Monday, August 19, 2013

The Last Leg: Burgers, Onion Rings, and BBQ in NC

Am I STILL yakking about my recent trip through the south?!?  Um, apparently so, but only because I really must inform the world about the location of the Universe’s Most Amazing Onion Rings!  So, read on, if you care about such matters (and, really, shouldn’t we all?).

When last you saw us, we were in the underground basement of an Atlanta hotel, fighting about how to best pack the car with this new addition of two suitcases and 1000 convention gee-gaws and important papers.  That task accomplished, we hit the road, happy to escape the fearful Atlanta traffic by our mid-morning departure (and by traveling north; southbound still looked snarled).

I mention this only because it will be relevant later, but Steve needed something for breakfast/lunch (wait…I think they call that “brunch”!), so we stopped at a Burger King, his fast-food-poison-of-choice.  We both agreed that McDonald’s has better fries, but he’s not going to give up on the Whopper.

In South Carolina, I had to stop at one of the Gaffney interstate farmstands for some of their amazing peaches.  Oh, brother, yet another stop, and we were barely on the road…. I promised Steve I would buy him anything he wanted at Abbott’s, the peach store, imagining jams, spicy pickled okra, pecans, Cheerwine, or Blenheim ginger ale, all of which are available, along with AMAZING peaches.  Steve, however, happily discovered that also available were fireworks…many, many, many fireworks.  A woman of my word, we threw some fireworks into the car, too.

Our destination for the night was Charlotte, North Carolina, about 4ish hours away from Atlanta.  Why not push on to get closer to Virginia?  All because of this TV show, “Burger Land” (on the Travel Channel), which Steve discovered during a late night of channel-surfing…and this episode in particular: 

“George travels to Charlotte, NC, to sample different types of "Carolina-style" burgers with roots in Southern barbecue cuisine. First, he visits the town of Monroe, NC, for a burger slathered in chili and coleslaw. Then he enjoys a jumbo cheeseburger at an old-school drive-in burger joint and a double-decker burger smothered in Pimento cheese, before finishing up with a Southern-style burger from a tiny burger spot that George has never visited before.”

Who knew Charlotte was famous for burgers, Charlotte a city I breeze through four times a year going to and from teaching at the Converse low-residency MFA program!?

Heading out of our way, Duke’s in Monroe, NC, was our intended stop (here’s a fabulous video that will explain why this was our destination).  We were lucky to arrive—after a long tour of strip malls—at around 3 PM so there wasn’t a big rush.  The place is tiny, with a tiny parking lot, and feels located in a primarily residential neighborhood (lucky residents!).  We sat down at a tiny booth, and in these situations, I generally find that honesty is the best policy—especially since it’s not as though we were going to pass for regulars or even southerners—so I said, “We saw you on TV, so what should we get?”  “Two burgers all the way,” the waitress said, “you want cheese?”  Of course! 

These were some of the best burgers I’ve ever had, up there with the chili cheeseburger at the famous Tommy’s in L.A. and the burgers at the “secret” burger place in the Parker-Meridien hotel in midtown Manhattan, and my beloved Shake Shack.  One trick at Duke’s is that chopped onions are pressed into the meat as it cooks on the grill.  Another trick is that there’s amazing chili on top.  What makes it a “Carolina burger” is that there’s also (excellent) coleslaw on top.  Finally, the bun is pressed to firm it up, making sure it won’t collapse.  Honestly, this burger is a work of art, and if I had one in front of me right now, it would be gone in a matter of seconds.

As we left, I asked the waitress what it was like to be on TV.  Her face shifted into a mix of scorn and longing as she said, “Day shift.”  Oh…the glamour of the day shift, hogging up all the attention!  I felt for her.

We trudged back through the strip malls and on to a randomly chosen Hampton Inn that was basically located in the middle of nowhere, though convenient to the highway for tomorrow, and there we faced our greatest test:  could we really eat another burger, to make three in one day?  Could we even eat dinner?  Did we want to drive around unfamiliar Charlotte, relying on our hateful, untrustworthy GPS who was always screaming “recalculating” at me?  We dithered…the siren song of trashy shows on Bravo was powerful.  To complicate matters, I kept consulting food sites, reading about the burger choices, trying to see how far away we were from the other places on the TV show, what time they closed, checking out photos of burgers and various random food products in cities in different states (a list of the best green chile-cheeseburgers in New Mexico was interesting though not helpful).  I kept returning to this fact:  One place from “Burger Land” was a real drive-in, with a carhop and everything…and that’s when Steve said, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” and we were tipped into jumping back into the car to head out to the South 21 Drive-In, home of the Super Boy, featuring curb service.

Eight-thirty was the perfect time of night to open the sun roof and pull into a covered slot and push an ancient intercom button to order a Super Boy with cheese (to share), a chocolate milkshake, and onion rings.  And how fun to get the laden tray delivered right to us by a friendly man in a hat.  The burger was very good, ample and juicy, and the milkshake was excellent.  But the onion rings…OH, WOW!  I’ve become used to the equation of giant onion rings = better, with that puffy, “homemade” look to the batter as being the standard.  These were thin, very ring-like, with a tight, close-to-the-bone batter…and they were perfect.  Not at all greasy!  Totally crisp, down to the last one.  Never that horrible moment where the slimy onion slides down and whacks your chin.  True perfection!  (Watch this video from “Burger Land,” and you’ll see the utter charm of South 21 Drive-In; you’ll also get a glimpse of the onion rings at around 2:25.)  "These are the best onion rings in my life!" I shouted out the window at the carhop, who nodded knowingly.

The next morning, we decided that we didn’t have to eat any more burgers in Charlotte and that we had to focus on Finally Getting Home…all we wanted was to find a Biscuitville before 2PM, when they close.  However, oddly, we didn’t see any Biscuitville signs along the highway—which, in retrospect, feels like fate’s helpful hand.  Steve started fiddling with the hateful GPS (which, I might add, hasn’t been updated in about 5 years), looking to see what restaurants might be near where we were.  No Biscuitvilles, but barbecues came up, and he started reading off names:  Ed’s, Bill’s, Joe-Bob’s, etc…the usual line-up, and then he said, “Stamey’s.”

“What?”  In my food site research last night, I’d spent some time on Roadfood and was reminded of the famous Carolina barbecue joints I’d been to in years past…Stamey’s is one of the holy grails of western Carolina—and we were only 20 miles away!   Of course we didn’t really have to focus only on getting home….

After a scenic detour along a country road (with no gas stations…tick-tick, dipped the fuel gauge, stressing out one of us) we came up to what is called “downtown” Tyro, North Carolina, outside Lexington, a very famous vortex of barbecue, with an annual festival.  We got a booth, and ordered a barbecue plate: chopped pork, slaw, hushpuppies, and sweet tea.  The air was filled with the pleasant and rapid chop-chop-chop-chops of barbecue being prepared to order.  Red-tinted slaw was tart and vinegared just right, and the BASKET of hushpuppies were sweet and not at all greasy, with a lush interior.  The barbecue was superb, the best of my trip BY FAR, with lovely exterior shreds providing nice, contrasting texture.  As is typical in this part of NC, a vinegar-based sauce, but with a bit of red to it.  Yum, yum, yum…we ignored my early comment: “We don’t have to eat it ALL,” and ate it ALL (except for some hushpuppies, which we took home).  The place was packed by the time we left, around 12:30 or so, so clearly “downtown” Tyro, the crossroads of Stamey’s, a Dollar Store, and—thankfully—a convenience mart with a gas station is the place to be.

So back to the mission of Finally Getting Home…until we had to stop at the last Cook-Out before Virginia, north of Durham (exit 204, I believe).  There was talk of getting yet another burger; they are very good here—but we went for milkshakes instead; there’s a choice of 30 different flavors!—and ran across the road to a farmstand selling tomatoes, which we somehow found room for in the car.

And then, finally, we Finally Got Home.

Monday, August 12, 2013


The last leg of my time in Georgia:  meeting up with Steve in Atlanta and attending the ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition with him.  (ASAE = American Society of Association Executives…yes, a trade association for people who run/work in trade associations!)
The night before the meetings started, Steve and I went to Turner Field to catch an Atlanta Braves game.  I’m not exactly a Braves fan, but I must say that I’m a fan of their fans for sure. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps it was remnants of southern manners, but the people in our immediate area (behind the third base dugout) were polite and drama-free.  Beyond that, while the fan-favorite “tomahawk chop” is controversial to some and looks silly on TV to others, in person, it’s rather stirring to hear a stadium reverberate with a steady drumbeat and watch thousands of people move their arms in synch.  Food note: Steve had a very-good-for-the-ballpark burger from H&F.  Braves crushed the Rockies! 

The next day, poor Steve was in meetings all day, and I was free.  Emboldened by my survival of the mountains of Georgia, I decided to brave public transportation on my own…hello, MARTA!  Why, I scarcely recognize you as a subway—you’re so clean! And I figured out how to buy a farecard all myself! And I understood every word spoken on the train speaker!  And there were no delays!  And your escalators all worked!  Okay, enough: suffice to say that in my limited experience, this train system was 1000x better than metro in DC.  (Don’t you love when someone rides a train for 8 stops total, not in rush hour, and is an expert?)

Anyway, I went to the High Museum of Art, which I thought was all-over beautiful, the art inside and the modern and edgily-angled building housing it.  Around DC, if you simply breathe the word “Vermeer,” hordes show up…the High was hosting a special exhibition of Dutch paintings including Vermeer’s famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” so I didn’t know what to expect.  What I got was a thoughtful exhibit in bustling rooms that never veered into claustrophobia—and even several minutes all alone with “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”  (Okay, there was a guard eyeing me, but better him than a crowd of people buzzing with the overly-loud volume on their audio-guides.)  I also admired the lovely collection of decorative arts and the contemporary rooms.  (Here’s one favorite, trickier than it appears, and here’s another that is so simple as to be stunning when displayed perfectly as the High does.)

We were treated to a wonderful dinner for the ASAE board of directors—thanks, Steve, for all those meetings you attended while I was looking at art!—and especially notable was a “muddle your own cocktail” bar during the reception.  Roughly 10 different ingredients were available—i.e. berries, peaches, ginger, basil, mint, cucumber—and several spirits—whiskey, vodka, rum, bourbon, lemonade—along with a professional bartender to offer advice on ingredients and technique.  (Proud moment for Steve, who smacked his basil before dropping it into the shaker, totally impressing the bartender!)  I made myself a mixture of peaches, simple syrup [sugar water], and ginger, and the bartender steered me away from busying it up with mint and advised whiskey; the results were YUM! (Thank you for sponsoring this dinner, Hyatt Hotels!)

A free afternoon the following day, so we slept in and—alas!—restaurants in Atlanta don’t seem to think people want to eat LUNCH on Saturdays so many of our options were closed.  Don’t cry for us, though, as we ended up at brunch at Parish, which was delightful: fried green tomatoes Benedict for me and fried chicken Benedict for Steve.  The hollandaise sauce was light and lemony, almost making me approve of brunch as a concept.

The ASAE meeting started in earnest that night, and let me tell you, if you ever work in an association or are married to someone who does, I suggest getting yourself to this annual meeting.  There are about 5000 attendees—which certainly isn’t excessive by convention standards; AWP has 10,000 attendees—but because these people are decision-makers in a variety of trade associations that have literally ZILLIONS of meetings and conventions, the association execs here are treated like royalty by the host city.  I wrote last year about our trip to the meeting in Dallas…and I can say again that the city of Atlanta went waaaay beyond the call of duty to put on a good show for everyone.  (So, while I’m not a decision-maker, I will confidently go on record as saying that Atlanta would be a great place for a meeting.)

Our opening night featured an extravaganza centered around the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coke, and an outdoor concert by the Go-Go’s.  Don’t forget the open bar and mountains of food (does anyone else think it’s wrong to eat fish at an aquarium?).  Oh—this is FOLLOWING the special reception sponsored by the Omni Hotel where there were stations throughout the ballroom representing the various college football conference with special food and drinks representative of each geographic area.  It makes sense because A) College football is a religion in the south (you can bet the SEC table got the rich and fancy shrimp and grits dish!) and B) the College Football Hall of Fame is coming to Atlanta in the coming year.  While Steve was rocking out to the Go-Go’s, I needed some peace and quiet (remember I’d been living alone in a cabin in the woods for 3 weeks?!) and I spent much of my time at the Aquarium, watching the truly amazing whale sharks drift through their tank, which holds 6 million gallons of water and is the size of…a football field!

The next morning was the opening breakfast, and I was especially interested in the guest speaker, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  Her main point is that there are more introverts than meets the eye; many of us train ourselves to act more extroverted because the world rewards gregariousness more than thoughtful reticence…and yet introverts have many successes, too (Einstein, anyone?) and are valuable in the business world (and, I suppose, elsewhere!).  She also offered some helpful tips to both sides of the coin about dealing with the other, and coping with life as an introvert (i.e. it’s okay to step aside and watch whale sharks swim if that’s what you need to do).

Another business speaker that I thought was interesting was John Spence, author of Awesomely Simple:  Essential Business Strategies for Turning Ideas into Action.  I find that listening and watching a truly professional speaker offers insight into how to be a better speaker/teacher myself, and I try not to be an automatic snob when it comes to business or business books:  the guy had some good ideas that apply beyond the business world and he knows how to communicate and motivate.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed his talk and at how much I learned.  (Uh-oh…could this mean Power Point for my craft talk at Converse in January??!?)

And while we’re speaking of speakers, I was also taken with Dan Heath, the closing speaker, author of Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Work and Life, who talked about how to make more effective decisions.  He had a good mix of personal and business anecdotes that made us understand how to step back from the emotions of decision-making and why it’s important to widen your view of the choices.  My favorite tip:  when tangling with a tough choice, ask yourself what you would advise your best friend to do.  Often, we’re inclined to be bolder with others than with ourselves.

I have to admire the people manning the booths in the Exhibit Hall:  they were incredibly peppy, creative, and fun.  There were also a lot of great giveaways…bourbon at the Louisville, Kentucky. booth; mimosas at the New Orleans booth; Oregon pinot noir at the Portland, OR, booth; craft beers at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, booth [yes, who knew that Grand Rapids was a major center for craft beer??].  Not that this was a drunk-fest!  I was also pleased to win an adorable stuffed moose at the Anchorage, Alaska, booth and to get a jar of southwest spices from Milwaukee, WI (going with the “spice up your meeting” theme).  Perhaps my favorite booth was Omaha, Nebraska, which was running a trivia contest.  While I try to hold back in my role as a spouse/guest, I leapt at the chance to compete in a round of six…and knew I HAD to win because I knew I wanted my name up there on the screen in the “high scores” list.  (Competitive, much?)  My plan worked—I won—and the Omaha, NE, plan worked too, as I spent the rest of my time in Atlanta telling everyone that I had (for a while) the 8th highest score in the Omaha trivia game and that I had won my attractive blue tote bag from the super-wonderful people in the Omaha booth and that Omaha would surely be a great place to hold a meeting.

Apropos of nothing but my blurry memory thinking of this just now, I must thank the Marriott for the amazing party they put on, with a DJ who got everyone dancing to a selection of songs that encompassed “Brick House” to “I Will Survive” to Sir Mix-a-Lot.  And a Cosmo bar!

Back to the business at hand:  I got to watch Steve speak on stage at the Awards Breakfast (which, I humbly suggest, should NOT start at the ghastly hour of 7 AM), and I got to see him on a video presentation at the final luncheon.  A star is born!

Perhaps the most magical event of the gathering was on Monday night:  We were all invited to a party at the Fox Theatre, a lovingly-restored movie palace that must be seen to be believed.  There’s a picture on the website, but at my first glimpse of the starlit ceiling in the 4000+ theatre, I gasped at how magically beautiful it is.  An idea of how special the place is that not only did our 20-something tour guide say that she’d been angling for a year to get a job working in the theatre, the elevator operator, an older woman, said that she volunteered for 10 years before working here.  It is such a beautiful, not-of-this-world place that one simply wants to be part of it.  Special twist on the night:  guests were invited to sing karaoke to a live band ON THE MAIN STAGE (oh, how very, very brave! [and, for some, dare I say foolish?]).  And super-special twist on the night:  Mary Wilson, of the Supremes, sang a concert on the small dance-floor stage, for a rabid audience of about 300, and we were right up there in the first row!  I could see the sweat on her brow except that she was so amazing she didn’t sweat a drop…despite the fact that she was giving it her diva-ish all!  A fabulous performer—a total professional, with a delightfully modest streak as well: when we screamed for an encore, she actually didn’t have one prepared so she simply sang the first song again.

As Steve and I did last year, we slipped away on the last night for a quiet dinner, heading to 4th & Swift, for a memorable meal.  The cocktails were so incredible, I had to have two (HAD to!):  one was made with smoked peaches, and the other featured mescal (which, I promise you, is going to be the next Big Thing).  I had the famous “Three Piggies” as an entrĂ©e, pork loin, pork sausage, and the MOST delectable fried pork skins you can imagine.  Forget that bagged orange Styrofoam from truck stops…these were so light you’d never recognize “pig” or “fried.”  Steve had a perfectly cooked steak, and our favorite appetizer was a special, a thin piece of veal, lightly cooked, with an incredible tuna sauce.  Fried okra was also a highlight: a light, crispy batter on a whole piece of okra. All lovely!

So hard to tear ourselves away from fabulous Atlanta. Our only solace was that we were headed to Charlotte, NC, for an eating tour of—you’ll never guess—hamburgers!  To be continued—!!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.