The term "soul food" conjures up thoughts of foods deep fried in fat, greens seasoned with various porcine parts, macaroni and cheese, and an infinite variety of desserts made from the sweet potato.
In Charleston's soul food restaurants the fare seems pretty much the same from location to location. As a result, the term has become somewhat generic, except when you stumble upon the kitchen of someone who cooks with true soul. While the dishes may be the same, the techniques and flavors used by the individual cooks make all the difference.
16 Blake St.
Hannibal's Kitchen isn't one of those fancy restaurants with exquisite atmosphere and finery, but it serves some of the best soul food cuisine in the area.
Owner L.J. Huger says the restaurant has "been feeding the soul of the city" for more than 40 years because what the restaurant lacks in ambience, they more than make up for in taste.
Located at the intersection of Blake and Drake streets on the Peninsula's East Side, Hannibal's Kitchen had its beginnings during the early 1960s in a structure on the opposite side of the street, owned and operated by the late Clyde Pringle.
Pringle's wife Martha cooked at the small takeout restaurant, originally called Martha's Restaurant, which rapidly gained a reputation for selling dinners, sandwiches, and snacks, attracting patrons of all ages.
Longshoremen from the nearby Columbus Street port authority terminal bought Martha's hearty lunchtime dinners of lima beans or okra soup, fried chicken, fish and pork chops, and side orders of cornbread or bread pudding while neighborhood kids bought bologna or chicken sandwiches, juice drinks, and the legendary Charleston links with mustard.
Martha's Restaurant became an instant hit with foods that tasted like they were cooked in your mother's kitchen and sold at prices children could afford. Even Hannibal has been unable to duplicate the succulent simplicity of Martha's fried bologna with mayonnaise sandwich.
After more than 20 years of cooking and running a business that just kept growing, the Pringles sold their restaurant to Ronald "Hannibal" Huger in 1985. Hannibal, who had worked in the food and beverage business East of the Cooper, promised to keep the cooking staff intact, but changed the name to Hannibal's Kitchen.
Hannibal died in 2005, but his son L.J. continues the tradition.
The cooks trained by Martha Pringle have all retired, but the baton's been passed to a new generation. Anthony Montgomery is the restaurant's breakfast cook while Gloria Snipe, Anthony Jenkins, and head cook Herline Sampson prepare lunches and dinners. Huger's youngest brother, Anthony Conyers, is evening short order cook.
During the restaurant's evolution, Martha's incomparable fried foods have been replaced by Hannibal's equally incomparable seafood dishes.
Salmon, shrimp, and shark steak are the best-sellers during the breakfast and lunch rush.
"We can't keep shark steak," Huger says. "But you've got to have your lima beans, okra soup, fried chicken, pork chops, and collard greens — basic seasoned Southern foods. We try to do something besides your traditional breakfast too. You can get bologna and grits, even sardines and grits!"
He describes the fare as Southern ethnic.
The afternoon and evening business is brisk as well, Huger says, noting that many blue-collar workers stop by for a cold beer or drink and to take home carryout dinners.
The restaurant opens for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. but beginning Oct. 1 will open for about two weeks at 6:30 a.m. Closing time is 11 p.m. All menu items are available any time.
64 Spring St.
The lima beans at Ernie's Restaurant are cooked with a generous number of pig's tails and neck bones and seasoned lightly. It's Henrietta Kinloch's signature dish, hundreds of which are served daily.
Kinloch, the chief cook and sister of owner Ernie, honed her skills in her mom's kitchen in Huger where she helped cook for her six siblings. When Kinloch opened the restaurant in 1982, Henrietta brought the skills learned at her mother's knee and generously applies them to her version of Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas and rice) and okra soup.
Reasonable prices and Henrietta's cooking have made Ernie's one of Charleston's best-kept soul food secrets. A hearty dinner of limas packed with meat and accompanied by fried chicken or a pork chop costs about $5. On weekdays, between 7:30 a.m. and 7 p.m., the restaurant serves some 500 mostly take-out orders. Manager Marcus Kinloch notes the restaurant has never advertised.
"We've got kids who ask their parents to bring them here for our salmon and grits breakfast, but by far we sell more lima bean dinners than anything else," he says.
Rounding out the menu is a variety of vegetables and side dishes. Ernie's doesn't have printed menus — most customers know what's available. If you don't, simply ask one of the waitresses, who will be happy to help you navigate through the offerings.
Mr. Lee's Place
237 Fishburne St.
Walter Smith hails from Dallas, Texas, and honed his cooking skills on submarines in the U.S. Navy. Smith says he became fascinated with cooking after watching the Galloping Gourmet television show as a kid.
While stationed at the former Charleston Naval Base, Smith volunteered his services at several area restaurants before retiring in 2000. He says he's never developed a favorite Southern soul food dish, so he cooks whatever he feels like for a daily entrée — lima beans, okra soup, beef stew, whatever he has on hand. He also serves a daily variety of fried foods, including chicken, pork chops, and seafood. He rounds out the menu with burgers, hot dogs, french fries, and fried okra.
If Smith's customers could designate a specialty it might be his shrimp and gravy over grits, says Arthur Lawrence, a frequent customer at the small but well-appointed dining room that opened last September.
Like many good cooks, Smith refuses to give up the recipe for his shrimp and gravy but says large shrimp and corn starch are keys. Flavor and texture are what's important to the dish, he says.
Smith's Southwest upbringing definitely comes through in his version of Southern soul food. While the ingredients and dishes are traditional Lowcountry, he adds a hint of Southwestern spice. Everything on the menu here is under $8 and worth a try.
42 Morris St.
David DeGroat, a native of Minnesota, moved to Charleston from New York City in 1974 after cooking in the Big Apple for more than 30 years, but it would be another 13 before he opened his own business. In 1987 DeGroat and his significant other, Sandra McCray, started Zoe's Snack Bar. A deep fryer and griddle were the tools that have created the local legend that's now known as Dave's.
"Keeping it simple has been the key to our success," says McCray. Basic seasoning and an egg batter result in some of the area's most tasteful seafood, she says. That and late hours — Dave's Carryout is open until about 4 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Until about two years ago McCray stayed in the background, taking care of the business while DeGroat took care of the cooking. Her son Terry, who has a degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, came home in 1996 to assist DeGroat, holding down the late-night shift. Two years ago, McCray joined the force, adding a soul food lunch menu.
"I've been cooking since I was three years old. I remember having to pull a stool up to the stove," McCray notes proudly. He added turkey wings, beef ribs, BBQ ribs, collard greens, lima beans, and red rice to DeGroat's famed seafood dishes, which include the much-demanded deviled crab cake.
The soul food menu that carries over into the evening gives Dave's Carryout another dimension, but the fried seafood dishes still are his best-selling mainstays, DeGroat says. The seafood platter at $12.75 (Dave's most expensive menu item) is perhaps the best bargain and offers a variety of seafoods including fish, scallops, shrimp, and Dave's famous deviled crab cakes.