The 2017 NFL season was a magical one for Philadelphia Eagles fans. We had spent a lifetime watching our rivals hoist the Lombardi Trophy after winning the Super Bowl while all we had was an occasional close call and an overload of agonizing frustration. That all came to an end in early 2018, when the Birds defeated the favored Patriots, 41-33, in Super Bowl LII.
My friend John and I have been going to Eagles home games together for much of our lives. Within the past decade, we’ve started mixing in an occasional road game. During the 2017 season, we headed for Charlotte in October to see our team take on the Carolina Panthers. Of course, I spent many hours leading up to the trip focusing on another passion; food and where we would eat during this football journey, which would take us to the upper reaches of the Southeast, home to a lot of culinary treats I’ve drooled over for years while looking at photos and restaurant reviews on the roadfood site. Unfortunately, my experience at actually eating the region’s food was fairly limited, consisting mainly of my 50th birthday trip, of which I’ll write more about later. I was very excited about returning to at least a small portion of the Southeast and was confident there would be good eats ahead of us.
As Charlotte is significantly inland from the coast, We cut over from I-95 to I-81, which winds through western Virginia, after passing Baltimore. I had my mind set on two possible lunch stops just off 81 not long after we would link up with it. As we approached the exit for the first one, we were hungry, which made the decision of which restaurant to stop at easy. We exited at New Market, VA, and drove the short distance to the Southern Kitchen, a legendary establishment among my online circle of roadfood friends.
They serve all three meals and offer a nice array of regional specialties, including genuine country ham – as opposed to the stuff that inappropriately receives that label on northern menus – and peanut soup. As I did during my only previous visit to the Southern Kitchen, I went for a fried chicken platter, another one of their specialties. The crust was crispy and well-seasoned, while the meat was amply juicy and perfectly tender.
In the Southeast, at an establishment like the Southern Kitchen, green vegetables are cooked until limp. They taste partially of the pork fat with which they shared the cooking pot and are often laced with small pieces of pork. For sides, I went with porky green beans, a favorite side-dish of mine when making a rare foray south of the Mason-Dixon line, and macaroni-and-cheese.
I passed up the chance to order pie – a rarity for me – and went with another regional item; Grapenut pudding, for dessert. This is actually also found in parts of New England, as is Grapenut ice cream. But I’m not sure if it’s made in the same style. I know the Grapenut pudding at the Southern Kitchen is outstanding.
I didn’t photograph the main portion of John’s meal and don’t recall what he ordered, but he had a chocolate shake on the side that tasted good, but was thin to the point of being almost like thickened chocolate milk. I wouldn’t order a shake at the Southern Kitchen if I ever return there.
After a drive of about nine hours, we finally arrived in Charlotte and checked into our hotel with just enough time to freshen up before heading to the stadium for the Thursday night game. We had a lot of company from Eagles fans, who were all over the place, including a number in our section. As is often the case with Philly fans, that made for a rowdy atmosphere that got fairly heated at times. There was an altercation some rows above us that received national media attention.
Before heading to our upper-deck seats, we checked out the field view from a closer vantage point.
The Birds won the game, and a guy named Carson Wentz played brilliantly at quarterback. We were so sure we had many years of enjoyment with him leading the team to more success ahead of us. The lesson is: Enjoy a good situation while you can. It may not last.
Although our trip destination was Charlotte, which is also in the title of this post, we decided not to spend the remaining day and night we had there. We checked out of our hotel the morning after the Eagles’ win and started heading north. Our first stop – for lunch – was Lexington, NC, which is about an hour north of Charlotte. Lexington is the epicenter of Western North Carolina style barbecue, also known as Piedmont or Lexington style. While Eastern Carolina barbecue consists of dousing smoked, chopped pork with a sauce composed only of vinegar and pepper, the sauce that goes on the smoked pork in Western Carolina has a touch of sweetness added, often in the form of ketchup. There is still a vinegary tang, but it’s less powerful than it is for Eastern Carolina barbecue.
The best-known barbecue joint in Lexington, and one of the top in the entire state, is Lexington Barbecue #1. They smoke pork butts for hours over smoldering wood to achieve a delightfully smoky flavor. If I recall correctly, the chopped pork arrives lightly sauced, but there is more for adding on each table. John ordered his pork finely chopped, while I went for a plate of coarsely chopped meat, which is typically sided by coleslaw. That’s how John had his. I’m not a slaw guy and substituted baked beans. We were also presented with hush puppies, which are standard at most North Carolina barbecue establishments. I love hush puppies and wish they were more common up north in my region.
We washed down our meals with Cheerwine, a cherry-flavored soda that is popular in North Carolina.
On our way out, I picked up a hat that I got a lot of good wear out of before losing it somewhere along the line. We also noticed that there was an upcoming barbecue festival that we’d unfortunately have to miss.
From Lexington, we continued north to an area known as the Research Triangle that is the home of two storied universities that are also major college basketball powerhouses: Duke and North Carolina. Duke’s campus is full of beautiful, gothic architecture, which we checked out before stopping at the school store to buy a mug for my brother-in-law, who collects college mugs. We then made a quick stop at North Carolina Central, also in Durham and the alma mater of my step-father. While there we grabbed yet another mug for the collection.
We then moved on to Chapel Hill, which is University of North Carolina country.
Chapel Hill has a few well-known roadfood establishments we considered for dinner, but I had my heart set on taking advantage of the fact that there was an old drug store which still has a restaurant and soda fountain in the heart of town. Drug-store lunch counters and restaurants are one of my favorite roadfood sub-genres. I try to eat at them whenever the opportunity presents itself. There are probably more of them left in the Southeast than any other part of the country.
Sutton’s had much more than a counter. The restaurant took up a lot of space and there was a full dining menu. We both went for burgers with onion rings and also ordered shakes, butter-pecan for John and peach for me. Both the burgers and shakes were top-notch. The onion rings were a little over-overcooked and not among the best I’ve had.
On our way out, we stopped for a gander at Sutton’s great selection of rare bottled sodas.
It was a short trip and we headed for home the next morning. But there were stops to make along the way.
The first was for frozen custard at Carl’s in Fredericksburg, VA. I’ve seen photos of Carl’s in which huge lines of people wait their turn for a frozen treat. But it was a rainy day late in the ice cream season and I had no wait at all for my cup of strawberry and vanilla custard. It wasn’t as dense as I expected, but the flavor of the strawberry custard was remarkable. It overwhelmed the vanilla. Had I known in advance, I would surely have ordered only the strawberry. It was so good that I won’t hesitate to drive some miles out of the way for more of it if I ever find myself back within shouting distance of Fredericksburg.
Our final meal stop was at G&M Restaurant & Lounge in Lincicum Heights, MD, which is a little south of Baltimore. G&M’s crab cakes and stuffed shrimp, which are stuffed with a smaller version of the crab cakes, are legendary, and rightfully so. I will admit to not having had a ton of great crab cakes in my life, but among those I have tried, none comes close to the ones at G&M. I’m talking huge chunks of fresh jumbo lump crab meat and just enough filler to hold it together.
It was a memorable road-trip for John and me and a successful business trip for the Eagles as well. Just how far would they take their success that season? The picture at the top and bottom of this post says more than I can with words.