Great Escapes

08.10.14

The Ultimate Southern Cheeseburger Created in South Carolina

Pimento cheese is a southern favorite that could only have been conceived in heaven. But even better—plopping the delectable spread on another star of the south: the good ol’ burger.

When it comes to food, no state is more lovable than South Carolina. Among the state’s self-evident culinary assets are the Lowcountry oyster roast, shrimp 'n' creamy grits, spectacular fried seafood, Frogmore stew, Huguenot torte, whole-hog barbecue, Gullah cuisine with its complex African roots, and a majestic legacy of greens cookery. Not least among Palmetto State glories is the pimento cheeseburger.

Pimento cheese (always spelled without an "i" in the middle) is a favorite southern-hostess spread of cheddar, mayo, mild red pepper, and, sometimes, horseradish, pickles, and other inventive add-ins. The dish goes back a hundred years and has been the featured sandwich ingredient at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta for as long as anyone can remember. Sometime in the early 1960s, J.C. Reynolds, proprietor of an eatery called The Dairy Bar in Columbia, South Carolina, had the bright idea to put it on a hamburger. Today ground zero for pimento cheeseburger excellence remains in Columbia, where the creation can be found at the Rockaway Athletic Club, the Kingsman, Mathias Sandwich Shop, and What-A-Burger, to name just a few top sources in the state capital. 

Chef Philip Bardin, who masterminded the original—and never equaled—Old Post Office Café on Edisto Island and is the absolute authority on the best in South Carolina food, once suggested to us that the first pimento burger may have been made at Edisto's late, lamented Ruby Seahorse Café. But when we visited several years back, they listed theirs as the "Original Dairy Bar Pimento Burger,” suggesting they were copying the J.C. Reynolds version. In fact, they upped the ante by topping a great, glistening round of ground beef not just with molten pimento cheese, but with the works—a swirling bouquet of mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle chips. Nearly all pimento cheeseburgers served today come like this: fully dressed.

In the last few decades, pimento cheeseburgers have become popular throughout the South. Not every version is memorable, but the pimento cheeseburger's grandeur is on full display at the Southside Smokehouse in Landrum, a small upcountry town just a few miles from the North Carolina border. The Smokehouse takes the concept to another level by not only topping its juice-laden meat patty with good, smoky pimento cheese (plus onions, lettuce, and mayo) and putting it in a brioche bun, but by bedding it on a couple of discs of crisp-fried green tomato. The tomatoes' crunch and tang add new dimensions of delight. To give it even more local character, one of the offered side dishes is red slaw, which is a smokehouse tradition in the central part of both Carolinas: doctoring up cole slaw with enough barbecue sauce to balance its mild cabbage character with a peppery zing.

Barbecue slaw fits right in at this restaurant because, as its name suggests, it is at heart a barbecue parlor—and a good one, for sure. The pulled pork is velvet soft and radiant with sweet pig flavor; succulent ribs are served by the rack or half-rack; pork hash over rice (a local passion) always is available; there is even barbecue salad: cabbage, cheese, onion, peppers, and tomato adorned with your choice of smoke-cooked pulled pork or chicken. When anyone at the table orders barbecue, the waitress brings over a metal bucket loaded with bottles of sauce: hot, sweet, South Carolina mustard, straight pepper hot sauce, brined peppers, and ketchup. Lexington (North Carolina) vinegar-pepper sauce comes in a small ramekin on the plate. While the smoke-cooked meats are good as-is, it's fun to experiment with the sauces, especially on barbecued chicken, which does tend to be dry. Classic side dishes include collard greens (austere and salubrious), baked beans, cole slaw, hand-cut French fries and, of course, hush puppies.

Also among the side dishes are jambalaya and red beans and rice: the south Louisiana specialties reveal the Cajun aspirations of the dining establishment, which is now in its tenth year. In fact, a whole section of the menu is titled "From the Bayou," and features étouffées, fried oysters, and Cajun sausage served with red beans and rice. When the host is in a festive mood, entering customers are given strings of Mardi Gras beads. 

So, the Southside Smokehouse is more than a barbecue pit, a burger shack, or a Cajun kitchen. It may look like an extra-large double wide, but it is, in fact, a colorful and creative restaurant. Chef Sarah McClure (daughter of proprietor Robbie McClure) is all about diversity, using whatever local vegetables are available and offering specials that range from lamb pizette topped with caramelized onions and pomegranates to brandy-laced she-crab soup, catfish tacos, and flatiron steak with green herb chimichurri sauce. She's happy to accommodate vegetarians, vegans, and those intolerant of gluten.

For dessert, there is apple pie a la mode and coconut buttermilk pie, and sometimes Sarah makes tiramisu; but be advised that the peach is South Carolina's official state fruit. If you dine at the Southside Smokehouse in summer at the height of peach season, you'll likely have an opportunity to dig into the kitchen's outstanding grilled pound cake topped with crisp pecans and slices of indescribably flavorful fresh peach: a dreamy conclusion to a hugely satisfying meal.

Southside Smokehouse: 726 S. Howard Ave., Landrum, SC. 864-457-4581.