Luigi’s, Augusta GA

This is Marie, contributing an article about a place that my father and I went to together when he lived in Augusta. My dad liked Luigi’s because it had Greek chicken, was convenient, and had a plate on the floor in front of the door stating “On this date in 1870 nothing happened”. (It is possible I may have slightly misremembered the date.) My dad is the kind of person for whom a tickle to the funny bone is worth twelve great meals. And this place seems to have offered him more than twelve. Grant had originally scheduled a popular burrito place, Nacho Mama’s, to sample as we drove through Augusta, but, protesting that he’d reached his limit, asked whether I’d mind having the burrito and telling him how it was. If that was going to be the case, I would rather visit a restaurant that’s important to my memory.

Luigi’s is a family type restaurant on the bad side of downtown. The restaurant has been in place since 1949, and a lot of bad things have happened to downtowns since then; Augusta doesn’t seem to have escaped from even one. For goodness sakes, there’s even a pillar that is supposedly able to strike you dead. The pillar does seem somewhat forgiving to work crews that move or repair it, so I have to assume that the curse was displaced onto the downtown itself. There’s even a pool hall, a tattoo parlor and a strip club in the otherwise mostly empty row of shop fronts where Luigi’s lives. And it does live – the place was packed, and early, when we got there with only two booths left available, and a wait list swiftly built up while we waited for our food to arrive. Local legend has it that the actor Jackie Gleason, in town for the Masters in the 1970s, followed up his meal at Luigi’s with an all-night hustling in the pool hall next door.

The original owner’s son currently runs the place. Curiously, neither of them was actually named Luigi. He’d been in an entirely different field of work and moved back to town to take care of his Dad, and wound up taking over the business. The decor is very strongly influenced by golf and ’50s music. The booth where we sat had in a large frame an almost uninterrupted run of Masters badges going back to the early ’60s, including one labeled as being a counterfeit. The kitsch is amusing and the juke box by the door works.

Reviews of the food vary from highly positive to lukewarm; there seems to be some variability in the quality. The menu has a curious combination of American Italian and Greek recipes, and my dad’s choice was generally the Greek chicken. That is a half chicken, roasted for at least 2 hours, and served with salad, rolls, a side, and lots of gravy. The meat is tender and flavorful without being overspiced. Of course there was no reason for me to buy anything except that for this visit.

This chicken was one of the few things he mentioned missing when he moved away from Augusta. One time when I was still living in Athens, I decided on a whim to drop by Luigi’s “on my way” to St. Simons Island and bring my Dad some Greek chicken. It only added a couple of hours to the trip, but it connected me with my grandfather, who was known to drive five hours or more out of his way (he would regularly drive between Minnesota and Mexico) to have a cup of coffee in my mother’s kitchen for twenty minutes. On the whole, I don’t know that anyone else would need to go that far out of the way for this place, but it made me happy to visit.

Neal’s Bar-B-Que, Thomson GA

Here’s a restaurant that was just plain difficult to find. Google Maps gave us pretty good directions from Statesboro up to Thomson, a large town a little west of Augusta, but the last road that we were looking for was very badly marked and we spent twenty minutes looking around for the place. I keep telling myself to study the map a lot more carefully, and not rely solely on directions. One day, I’ll get it right.

We came to Neal’s on the strength of a short review by John T. Edge (him again!) in the pages of a magazine with the quite remarkable name of Garden & Gun. Published in the November 2008 issue, and dissected within the forums of four or five dozen travel and food message boards ever since, “100 Southern Foods You Absolutely, Positively Must Try Before You Die” suggested that a really good serving of hash and rice could be found here, so, revisiting the article in search of inspiration back in March, I added it to my to-do list.

I certainly love good hash, but it was only this year that I had it served over rice. Around Athens, where I learned to love great barbecue in the 1990s, hash is about as common as Brunswick stew. Some of those good shacks in the northeast corner of the state are gone now – I’ve probably mentioned how much I miss Carrither’s – and others, like Paul’s in Lexington, serve up a side that they call stew but it more closely resembles hash in its use of fewer vegetables and more of the whole hog. I read recently that Hollis Ribs in Athens has both hash and Brunswick stew on the menu. Now that, I have to try**.

When we stopped into Augusta’s famous Sconyers in February as part of a looping day trip through South Carolina, we had hash served over rice for the first time ever. That’s the default way to prepare it in this part of the country. I have to tell you, Sconyers gets all the press and all the praise, and it was a pretty good lunch, but what we found at Neal’s just blew that place completely out of the water. I don’t know why the heck more people don’t know about Neal’s. This is, flatly, one of the best barbecue joints in the state.

The prices are low here and the portions are huge. I ordered a chopped pork sandwich and a plate of hash, and watched as the girls behind the register dipped a ladle into a great big steel pot and give it several backbreaking stirs before lifting my serving out. The pork is dry and smoky and completely wonderful. Just a little bit of the house’s vinegar sauce is all you need. And the hash, well, good grief. Edge, who you might recall is the Professor Emeritus of Eating Real Good at Ole Miss, was absolutely right to single this out. It is completely unforgettable. I follow Edge on Twitter. I’d love to follow him around in a car one day. He obviously knows where he’s going to eat.

Another famous fellow who knows about Neal’s is Jamie Oliver, who stopped by overnight during a stop on his six-part series Jamie’s American Road Trip, which aired on Channel 4 in the UK two years ago. When we spoke with the owner, Lynn Neal, she told us about Oliver’s visit, and that the show had not aired in America yet*. Watching the episode in question on YouTube, I’m not surprised. Links to YouTube are always extremely volatile as copyrights are enforced and users delete their accounts, but at present you can start viewing the episode here. It’s fascinating viewing, but the complete opposite of the usual upbeat and fun eye candy that you see on The Food Network that celebrates eating. The show is in equal parts a celebration of regional cooking as it is a sober, harsh, and cerebral exploration of how Americans are handling the recession and Obama’s presidency. The second segment of the episode – it’s uploaded in fifteen-minute chunks – gets pretty heavy with the casual bigotry to be found in both posh Savannah homes and in Chatham County trailer parks. These aren’t roads where Guy Fieri’s camera crew often stops, anyway.

For my part, I really enjoyed the contrast. It’s great fun to watch restaurant owners on Man Vs. Food or whatever talk about their wild recipes at maximum volume, but it’s also compelling viewing to hear Mrs. Neal talk about the difficulty in providing for her staff, before Oliver and the camera crew go back behind the building to see the pitmaster, whose name is Barry, and work with him in getting the hogs cooked.

Before we got home to look up the episode, she told us how Jamie and his production team “borrowed” Barry for a barbecue competition in Lakeland, Florida. She didn’t spoil the episode and tell us how that worked out, but she did say how very well they took care of Barry while he was away and made sure to get him back safe to resume cooking. Damn well that they did. Next time we are out this direction, we are definitely coming back to Neal’s for another pork sandwich and a plate of hash. My desire to try lots of new things sometimes leaves me unwilling to make second visits out of town in favor of exploration, but that won’t be happening the next time I-20 takes us east.

Well, we may need to stop at Heavy’s in Taliaferro County as well as Neal’s, but you get the idea.

(Also, a tip of the hat to Eat it, Atlanta, whose report on Neal’s confirmed for me that they would be open as we drove through! Thanks!)

*Oliver’s series was later scheduled to air in January 2012 on BBC America.

**I never got the chance. Hollis Ribs has since closed.

Sconyers Bar-B-Que, Augusta GA

So this past weekend, Marie and I went out on what will most likely be the last big road trip that we will take until the baby is born in May. We started with a small breakfast at Mamie’s Kitchen in Conyers, and then drove east out I-20 towards Augusta.

The journey took us through Taliaferro County, one of Georgia’s smallest, and the least populated. It is notable, in one circuit where I travel, as being the most difficult county in Georgia to obtain a hit on Where’s George, the currency tracking project that I enjoy playing. Even though there is never a guarantee or even a serious hope that spending money at a specific point will get you a hit from it, I could not resist pulling off the interstate at exit 148 and buying a little gas at the only filling station there – for a criminal $3.30 a gallon! – in the hopes that somebody local will hit one of my bills. I have hits from 61 of Georgia’s 159 counties, and I sure do hope that Taliaferro will be the 62nd. If not, I might have to go back out this way and get lunch at Heavy’s BBQ in Crawfordville one day. That’s where some scenes in the film Sweet Home Alabama were shot.

About three-quarters of an hour later, we were on the outskirts of Augusta, the state’s second largest city and home to the Greenjackets minor league baseball team. Oh, and the Masters, I suppose. Our destination was Sconyers, an old and very popular destination restaurant that, agreeably, opens at 10 am, allowing us to plan a de facto second breakfast. I’d heard an awful lot of tourist scuttlebutt about this place over the years, including its presence on a People magazine list of the nation’s ten best barbecue restaurants, and wondered whether it could live up to the hype. Part of it really did, I’m glad to say.

When Claude and Adeline Sconyers opened in 1956, it was in a little storefront with one of those cute wooden signs with Coca-Cola logos. Their son, Larry, has run the place since the late 1970s. He moved the restaurant into its current digs. It’s now a huge house with a gigantic gravel parking lot. Inside, the decor is understated and classic western, like an old log cabin. Or, if you prefer, like one of those pancake restaurants in the Smokey Mountains that look like they want to make you think that you’re in a log cabin. Attempting to enhance the western feel and failing quite spectacularly, the wait staff and servers all wear quite grotesque costumes. They’re these hideous blue and white faux-milkmaid things that would look tragic in a third-rate rep company’s production of Heidi. Never have I had such excellent and professional service from somebody dressed so garishly.

For our second breakfast of the day, we elected to split a small plate of chopped pork with hash and potato salad, along with an extra side of cole slaw. Strangely, the restaurant just crams all three of the different foods onto a single, small plate, serving that atop a slightly larger plate to catch your crumbs and spills. Trying to cut calories, I actually removed potato salad from my diet almost two years ago, but I succumb every so often for a few bites. I had heard, correctly, that Sconyers has excellent potato salad and so the couple of bites that I had were well spent.

The pork, however, was really quite disappointing, just sort of limp and moist with no smoky flavor at all, but it is served with a really excellent sauce that goes very well with it, and turns an ordinary meat into something quite memorable. The sauce is available in three degrees of heat, and it is a mixture of vinegar and mustard with a little tomato and a secret blend of spices that Mr. Sconyers still adds daily. This kind of sauce is absolutely not to Marie’s liking, and I suggested she might want to pass on it, but I thought it was super.

The cole slaw was also really something – a light mayo-based blend served with sweet pickles – but the standout was the hash. Now, several of my favorite places in northeast Georgia serve up a really thick, not-Brunswick stew that is a lot like Carolina hash, but only a few, like the dearly missed Carrithers in Athens, actually called it hash. Sconyers serves the real deal, a thick blend of leftover pork and sauce over rice and it is just amazing. Even if you’re just passing through with lunch or dinner plans somewhere else, you need to stop in here for a four buck bowl of hash and rice. There’s a reason that Jimmy Carter had Sconyers cater a big White House event; this hash is something special.

This is the sort of restaurant where you can understand why locals have started grumbling that it isn’t as good as it used to be. People turn on success and even in cities like Augusta, which seems to have an aging population and not one so interested in a vibrant foodie community, people do tend to look for the next new thing. Is it possible for a restaurant with a parking lot the size of a small stadium to maintain quality for better than fifty years? Well, I don’t know whether it is as good as it used to be, but it’s still okay at some things and downright excellent in others. This is definitely worth a visit, I’d say. Just get ready to giggle at those silly costumes.

Other blog posts about Sconyers:

The Grit Tree (Mar. 22 2012)