Food is a personal thing. From holiday dinners to first dates to comfort food reached for in times of need, our favorites are hard-wired into some of our most powerful memories. As such, people feel passionately about the restaurants they prefer, be it their go-to spot for mac and cheese or their preferred place to grab a monstrous Mexican torta. It also means that these opinions are also massively subjective, as influenced by the circumstances under which we sample an establishment’s fare as the chef’s skills in the kitchen, if not more so.
Which brings us to the second edition of Free Times’ My Top Five feature, wherein our regular food writers each select their top spots in the Columbia area for a particular food. No, these aren’t definitive rankings, but rather a window into why our scribes prefer one place over another, which will hopefully make you think about your own opinions, and perhaps try (or retry) a restaurant that wasn’t on your personal list. — Jordan Lawrence
Top Five Spots for Soup
By Anne Wolfe Postic
1. Egg Roll Chen (715 Crowson Rd., 803-787-6820, eggrollchen.com)
Mamasan’s Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup is everything. This soup, with its warm noodles, savory beef, onions, napa cabbage, bean sprouts, and “homemade beef broth,” is there for you when you need to celebrate and when you need to recalibrate. Go get the soup when you’re feeling proud of yourself for a job well done, or when you’ve fallen prey to allergies, the common cold, or just hurt feelings. No. 51 on the menu is there to reward you when you deserve it and lift you up when you’re down. Not sure what it is you need? This soup is also an excellent choice. If the situation warrants it, a large dollop of Egg Roll Chen’s chili paste is an excellent addition.
2. Baan Sawan (2135 Devine St., 803-252-8992, baansawanthaibistro.com)
What if you could have an excellent matzo ball soup, but also Thai food, and also a glass of wine that pairs perfectly with the soup? Well you can, right here in Soda City. Chef Alex du Monde’s Tom Kha Matz is perfection. He adds two glorious duck fat matzo balls to vegetable broth with coconut milk, mushrooms, lemongrass, ginger and galangal. Sam Suaudom, behind the bar, knows his brother’s cooking pretty well, and he knows more about wine than pretty much anyone. He’ll pick something you’ll love to complement the soup.
3. The Gourmet Shop (724 Saluda Ave., 803-799-3705, thegourmetshop.net)
The Gourmet Shop’s traditional tomato bisque is always there for you. Whether you’d like a bowl as your main course (with plenty of crusty French baguette for dipping) or a cup as a side, it’s exactly what tomato bisque should be. Do you ever eat soup for breakfast? Because I do, and The Gourmet Shop opens early. But saving the soup for lunch is the best choice, so you can order a French Club sandwich and dip it in the soup. You’re an adult: You can totally dip your sandwich in a cup of soup with no fear of judgement. At least from me.
4. Camon (1332 Assembly St., 803-254-5400, camonsushi.com)
I first tried tempura udon soup when Shige Kobayashi, a member of the Camon family, recommended it. It was easy to get hooked. There are several textures at play: wide, soft udon noodles; warm, savory broth; and vegetables; all topped with shrimp breaded in a light tempura batter. Everything combines to make one spectacular meal. Comfort food doesn’t have to lack sophistication, and this soup proves it.
5. Whole Foods (702 Cross Hill Rd., 803-509-6700, wholefoodsmarket.com)
The chicken noodle soup isn’t always available at the hot bar — actually, it is, but it’s possible they might skip it one day? Anyhow, this is the chicken noodle soup of your childhood sick day, now that there’s no one around to make it. When you want a perfectly proportioned chicken noodle without the hassle, Whole Foods is the place to go. Bonus: You can pick up some Echinacea tea and Emergen-C while you’re there.
Top Five Places for Mac and Cheese
By Bach Pham
1. The Whig, (1200 Main St., 803-931-8852, thewhig.org)
I didn’t know what an ideal mac and cheese was until I had The Whig’s version. Elbow pasta has always been the traditional go-to, but penne takes it to the next level in the bar’s Smoked Gouda Mac N’ Cheese, providing the long, cylindrical space for cheese to infiltrate. The magnificence that penne offers to this mac and cheese hits you immediately at first bite when all the smoky, peppery gouda cheese sauce oozes out of the pasta. The more you dig in, the more useful penne becomes as you use it to scoop up all the gouda on the plate and create even cheesier bites as you go along. Its beautiful simplicity is why it’s not just my favorite mac and cheese, but also one of the most craveable dishes in the city.
2. Terra (100 State St., 803-791-3443, terrasc.com)
Being seasonally driven, Terra tends to rotate the menu frequently to celebrate the season. As a result, it takes something special for one of the few dishes to make the cut over and over again. The Lamb Mac is one of them. Between the creamy pasta, sweetness and depth of flavor from the ancho barbecue sauce and poblano peppers, crispy panko topping and a touch of smokiness from the lamb, Terra’s take on the classic is all about balance.
3. Shealy’s Bar-B-Que (340 East Columbia Ave., Batesburg-Leesville; 803-532-8135, shealysbbq.com)
It’s impossible to have a mac and cheese list without a good baked mac and cheese from a barbecue restaurant. Shealy’s version happens to be one of the best. The density alone feels amazing on the plate, a welcome sight compared to most that are overbaked and dried out. If you are lucky enough to be one of the first to dive into the steel pan of mac and cheese on the buffet, grabbing a crispy corner is a must. The cheese creates this delightful, textured edge that you can only get with a baked mac and cheese.
4. Bone-In Barbecue (2180 Boyce St., 803-728-7512, boneinbarbeque.com)
If there’s one thing that the South has long known, it’s that mac and cheese and barbecue were meant for each other. It’s surprising that it took so long for someone in Columbia to fully realize this by smashing the two together. Bone-In’s Brisket Stuffed Mac & Cheese has an almost lasagna-like quality, shoving its signature brisket in between layers of decadent mac. Despite the heavy appearance of it all, the sweetness of the hoisin-sauced brisket nicely balances the creamy mac. Though not always available at the restaurant, Bone-In offers a full order on its tailgate menu, which means you can order a whole tray for yourself (or a few good friends, I guess).
5. Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse (900 Main St., 803-748-0540, facebook.com/HunterGathererBrewery)
A part of me doesn’t want this mac and cheese to be good, but something really special happens when you put cheese and Goldfish crackers under a broiler. The Goldfish develops this welcoming crisp and crackle under the heat and offers a burst of sharp cheesiness to the whole dish. The salad served alongside it is a smart pairing, a palate cleanser in between shoveling bites of the rich m
Top Five Restaurants for Tortas
By Cam Powell
Though tacos are the most ubiquitous Mexican culinary touchstone represented in the states, the massive sandwiches known as tortas are my favorite item on any taqueria menu. They can be hard to find, but lucky for you and me, the Midlands is replete with excellent spots to get your torta fix.
1. Moctezumas Taqueria (508 Beltline Blvd., 803-888-7498, facebook.com/MoctezumasTaqueria)
I tried unsuccessfully to order a torta my first three visits to Moctezumas when they opened their doors back in 2016. Each time I tried, they were already sold out. My persistence eventually paid off with that first life-affirming bite of their Choritorta. The savory spice of the chorizo, the saltiness of the thick griddled slab of oaxacan cheese, the crunch of the veggies, the creaminess of the avocado slices, the smokiness of the refried bean spread and the tang of the mayo are individually vibrant, yet beautifully symphonic when stuffed into a buttery, lightly toasted telera roll that stands up to the massive ingredient bill against all odds. Come hungry or plan on saving half for lunch the next day, as these gargantuan tortas are roughly the size of a regulation football.
2. La Estrella (1921 Airport Blvd., Cayce; 803-739-6520)
The first place I ever tried one of these highly craveable Mexican sandwiches still remains near and dear to my heart. A hidden gem near the airport, La Estrella’s strength lies in its triple threat setup, housing a tienda and carnicería in the same building as the restaurant, providing the kitchen with the fresh produce and butchered meats that help set their tortas apart. While the perfectly seasoned carnitas may be the best single meat sandwich option on the menu, the real showstopper is the Cubana, which comes piled high with layers of breaded steak, sausage, ham, chorizo, egg and three kinds of cheese.
3. Tacos Nayarit (1531 Percival Rd., 803-814-0727, facebook.com/tacosnayaritmexicangrill)
Beloved food truck turned brick-and-mortar, Tacos Nayarit takes the assembly line ordering approach of fast casual chains like Moe’s and Chipotle and outdoes them at their own game, offering far superior ingredients and traditional Mexican menu options that include fully customizable tortas. The ability to build your sandwich from the bottom bun up provides nearly endless possibilities, making it so picky eaters can enjoy torta bliss with the ingredient exclusions of their choice and heatseekers can finally get that dream-worthy abundance of jalapeños.
4. Real Mexico (2421 Bush River Rd., 803-750-8990)
Free Times readers voted Real Mexico as the area’s top Mexican restaurant in last week’s Best Of Columbia poll, and for good reason — every menu item that comes out of their kitchen is a shining example of authentic Mexican cuisine, with the tortas being no exception. You’ll find the usual suspects of chorizo, carnitas and carne asada in their sandwich lineup, all of which are high-quality. The Pierna Adobada, however, reigns supreme in originality and flavor, pairing tender pork loin with a spicy and flavorful adobo sauce.
5. Smokey Loggins (803-218-5805)
Though Smokey Loggins’ popularity is mostly built on their hallowed smoked wings, the smoked al pastor pulled pork sandwich they debuted this summer shows the masterminds behind the popular mobile food purveyor pushing their culinary chops into mouth-watering new territory. The slight sweetness of the pineapple mixed throughout the al pastor balances the meat’s smokiness, while the toppings of diced onion, cilantro, cotija cheese and sliced raw jalapenos provide welcome crunch and heat. This isn’t traditional fare by any means — rather, it’s torta-inspired — but it’s damn delicious all the same.
Top Five Breakfast Sandwich Spots
By Mike Dojc
1. smallSUGAR (709 Gervais St., 803-722-7506, smallsugarsc.com)
If there was a professional avocado toast circuit, this green-smeared slice of heavenly country loaf would be a perennial medal contender. smallSUGAR’s Avocado Tartine is an open-faced breakfast beauty queen that comes delicately seasoned with delightfully smoky Aleppo chili flakes and is dressed up with thinly sliced radishes, dill, green onions, and snazzy micro greens. It comes paired with a side salad simply dressed in olive oil and aged balsamic and is a magnificent way to jumpstart your day.
2. Poindexter Coffee (1619 Pendleton St., 803-779-7779, graduatehotels.com/columbia)
You don’t have to be a hotel guest to grab a perch on a stool at the Graduate Hotel’s (formerly the Inn at USC) lobby-level café and bar, which offers breakfast all day long. The seemingly plain-Jane T.E.C. (tomato, egg and cheese) is proof a state of humility need not compromise delectability. The devil is in the details here: the sandwich’s core, its scrambled eggs, are delicate, astonishingly fluffy, and insinuated with just the right amount of scallion. A firm tomato slice and a finely calibrated amount of aged cheddar provide a cushion between the eggs and the buttery brioche bun that envelops everything. Execution wins over gimmickry, every single time.
3. The Devine Cinnamon Roll Deli (2617 Devine St., 803-465-4947, thecinnamonrolldeli.com)
The “brekkie” sandwiches at this emporium of sugar, spice and everything nice allow you to choose your own carb adventure with rye, bagel, Italian or sourdough bread options. The Big Pig, the biggest sammie on the block here, is quite a whopper. It’s packed with three eggs, peppered bacon, cheddar, smoked sausage and baked ham, and topped with a smattering of whole-grain mustard. At this deli, dessert is semi-mandatory, so after you polish off your sandwich don’t neglect that free mini cinnamon roll that comes with your order.
4. Pita Pit (2002 Greene St., 803-799-4557; 1332 Main St., 803-252-4415; pitapitusa.com)
What’s a Canadian-born pita chain doing on the list? Morning Glory, a hash browns-and-eggs specialty pita, was axed from the regular menu nationally a year or so ago, but the Columbia franchisee marches to his own drummer and opted to stick with this awesome pre-set item, which is popular locally. Fill it up with your veggies of choice, but know that pro gamers ask for mushrooms, onions and green peppers on the grill. Then add some feta and sauce it up with sriracha and you’ll be enjoying this pita in all its shining glory.
5. B.L.D. Diner (4840 Forest Dr., 803-931-3595, facebook.com/blddinerforestdrive)
The B in B.L.D. is for breakfast, and it’s the meal this bougie diner in Trenholm Plaza regularly knocks out of the park. I fell in love with the croque madame and the croque monsieur while on a study abroad program in Nice, France, but for the life of me always forget the difference between the gendered grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. In case you’re drawing a blank too, the female variant has got an egg on top. B.L.D.’s straight-up Croque Madame brings floods of memories back as soon as my teeth puncture the sunny side yolk and that sultry gruyere hits my palate.
Top Five Spots for Hummus Plates
By April Blake
1. Al-Amir (2431 Main St., 803-401-5882, facebook.com/NomabyAlAmir)
Though Al-Amir has moved around quite a bit through the years, the signature dish remains the Damascus Hummus, and it’s not hard to see why people clamor for it. On the bottom is a large swirl of warmed but not cooked hummus, thick and creamy. An additional drizzle of tahini and olive oil gives a depth of flavor to the hummus, and the entire thing is then loaded down with a choice of vegetables or falafel to make it vegetarian — or you can opt for chicken, kufta, gyro or lamb. The whole concoction is served with an oversized puff of Damascus bread (a very big pita, sprinkled with sesame seeds and drizzled with olive oil) to scoop up every last drop of hummus on the plate. It may not be uncalled for to order an additional side of Damascus bread to make sure that not a drop of hummus is left behind without resorting to licking the plate.
2. Arabesque on Devine (2930 Devine St., 803-779-6299, facebook.com/ArabesqueSC)
The hummus plate at Arabesque seems to be everyone’s favorite, and for a good reason. The chickpea spread is impossibly smooth, lightly garlicky, and comes topped with your choice of kufta, chicken, vegetables or lamb to make hummus an actual entree if you don’t feel like sharing, or an appetizer as intended if you split it among your friends. The enormous and fluffy Damascus bread makes it fun as you have to tear off pieces to dip in the spread. In fact, the hummus is an excellent choice to accompany the happy hour specials, and there’s plenty of parking right after work. Cheers to that.
3. Green Olive (922 Main St., 803-764-3740, greenolivesc.com)
The hummus at Green Olive comes as an appetizer, and this may be the most pure form of hummus that is available in Columbia. The lemon-tinged chickpea puree is drizzled with a finishing olive oil and topped with an olive, green of course. A rustic and bumpy pita bread is served alongside it for dredging pieces through the hummus until the last drop is gone.
4. Pitas (1800 Taylor St., 803-343-3454, pitascolumbia.com)
There are several options for getting Pitas’ creamy hummus in your maw. The appetizer plate features hummus, lightly drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and shatta (Middle Eastern hot sauce), with the option to pump up the protein with three ounces of chicken or beef. That same hummus can also be stuffed in a pita pocket with your choice of tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce; or kofta, parsley, onions and tomatoes. It’s the choose-your-own-adventure of hummus in Columbia, for those who don’t want to choose between the delectable bean paste and meat when they opt to eat Middle Eastern.
5. Good Life Cafe (1614 Main St., 803-726-2310, goodlifecafe.net)
One of the healthier hummus options in Columbia is from the preeminent raw cafe in town. Good Life seasons its chickpea puree into an extra savory, scoopable whip that’s served with ultra-healthy, fiber-filled flax seed crackers. The hummus is served alongside a scoop of vegan, nut-free pesto and a smoky vegan pimento “cheese” for a trio of dips that give a good introduction to the style of non-cooking that’s integral to Good Life.
Top Five Places for Hash and Rice
By Tug Baker
Native to South Carolina and used as a side over rice in barbecue joints all over the Southeast, hash began as a way to use up the entire pig by simmering leftover organs with spices. But no two hashes are alike. Some are mustard-based, some ketchup, some both. Some use pulled pork instead of offal. Some use beef. And just as no hashes are the same, ask 100 people to name their Top Five, and you might well get 100 different lists. The five here have almost nothing in common except that they are delicious.
1. Hite’s Bar-B-Que (240 Dreher Rd, West Columbia; 803-794-4120; hitesbbq.com)
Now this is a hash for the purists. Hite’s Bar-B.Que. in West Columbia has been simmering big ol’ pots of hash since 1957. Using pork bits from their whole hog barbeque as well some beef, this is a greyish-brown meaty hash with little to no sweetness but tons of smoky, savory goodness. There’s an iron-y hint of liver, reminiscent of that other Southern staple, scrapple. For folks used to sweet, ketchup-based hash, this may take some getting used to, but it’s the real deal. Hite’s is a takeout-only joint, so you can always buy an extra pint and freeze it for the next time you’ve got a sudden hankering.
2. Bone-In Barbecue (2180 Boyce St., 803-728-7512, boneinbarbeque.com)
Chef Scott Hall has been changing the way we think about barbecue ever since Bone-In Barbeque opened first as a food truck and now a full-time restaurant next to the Columbia Fireflies’ home at Segra Park. And his hash and rice is no different. Bone-In’s hash combines their pulled pork and brisket along with rendered brisket fat that gives it a nice smoky flavor along with some gooey texture. While mainly sauced with their darker-than-usual mustard sauce, there are also caramelized onions and fresh tomatoes ground in (no shortcuts here) for a fresh, piquant flavor. This dish also has hands-down the best rice of this list with long grain jasmine rice that’s cooked in small batches so it is always full and fluffy and perfectly sticky. As with all things Bone-In, it may not be traditional, but damn if it isn’t tasty.
3. The War Mouth (1209 Franklin St., 803-569-6144, facebook.com/thewarmouth)
Chef Rhett Elliott told me that his favorite hashes growing up were from Sweatman’s in Holly Hill and Ward’s in Sumter. I myself grew up eating Ward’s hash, so that might explain some of my affinity for The War Mouth’s hash, but their approach is much bigger and bolder than what I grew up with and is all the better for it. Using more mustard than most in the sauce makes for a tangy burst of flavor with every bite. This is a thick mash-style hash that begs to be mixed up with the pleasantly chewy Carolina Gold rice that they serve it over, which makes for a more textured dish compared to places that boil their regular old rice to mush.
4. True BBQ (1237 D Ave, West Columbia, 803-791-9950, true-bbq.com)
West Columbia’s True BBQ proudly proclaims “Best Hash and Rice in South Carolina” on the sign outside, which is a mighty claim to make indeed. And while obviously, they aren’t at the top of my personal list, True BBQ is most definitely the standout crowd-pleaser of all the hashes listed here. This orange-ish-red, thick-ground hash is definitely on the sweeter side while still having a little kick of mustard. It’s mostly beef-based, which is something of a rarity among hashes, but the consistency and that sweet flavor make it top-notch for this style of hash that most people will recognize and love.
5. Big T’s Bar-B-Q (2520 Congaree Rd., Gadsden, 803-353-0488; 7535 Garners Ferry Rd., 803-776-7132; 1061 Sparkleberry Lane Ext., 803-788-4295; bigtbbq.com)
When you’re talking about hash and rice, you get to use some adjectives that you wouldn’t normally think would be descriptors of good food. So when I say that Big T’s hash and rice is mushy and gummy, I mean mushy and gummy in the best way possible. A true comfort food, Big T’s hash is a brown, savory take on the South Carolina staple, with a flavor that’s a little fatty and brothy, almost like a good purloo or bog recipe. They know that most folks like their hash and rice a little on the sweeter side, but they offer their regular or spicy sauce to drizzle on top if that’s not your preference.
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