Written by Josh Sens
It was nearing dinner hour, just west of Myrtle Beach, and Darren Smith was standing in his restaurant kitchen, contemplating things he could do with catfish. Crisping it in cornmeal, so classically Low Country, was an obvious option. But obvious is not what Smith is known for at Rivertown Bistro, the eclectic spot he runs in downtown Conway.
Since 1994, when he and his wife, Cyndi, cut the ribbon on the place, Smith has made his name with playful riffs on Southern staples. On opening night, more than 20 years ago, he served cornmeal-dusted catfish, but he punched it up with peach marmalade and rice pilaf. Crawdads made a cameo that evening as well. Smith offered them au gratin over fried zucchini, with a Jackson Pollack swirl of roasted red-pepper cream.
In those days the dining scene in and around Myrtle Beach was not so much a scene as it was a nondescript collection of steakhouses, seafood shacks, fast-food joints and meat-and-threes: a family-friendly smorgasbord for golfers and beachgoers. Smith was keen on cooking food that he felt like eating. It turned out a lot of people felt like eating that food, too. “At first, when they read the menu descriptions, some folks looked at me like I was maybe crazy,” Smith says. “But when they actually tried the dishes, the reaction was, ‘Hmmm. This is pretty darned good.’ ”
Crowds that flock to Rivertown today have come to expect the unexpected. Dishes they encounter range from crispy pork belly bedded on a succotash of corn and edamame, to savory pimento cheesecake garnished with shiitakes and sautéed peas. Smith loves burgers, so his menu always has one. But he also enjoys egg rolls, so he makes one Southern-style, filling it with chicken, spinach, Tasso ham, and cheddar and jack cheeses, and flanking it with sweet-and-spicy honey dijon.
“That’s another one where people looked at me kinda funny at first,” Smith says. “But if I tried taking that egg roll off the menu today, I might get run out of town.” Not that Smith would ever dream of leaving, now that things have really started getting interesting.
Though Myrtle Beach remains, in the eyes of many travelers, a land of Outback blooming onions and Dairy Queen blizzards, that stubborn reputation distorts reality. In recent years the same culinary wave that swept through Charleston, helping elevate that city to food-world fame, has rippled up the coast to the Grand Strand and its surrounds, resulting in a rising tide of chefs and restaurants with fresh interpretations of Low Country cuisine.
When he isn’t working his own stoves, Smith likes to graze around the changing landscape. Sometimes he motors south to Pawleys Island for shrimp and grits with truffle butter at Chive Blossom, an artful little restaurant shaded by giant oaks. Other times he drives due east to Fire and Smoke Gastropub, in an unassuming strip mall off North Kings Highway, where chef Tyler Rice busts out a version of chicken and biscuits that wasn’t plucked from his grandma’s playbook: The biscuits are made with sweet potatoes, and the whole shebang is plated with sweet-corn crème brûlée.
Like a growing number of area restaurants, Fire and Smoke shifts its menu with the seasons, and draws ingredients from nearby fisheries and farms. Another place that does the same is the Fowler Dining Room, an energetic outpost run by students from the International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach at Horry Georgetown Technical College. Open for lunch only, the restaurant turns out items that range from blistered flatbreads, topped with local greens and artisan goat cheese, to fresh-caught wood-fired grouper set on golden fritters of Carolina rice.
“Part of becoming a good chef is learning to take advantage of what Mother Nature gives you,” says Joseph Bonaparte, the Culinary Institute’s executive director. “We want students to learn about the restaurant business, but also how to use what’s in their own backyard.”
There is, after all, an embarrassment of riches. Heirloom rice, corn, greens and gourds flourish throughout the region, as do beans and tomatoes. The coastal waters teem with flounder and shellfish. Murrells Inlet, a pristine estuary just north of Pawleys Island, is a faithful source of oysters, which are small and plump and sweet, and a favorite at a number of local institutions. To eat them raw at Bimini’s Oyster Bar, with hot sauce and horseradish, is to wonder why anyone would bother cooking them. Until you try the oyster roast at Nance’s Creekfront, which sits right on the inlet, and you realize that raw is not the only way to go.
Oyster roasts. Shrimp boils. Chicken bog. Barbecue. For all the recent reinvention of regional cuisine, some of the finest local dishes have gone wonderfully unchanged. This is not the kind of cooking you find at chains. You encounter it at down-home spots like Horry’s Restaurant and Oyster, a familyrun haunt in Longs, 25 miles north of Myrtle Beach that is worth the drive for the grilled flounder with hush puppies and pickle-sweetened slaw. You come across it, too, at Hog Heaven, just south of Pawleys Island, which lays out buffet tables of pulled pork, collards, green beans and giblet gravy, as well as heaping platters of buttermilk fried chicken, with bronzed and brightly seasoned batter that holds together even as you tear apart the chicken legs and thighs. It’s all-you-can-eat for $7.95, and all you can do not to overdo it.
Along with hearty fare, Hog Heaven has a rich backstory. A generation ago its low-slung cinderblock building was home to Young’s Yum, as in George Young, an acclaimed pit master who worked for many years as a valet to George Vanderbilt III. During that tenure, Young gleaned tips from top-notch chefs in the Vanderbilt kitchen. He also took to barbecuing for his boss and other bigwigs—senators, movie stars, business moguls—burnishing his skills and reputation. By the time he launched Young’s Yum, he was a near-folkloric culinary figure.
Which didn’t mean that he didn’t have to hustle. On the side, Young kept a concession gig at nearby Caledonia Golf and Fish Club, where he was celebrated for his peppery fish chowder. Though Young died in 2007, his chowder recipe endures. It is still served every day from a cast-iron cauldron outside a tattered shack between Caledonia’s 9th green and 10th tee: free sustenance for golfers as they make the turn.
The man in charge of cooking it is Frank Beckham, a part-time caterer and part-owner of the golf club who grew up in Myrtle Beach in the 1950s and marvels at the evolution of the region, and the changes that he tastes in the cuisine. “A lot of people are cooking the kind of food we ate as kids, what we used to call soul food,” Beckham says. “Except now they’re doing it with an artisanal spin.”
Beckham is mostly fond of the new-fangled approach. On Pawleys Island, where he lives, he is something of a regular at Rustic Table, an easygoing but ambitious restaurant where the collards that come with horseradish-encrusted pork loin are braised unconventionally in sweet tea. He likes dropping by Perrone’s, a tapas bar that takes creative liberties with local staples, steaming mussels, say, in Thai spices, and setting scallops over creamed white corn and tomato coulis. “There are some pretty funny-sounding things on menus these days,” Beckham says. “But you put them in your mouth and you go, ooo-wee!
Still, some recipes need no updating. In upholding Caledonia’s fish chowder tradition, Beckham follows the same steps that George Young established: simmering bass or bream in water with bacon, onions, tomato paste and a medley of eight spices, including crushed red pepper and celery salt. The only change he has made is a shorter cooking time, the better to keep the chunks of fish intact. Golfers aren’t complaining. “A lot of people will call up to make a tee time,” Beckham says, “but before they do, they’ll say, ‘Wait. Are you all still doing that soup?’ ”
One of those people isn’t Darren Smith. The chef is not a golfer. He owns a golf cart, though, a handy little buggy for buzzing around town. He often rides it the few blocks from his Conway home to the Rivertown Bistro, and then a few blocks farther to Rivertown’s sister restaurant, Bonfire Taqueria, a taco shop-cum-smokehouse that he and Cyndi opened two years ago.
Both places keep him busy, but Rivertown’s kitchen was where he found himself late one recent afternoon, still pondering the question of what to do with the catfish. In another hour or so, the bistro doors would open. Smith considered the filets. Dusting them with cornmeal wasn’t going to do it. He wanted something different, something Southerntasting that he had never tried before. That something, he decided, after a bit more mulling, was to pan-sear the fish, set it on a hillock of local stone-ground grits, then garnish it with currants, dried blueberries and apples. As a final flourish, he opted for a drizzle of Steen’s cane syrup.
“It’s kind of comforting and breakfasty,” he said. “I like how it turned out.” All that was left was to put it on the menu and see if his customers agreed.
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