A couple years back I worked for a now defunct startup as their social media manager and the one question I would get from friends and family a like, some who owned their own businesses, was “So, what exactly do you do?” It’s a valid question, but one that is not so easily answered. The follow-up questions were almost always, “So you play on social media for a living, posting spammy promotional posts and the occasional meme?”
One thing Charleston has continued to gain a reputation for is its burgeoning culinary scene. However, my adopted city isn’t short on other culturally inviting activities.
My friend Amy Wachter Driggers, founder of ShopTaxidermy just opened up a prime pop-up location next to Maris DeHart, a chic boutique in Charleston. If you haven’t bought one of Amy’s divine bags, pairs of shoes or many accessories, you’re missing out…Taxidermy is blowing up.
What could be more intimidating than standing in front of Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons about to be told if your fate is sealed as a chef or you’re still in the mix to become America’s next Top Chef? Chef Jamie Lynch of the 5ChurchGroup, Now Joins an Elite List of Chefs Who Knows Just How it Feels.
Read more here
This is a hard one for me to write because I feel like it’s going to be my first really critical piece, but then again I’m an ex-New Yorker are we really ever anything but critical?
Bacon and Bourbon—sigh…how I loved you last year and told all that I met how it was my favorite event in town, but sadly the mighty have fallen.
This year fell flat and I think a lot of it had to do with location. I know everyone is in awe of the glorious Galliard Center, I too, think it’s beautiful, but it’s better reserved for specific events. In this case, the environment didn’t lend itself to the bourbon tasting, bull riding, laser skeet shooting, bluegrass listening type event that Bacon and Bourbon is. In fact, it almost felt like Bacon and Bourbon this year was suffering from an identity crisis or maybe doing its best impersonation of the villain Two-Face from the Batman franchise.
Inside was this odd ballroom set up with weird lighting (you know the kind that makes everyone look haggard), random blasts of confetti and too much pork belly, while outside there was a fun country fire pit, bull riding, a band playing hoedown style flare—confusing! Last year the group held the event at Meminger and while the auditorium didn’t allow for the fantastic outdoor portion of this year’s event, it still seemed more suited to the overall aesthetic the group organizers were going for.
Let me back up, for those of you who haven’t attended or don’t know what it is, Bacon and Bourbon is an annual event in Charleston (well, it’s actually a national event that’s held in all major cities, NYC included). It basically is a time for those of us who enjoy pure gluttony to gather together and justify our need to overeat pork products and down large quantities of brown booze. It just tastes so good when it touches your lips!!!
Charleston’s version has historically been one of the best in town, tickets going on sale in November and largely selling out by December. In fact, I bought my general admission tickets in early December and VIP tickets were already sold out. The VIP tickets allow you to enter the event an hour and a half before the gates open to the commoners. Usually, I don’t think VIP tickets are worth it, but for this event and one other (Boone Hall’s oyster roast) I do think they are worth the extra price.
The reason is that these two events sell so many tickets it’s virtually impossible to move in the environments and the lines basically keep you from doing the very thing you’re supposed to be doing—sampling different products.
This was my biggest issue with this year’s Bacon and Bourbon event. Forget the weird lighting and two very different environments - the space was not conducive to the number of people they let in. The lines that formed at each Bourbon booth and food stand were so long and hard to determine where they began and ended that we spent a large part of the time just standing in, or assuming we were standing in a line to taste something.
Another complaint I had from last year and it seemed similar this year is everyone’s fascination with pork belly. I mean I get that piggy is delicious, but there are other ways to serve pork.
I love bacon, but I’m a textural foodie, so there are certain things I can’t eat and pork belly with its gelatinous fattiness is one that doesn’t agree with my palette. So this left me with few options.
Thankfully for me, Daniel Doyle and his team at Poogan’s Smokehouse came through again, with some delicious pork hash over rice with some hot salsa, by far my favorite dish! Chef Daniel gets me! I stand by the fact that he has one of the best fried-chicken sandwiches I’ve ever tasted and I’ve sampled a lot of fried chicken. Also, shout out to Virginia’s on King for bringing their amazing biscuits, those things are unreal!
So, there were some shining lights at the event for me, but overall even though I wanted to love the event again this year, I really found myself more frustrated and confused, so were the people with me. We waited in long lines for tastes of bourbon and bits for food and spent much of the rest of the time navigating the crowd just to find a place to balance our food items and drinks, so we could really enjoy them.
I will say, I was again impressed by the staffers at the event. They all knew their stuff and one of the elements I enjoyed most of the night was hearing about the different histories from the bourbon distilleries and sharing in the passion emanating from the staffers, I especially want to call out the young lady who was manning the Woodford Reserve booth—Brittany! She knew her stuff and took the time to ask me questions about my preferences, ultimately serving up the best bourbon for my palette and that had me coming back for more, despite the line.
Not sure I will buy a ticket for next year, but if I did it would be VIP, so I could get in early and enjoy, then get out before the crowd gets too unmanageable.
This isn’t just going to be a typical restaurant review because; I wasn’t even asked to give a review on Pancito & Lefty, the hot new Charleston Mexican restaurant founded by Jimmy Poole (of The Alley) and Chef Robert Berry.
But, after heading to the new spot last weekend I felt compelled to write a little something, not just because I already admire Jimmy and his crew for their continued successes, but because he’s one of the few younger entrepreneurs I’ve met in Charleston who seems to understand that nothing replaces hard work. Sure, he appreciates the social scene and enjoys a good time, like anyone else, but more than not when you see Jimmy he’s cleaning tables at his places, helping seat and checking on customers.
In a time where I am constantly shocked by young people telling me they aspire to own their own business or that they do, but spend most of their time on the social scene or in pursuit of 15 minutes of fame, I am in awe of Jimmy’s and his team’s work ethic, dedication and drive to give customers an amazing, quality experience.
Before you snarl and wonder why I am qualified to determine what a solid customer experience is, let’s just say after living in LA, NYC and traveling all over the world for my job I have experienced the downright amazing versions of customer service and seen it be the demise of many lofty establishments. So, I am just speaking from one customer’s perspective, who until purchasing a place in Charleston and being forced to, didn’t really cook. That’s right, my oven in NYC was used more for storage than conjuring up delicious palette pleasing dinners. So, you could say I’m a professional diner!
Chef Berry, Jimmy and beverage director David Axelrod need to be commended because their research paid off. Apart from my spicy margarita, which was made with hot sauce instead of muddled jalapenos…come on guys, Pancito & Lefty’s really brings together some of the traditional Mexican flavors I learned to love while living in Los Angeles. While in my 20s in LA I enjoyed many jaunts to Baja, Cabo, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Cozumel and Mexico City…no, when you live in LA you don’t vacation in the Caribbean…it’s Mexico or Hawaii because road trips are out, three to four hours in the car and you’re still in Los Angeles County, uh no thanks! Palm Springs is the desert where old people go to die and Tahoe has bears…so stop judging. My LA people get this
The restaurant’s guacamole is probably some of the best I’ve had in a long time. The perfect blend of veg and spicy, smooth and chunky. The tacos were all exceptional (carnitas and fish were my favorite) and the Mexican version of Vietnamese Pho was so flavorful I didn’t even mind eating it even with the gelatinous chunks of pork floating around. If you’ve read my pieces you know I have a weird food textural aversion to gelatinous types of food (I hate you pork belly)!
However, for me, probably the single most appealing aspect of the restaurant wasn’t the delicious food or the hip/retro décor, but rather the people. Jimmy and his team have it right! They understand that customer service can make or break a diner’s experience. This was thrown into sharp light for me when I returned to NYC the week after dining at Pancito & Lefty’s, as I often do, still splitting my time. What I found this time is that Charleston’s charm is having more of an impact on me than I ever could’ve imagined.
I was suddenly sharply aware of the lack of customer service, focus, passion and dedication several of my favorite NYC eatery’s displayed – Rosemary’s - I’m looking at you. We had to flag our waiter down several times to get refills on our drinks… hello, we’re a table full of attractive females… isn’t that savvy-waiter training 101? The higher the alcohol consumption the bigger the tip? Perhaps the most upsetting was finally having to ask our waiter who was leaning down to speak to the table next to us after several moments to kindly remove his backend from our table and dinner that had been delivered. “I like big butts and I cannot lie,” but not with my delicious Italian dinner!
Back to the point of this piece. I will keep going back to Pancito & Lefty’s again and again. Yes, I will order the delicious guac and cheese fondito, but more because the team there is so passionate about the experience and it shows in everything they do. From being greeted by several folks to them accommodating our rather large crowd at the last minute it was a GREAT DINING experience. Not only did we interact with our waiter, but we talked to several other staff members casually stopping to check on us and chat us up about the rationale behind each tasty treat.
This was a refreshing throwback for me… people in service caring about that service and what they were putting in front of you! It really is about the people and aspiring restaurateurs should remember that. Fill your place with passionate, dedicated team members and you’ll win loyal customers who will help your business thrive. Pancito & Lefty’s I would totally join your gang!