolias, courtesy of founding Chef Donald Barickman and Executive Chef Donald Drake, for more than 20 years. Some might miss biting through a charred crust to reach the supple, medium-rare center of a nicely cooked steak, but Drake points out that Magnolias cooks its steaks low and slow to achieve a desired tenderness, so the suppleness of the cheese marries perfectly with the meat. With its simple, rich flavors this dish has capably withstood the test of time.
Pimento Cheese Crouton Topped with Crawfish Salad
112 N. Market St.
Two brightly colored crawfish lounge upon a layer of housemade pimento, capping a toasted round of white bread. Chef Robert Carter's pimento cheese makes a regular appearance as an amuse-bouche and has the roots that every Southern staple should — in a family recipe. His calls for a hint of dill pickle. Carter's pimento cheese is a mild variety with a medium texture, neither especially chunky nor creamy. It looks and feels, upon first bite, like it's melted upon the crouton, but the cool dip rests lightly upon the bread rather than adhering to it via a heat-induced fusion. The crawfish provides a nice firmness on top of the cheese, and the soft but crusty crouton holds just enough crunch to provide a foundation. Carter has also served pimento cheese grits with soft-shell crab and pimento cheese fritters with country ham in addition to other variations. "Anytime I can take a dish from my childhood and elevate it to sophisticated Southern cuisine, that's great," says Carter.
Pimento Cheese Omelet ($11)
The Glass Onion
1219 Savannah Hwy.
This brunch dish is, as its name implies, pimento cheese first and omelet second. That might seem obvious, but for anyone that's ever been served a football-sized, eight-egg omelet hiding its fillings deep inside, the Glass Onion's take is refreshingly rich on flavor. The tidy omelet is served simply, with a garnish of chives and a side of home fries. Your fork slips easily through the slender outer membrane before plunging into the melted center, and your taste buds undergo a similar immersion. Glass Onion's pimento cheese is slightly stronger than some others, both in terms of its sharpness and saltiness, and the omelet boldly places the savory pimento cheese front and center yet still manages to feel light and fluffy like an omelet should.
Pimento Cheese Sandwich ($7)
Virginia's on King
412 King St.
The grilled pimento cheese sandwich is many folks' first encounter with the magical trio of mayonnaise, red pimentos, and cheddar cheese, and Virginia's gives due respect to tradition. And they keep it simple, taking two slices of Texas toast and a slather of cheesy filling and grilling it until it's slightly crunchy. This pimento cheese is on the creamier side, and the filling is spread, rather than plopped, upon the Texas Toast. It comes with a tasty sample of blue cheese coleslaw and a stack of sweet potato fries, both of which preserve the traditional theme while injecting flavor upgrades into classic sides. All in all, a solid representation of the down-home delight.
Pimento Burger ($6.50)
4726 Spruill Ave.
2070 Sam Rittenberg Blvd.
Besides the basic sandwich, the most common method for enjoying the peppery cheddar spread is on a burger. Sesame's take is served simply: just a handmade patty, a layer of pimento cheese, and a leaf of lettuce packed onto a toasted bun. You can rest assured that Sesame is not only mixing its own pimento cheese, but they're also whipping up homemade mayonnaise. After all, they serve it at the table for guests to slather on whatever they please. But, as is always the case with Sesame, the star is that perfectly cooked beef. The golden coating of Sesame's thin but classically flavored pimento is merely the crown that rests upon the plate's visceral, juicy king.