James Island. 1837 Grimball Road
If you’re like me, then every so often, careening down a moss-lined Lowcountry road, an irresistible urge to stomp the brake, veer into a dusty lot, and follow the smell of fried chicken to its source overtakes you, leading you to a sideboard of local dishes, spooned up in heaping portions among sweet tea and the gentle sounds of church gospel, and leaving you bloated and well-contented, as the scorching asphalt turns to steam under a summer thunderstorm.
Workmen’s Café is just that sort of place, a family joint with local pride, a local following, and a dedicated set of patrons. It is true to its name, with a variety of blue-collar workers of all types congregating at suppertime to elbow past the hot bar and claim a spot in the simple dining room, beneath the scratchy picture of the lone corner television and its antique antennae. It’s the only place where I’ve seen two UPS delivery trucks, an SCE&G vehicle, and a truckload of day laborers all lined up as if rolling off the line at Daytona — validation of good, down-home cooking if I ever saw it.
It’s no surprise that the workmen have Workmen’s on the short list of lunchtime favorites. For under seven dollars one can score a variety of soulful eats that are among the best that the Charleston area has to offer. It is a “meat ‘n’ three,” even if the standard dinner comes only with a meat entrée and two vegetable sides, but the oversized portions will have you begging for mercy even without that third vegetable, and if you stick with the fried chicken, you may not need vegetables at all. It crackles with a crispness that belies the river of juice below, a garlicky, seasoned crust, full of visible dried herbs and a distinctive, delicious taste. Everyone in town knows that Martha Lou’s, up on Morrison Drive, brings some of the world’s best fried chicken to the table, but Workmen’s brings a glimmer of hope to those on James Island. They too have world-class fried chicken — lip-smacking stuff that could win trophies, if they gave out trophies for such things.
That’s not to say that Workmen’s is all about the chicken. They lay down a mean fried pork chop, thin and pounded like a wienerschnitzel with a bone in it, juicy grease running out the bottom into your butterbeans and white rice. The antithesis of health, it is an awe-inspiring stack, threatening and delicious at the same time, as my most revered favorites seem to be.
The rice soaks up the juice, a sloppy bed for a rich froth of beans, full of smoky pork tails and backbone — all those mysterious bits that make soul food taste so damn good — and for all its glory, perhaps the macaroni and cheese beats them all. It’s not the fancy downtown kind with a heavy cream béchamel and a complex blend of fine cheeses; it’s the soul food kind, a thick doughy cake of elbows and eggs and glops of processed cheese with a bit of residual grease running out the ends of the tubular pasta, congealed into a semi-solid block that slowly disintegrates at the touch of a fork.
Perhaps the secret’s in the grease, in the use of it, the pure, unadulterated, enveloping heat of it, in its various origins — peanuts and pigs reduced to liquid form, their golden essence squeezed from the surrounding impurities. Perhaps it’s in the hands that do the squeezing, and the hearts of those people who fire the pans with expert care, distilling those pig parts into the legume’s Cinderella. Perhaps it’s in the people who demand such food, the validators, the working men who would rather eat a good piece of fried chicken than a pound of foie gras. For these, the food is about more than dollars and cents, it’s about the people who eat it. Attention must be paid, and Workmen’s Café does that very well. I’ll be the first one at the door when they come back from summer vacation on July 16. Unless those UPS drivers get there first.