42-C Morris St.
16 Blake St.
One can eat all the fancy food of Charleston — the extravagant splays of grits and expensive stacks of yesterday’s catch that make the glossy magazines — and still miss out on the true nature of its cuisine, one derived from an enduring poverty perpetuated by slavery and a persistent racism. The unheralded spots, hidden down alleyways, full of disheveled tables and peeling paint, constitute the backbone of the city’s culinary culture, its real food. You won’t find these places advertised. They often have strikingly unfamiliar addresses, strange hours and operations, and handmade signs that barely register them as open, and they serve real people the real food of the city. Chief among these are Dave’s Carryout and Hannibal’s Kitchen, whose very presence speaks as much about the realities of Charleston’s racial landscape as they do about its food.
Both Dave’s and Hannibal’s currently represent what eating Charleston should be all about. Blake Street, an anonymous lane in the East Side neighborhood, bounded by public housing projects and industrial port operations, certainly doesn’t draw an affluent crowd to its door. Hannibal’s Kitchen should. For five bucks you get a meat and three experience worthy of the late Alice’s Fine Foods. They have an ever-changing menu, because they cook what’s cheap, just as the poorest segments of society have always done when inventing the world’s great cuisines.
Little details separate the food here from imitations served farther South on the peninsula. Braised cabbage takes on a warm reddish-brown tinge that only comes with the slow care of a low fire. The fried chicken utilizes whole wings, not more expensive breasts, and packs a deliciously mysterious flavor in its crackling crunch. I find it hard to place, but it perhaps derives from a bit of fish and shellfish dunked in the same grease — an essence not unlike the Italian practice of disguising anchovies in the base of a tomato sauce or braise — delicious nuances supplied by frugality in the kitchen.
Other cultures are easily assimilated into the cuisine. Hannibal’s finds no trouble integrating fried rice dishes, which come packed with big chunks of real ham. This evolution of tradition, which caters to the tastes of its customers, makes Hannibal’s somewhat different from humdrum purveyors of red rice, collards, and chicken. In a way it makes them more real, and more likely to generate the next culinary myth of the Lowcountry.
Dave’s Carryout also shows signs of evolution. Here you’ll discover a whole new world and a blistering fired pork chop sandwich. Two slices of thick white bred buttress a tender and crisp chop, embellished only with lettuce, tomato, and perhaps a splash of hot sauce ($3.50 with fries). “Turkey Wings” and “Beef Ribs” are served alongside the traditional braised cabbage or the ubiquitous tang of red rice. Stripped down Hopping John and a late-night munch of the “Shrimp Platter” ($7.00) are on the cusp of conventionality, pushed along by the proximity of gentrification that includes Dave’s itself.
Once housed in a derelict leaning grease pit, Dave’s has been transformed with a new location into a clean, modern kitchen that, while offering the same delicious food, loses the authenticity of its previous environs. The grease stains are gone, the walls freshly painted, the exterior retooled for a new generation of diners, with more money to spend and the power to push Dave’s into the realm of standard fare. It won’t ever be the same, but it will undoubtedly make room for another establishment, yet to be envisioned, that will continue to transform Lowcountry cuisine itself.
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