Charleston, South Carolina
One of the areas lacking in my culinary repertoire is soul food – I have only on occasion enjoyed the basic, hearty, home-cooked food that truly makes you feel good. Soul food for me is the epitome of keeping it simple yet delicious, although I must caution that this is good food that might not necessarily be good for you – it is usually high in fat, cholesterol and calories. In the unlikely event that I ever find myself on death row I think I might select soul food for a last meal and eat myself to death. Prior to setting out on my recent Charleston, South Carolina adventure I was told that a trip to Charleston would be incomplete without a visit to Ernie’s for their lima beans. I’m sure your initial reaction might have been similar to mine – my mother prepared lima beans for us in our formative years, and although not unappetizing the thought of a scoop of the starchy, thumbnail-sized legumes hardly seemed like the basis for a side trip.
On the last day of my trip I remembered the recommendation and drove off in search of Ernie’s. Apparently it is a word-of-mouth operation – they have no web site, don’t advertise or even have any signage to indicate that you’re there. In a conversation with the desk clerk at the hotel in which she asked what places I had been to, I mentioned that I was having lunch at Ernie’s and her response was forceful and immediate: “How do YOU know about Ernie’s?”. It is so elusive an establishment that I drove past it twice while verbally berating my GPS for losing me in a residential neighborhood. I briefly considered a return trip to 82 Queen for another bowl of she-crab soup when I saw someone walk out the door with a plastic bag with what looked like a Styrofoam to-go container inside.
The interior is as plain and unassuming as the storefront; faux foliage hung from latticed walls, lit by bare florescent bulbs on the ceiling. A hand-made “Ernie’s” sign on what looked like a palmetto leaf painted white at the end was the only indication that I was in the right place; as a walked in the few patrons and staff in the restaurant looked up, waved and flashed a smile. There were no menus to be had, but a board behind the counter listed their regular offerings which included turkey necks, fried chicken and other dishes in my comfort range. I ordered the lima beans and took a seat after following the recommendation to have a homemade sweet tea to accompany the meal.
A dish of fragrant rice arrived at the table first, followed by one of the most beautiful sights of my life – a big bowl spilling over with a manly portion of slow cooked lima beans covering huge chunks of pig tails and pork neck. I spooned the thick stew over the rice, watching as tender chunks of pork fell away from the bone. It is my belief that if Charleston had been hit with a category 5 hurricane at that very moment they would have found my lifeless body with a spoon in one hand, a pig vertebrae in the other and an ear-to-ear grin. The sweet tea was the perfect beverage to chase the food and when my server returned to ask if I wanted desert I declined, presiding over a plate of skeletal porcine remains.
How Ernie has managed to keep the place a well-kept secret since their opening in 1982 is beyond me, but I’ll never regret the geographic challenge it took to make Ernie’s a part of my Charleston itinerary. Next quest: finding Waldo’s…
64 Spring Street
Charleston, SC 29403
GPS Coordinates: 32°47’31.57″N 79°56’36.26″W