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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Columbia Eats: Southern Skillet

I love southern food. For me, few things are better then a juicy, mouthwatering piece of fried chicken alongside a plate of mashed potatoes and mac n' cheese. One of the great misfortunes of Columbia, South Carolina, however, is the lack of great Southern cooking restaurants. A northerner might think you couldn't walk out the door without seeing a low country eatery around here, but it, rather, is the complete opposite: you'll have to look mighty hard for it in this town if your looking for quality Southern cooking a la restaurant.

This week's dining crew. Props to the hats for tagging along!

In my endless search for real southern cooking, I received a tip from a friend to check out a place called 'Southern Skillet' - a small, almost-impossible-to-find-unless-told, buffet on the west side of town. On the surface, it looked promising: a true local business, the restaurant was packed from front to back with the lunch time crowd. The walls were lightly covered with southern emblems and images - some of which you may have to read twice to believe - and the restaurant as a whole exuded a local feel as the employees greeted and mingled with the regulars, including the chef who often stepped into the dining room to chat with customers.

A look at the surroundings.

After being seated, our dining crew of three went straight to work, piling our plates with everything we could get our hands on. The buffet was fairly small. Starting with a few vegetable dishes such as boiled cabbage and mash potatoes, the line quickly moved towards the main entrees including fried chicken and the two specials of the day - fried fish and pork chops.

For the first few moments, things seemed promising. Everything tasted homemade: the veggies - while nothing spectacular - were satisfying, the mashed potatoes were obviously not store bought, and the gravy was fair - not too rich, but still enough flavor to be a good match with the rice and mash. There was also smoked sausage, which is basically the equivalent of cheating in that there is no real way you could possibly go wrong with having that on your menu. Then there was the fried chicken. Well-seasoned and dripping with juices, the chicken definitely earned a thumbs up around the table. It's always a good sign when you don't need condiments to enjoy the chicken. All in all, the first plate seemed like a winner for our fair dining crew. It was all smiles as we rampaged the last of our initial chicken and finished our first run. Unfortunately, things started to turn... 'north' as we embarked on our second run at the buffet line.

It may have been thumbs up here, but it was only a matter of time
before things started going dangerously downhill.

I'm no southerner. As an Asian-American who grew up in the Midwest, I can wholeheartedly say that I am the furthest thing from a southern cooking expert. But, as I took a shot at the next list of items, I couldn't help but feel somewhat robbed of something distinctly southern. The first culprit was the 'gumbo', which turned out to be nothing more then a not-so-hearty tomato stew. The lack of okra - or anything else in general - turned out to be a huge disappointment here. There was no reason they possibly could have been aiming for tomato stew here, so I can't help but call it a failure. Also as bad was the 'fried cornbread' - truly mindblowing in concept and somehow amazingly dry - or the overly-fried corn cake, an interesting addition to the buffet, but poorly executed with all the grease and overpowering buttery taste.

Then there was the macaroni and cheese. When I think of mac n' cheese, I think of that gooey, creamy, cheesiness of the lower layers, and that crusty, extra cheesy top, all hot and sizzling as I pile it onto my plate. Unfortunately, there was none of that to be had here. I had an extreme lack of cheese in the bottom portions, and the top was neither crusty or gooey, but rather - of all things - a bit on the chewy side as the cheese had come together and formed into an entity of its own. And despite arriving in relatively good time (before 1 PM, they are only open for lunch between 11-2 PM), we got the cold end of the mac, adding to the increasing disappointment. I couldn't help but feel that it was a little too well done overall - and not in the compliment sense. The pork chop and fried fish were equally disappointing. While surprisingly tender on first bite, the pork chop soon dried out halfway through. The fried fish had a bit of a toughness to it that became quickly unappealing.

As much as we'd like to say desert saved the day, the bad news kept on coming. We sadly hit the peach cobbler years too late, leaving us with the final two choices - banana pudding and lemon bundt cake. The banana pudding, best put, had the consistency of Elmer's glue, and - if Elmer's glue tasted like a chewy, sticky pile of flavorless goo - had roughly the same taste as well. Our hopes quickly went to the bundt cake. Piled with whip cream, a thick, lemony glaze, and strawberries, it seemed like there was no way it could fail... but it did. One bite said it all - you'll never have a sweeter moment in your life. Packed with enough sugar to power a small village for the winter, the cake was almost completely unedible unless someone wanted to live dangerously - and even then they might think twice about this sugary death.

No Reservations, The Shakedown on Southern Skillet
Atmosphere: Columbia meets country.
Cost: $9.
Try: Chicken. Chicken. Chicken. Fried.
Don't: Have high expectations.
Nothing but the chicken really stands out.

Final Verdict: Southern Skillet overall turned out to be a bit of a disappointment in our search for great southern cooking in Columbia. While the fried chicken earned points, the lack of quality elsewhere ended up being a major letdown. If you are aching for some decent fried chicken in Columbia though, feel free to try out their carryout option - a fair substitute and cost-effective way to get some local cooking - but if your looking for the real deal from top-to-bottom, it looks like your search will have to forge on.

If you live in the Columbia area and would like to join any of my dining adventures throughout this summer, just leave me a message or email me at Till next time, thanks for reading and later days!


James said...

Damn, wonder if that is a difference in taste or a bad day (one issue I do have with them is sometimes some of the stuff is off the chain, sometimes its less than spectacular).

p.s. - zestos (i think is how its spelled) is also good chicken, but only the one in downtown columbia. Theres two others but neither are as good from what i hear.

Bach Pham said...

The Zestos I live near (in Forest Acres) taste the exact same as the downtown one in my opinion. Its just a smaller place. The chicken is pretty good there, as long as you stay away from the salty wings. Great for anyone on a budget, since the combo costs a bit less then the hamburgers.

I think Southern's Skillet probably does have the best chicken in town though, compared to the places I've eaten.

DMajorBoss said...

I've gotta say, that was nearly accurate in the visit there. Two things to come to me that I want to mention, by the way:

1) The pork chop I had was actually pretty juicy. A little over seasoned, yes, but it was pretty good overall, and I got two pieces of it.

2) It was gone by the 2nd and 3rd run (which is why I got it on the 1st), but the chocolate chip cookies were homemade and very good. Nice and hot, soft yet not crumbling to the touch, and the consistency of chocolate chips was about right. Again, though, I was the only one that got one, so that may affect it. Never the less, in the desert, the cookies were good.

All in all, though, pretty good review. I'd actually go back a second time, I admit, as the atmosphere was pretty good. Thanks for having me along on this outing, and let me know when another comes your way.

The LunchMen said...

Thanks for the very good post, The Lunchmen are going to head over to The Southern Skillet and give it a shot, too. If you are looking for some tasty southern cooking, I will stand behind Doc's on Bluff Road for Carolina BBQ, good fried chicken, fried catfish bites, and good southern sides (including my favorite potato salad in town). If you aren't feeling like taking down a buffet, nothing beats the diner-style southern cooking at Compton's in West Columbia. Nothing gourmet about Compton's, but it is as southern as you can get.

Bach Pham said...

Thanks for the response! I heard about your blog in the free times and have really enjoyed reading through your reviews. Looking forward to your next. I'll definitely give Doc's and Compton's a shot if I get the opportunity this summer.

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