What does it take to draw Charleston eaters to Columbia? The city’s tourism leaders are pinning their hopes on pimento cheese.
“When people think of South Carolina, they automatically do think of Charleston and Myrtle Beach, but our culinary scene has certainly grown,” Experience Columbia SC spokeswoman Charlene Slaughter says. “Watch out for Columbia.”
According to Slaughter, the city’s new restaurants offer diverse menus, but pimento cheese appears on almost all of them. Slaughter and her colleagues first noticed the commonality after a visitor remarked on it, and quickly realized they could turn it into a promotional opportunity.
Just before the start of the Masters, the most important sporting event on the pimento cheese calendar, Experience Columbia SC issued its first-ever food passport. Passport holders (described by Experience Columbia SC as “pimento cheese travelers”) are encouraged to visit participating restaurants at which they’ll receive stamps for sampling pimento cheese specialties; once they’ve collected 10 stamps, they can enter a drawing for a $50 gift card.
“We had to kind of cap it at 15 restaurants,” Slaughter says. “We could have had 40 restaurants, because everybody really does it. We’re hoping it is something that entices people to come up and reminisce about pimento cheese they’ve had in the past.”
Part of pimento cheese’s appeal is its affordable price, since restaurants can only charge so much for a dish that’s mostly mayonnaise. To make the effort worthwhile for the businesses involved, passport holders have to spend at least $10 at each stop to earn a stamp.
For their pimento dollars, though, travelers have their pick of dishes, including a pimento cheeseburger, which Southern food historian Robert Moss, co-host of The Winnow, credits Columbia with creating; a pimento cheese hot dog; pimento cheese pizza; Creole pimento cheese dip and a pimento cheese-free wrap at the vegan Good Life Café, which keeps pace with the municipal pimento craze by mixing up a smoky cashew concoction.
“We tried to be versatile, so we have options for breakfast; for brunch; for lunch and if you’re leaving a late-night date,” Slaughter says.
That might be the ideal time for chipotle pimento cheese-smothered fries at The Whig. Add bacon and jalapenos to your order and you’re just $1.50 away from a passport stamp.
To download a passport or learn more, visit experiencecolumbiasc.com/restaurants/pimento-cheese.