"Is Chris working?" he asks. David Szlam is reared back in a booth, querying the barkeep across the room at Woody's Pizza on the Folly Beach strip.
"Feta, sausage, garlic, please. Sauce on the side, not inside!" He instructs her as she swings away toward Chris, the dough man operating a small kitchen in the back.
"What if Chris ain't here?" I ask.
"I'd get a pizza for the kids, and we'd go down the street."
The calzone comes hot, steaming, crackling with a crust unadultered by marinara. Just as Szlam claims, the lack of sauce inside gives the dough a shattering effect, bundled together in loose shards by melting cheese run through with the aniseed tinge of Italian sausage.
"Like I told you," Szlam crowed, "now dip it in the sauce and check that out!"
I entered Woody's to delve into the mind of a chef. David Szlam once commandeered the pioneering Cordavi restaurant and, alongside McCrady's Sean Brock, led the introduction of molecular gastronomy to Charleston's fine dining scene. We speak briefly of his present venture, a locally bottled ginger-infused bourbon called Virgil Kaine and its imminent expansion in the marketplace, but we soon settle on the reason for seeking out my old friend. David is a connoisseur of the "hole-in-the-wall." He plays with other people's menus.
"My favorite place?" he ponders. "I like the Muni Golf Course. I get a beer, watch people tee off, and laugh my ass off."
"They serve food?" I ask.
David laughs, "Yeah, I don't even play golf really. I just eat the chicken salad. It's homestyle, like the South, on wheat with chips and a pickle. Best chicken salad around."
For what must tally as forever, Szlam has scoured the town in search of cheap eats and filed away this local knowledge. He's looking for the kind of joint that others might pass by, the sort where the secret is in knowing the three things to order from a menu of 15, where the standard configuration may need a bit of tweaking and the cook isn't too proud to make it the way the customer wants. So it is with the calzone at Woody's, stripped of its usual sauce inside and made into a minimalist construction focused on the ability of a searing hot oven to evoke a certain texture in the crust — one that only the man named Chris can seemingly recreate.
This is the discussion as we saunter into the Surf Bar. Szlam recommends the Philly Cheese (mayo on bun, meat-cheese-onions only), but I'm still recovering from Woody's, so he orders house-made pork rinds that we dab with a bottle of hot sauce and quickly devour. In the course of a couple PBRs I learn much more of Szlam's favorite dive food.
"What about wings?" I ask.
"The Alley, or even better, go to Blue's Local Grill out on Highway 41," Szlam reveals, "but you call the Kickin' Chicken for a big game."
"A big game?" I contend.
"Yes, wings get soggy in a plastic box, so you get the lemon pepper wings at Kickin' Chicken and you tell 'em to 'fry them hard.' Get the hot sauce on the side and some blue cheese. Fried hard stays crispy 'till they get to your house and then you toss them with the sauce."
It goes on, through half-portions of red curry duck at Basil for lunch and fried chicken and sweet potato soufflé at the little-known Marie's Diner off Rivers Avenue in North Chuck (which has quickly become a personal favorite). I learn not to go to Dukes BBQ for pulled pork, but for the fried chicken, which could compete with your grandmother's.
Two weeks later at Zia Taqueria I contemplate the menu for a while before remembering our conversation. "Get the al pastor," Szlam had recommended. "Get it with the flour tortillas — sour cream and guacamole only."
And he's right. A dish I usually treat with rustic complements, girding a corn tortilla with piquant red sauces and sharp raw onion takes on a luscious, and quite subtle, expression of Zia's al pastor, the sharp, almost citrusy tang of the shaved pork allowed to take a larger role.
I began to find other nuanced combinations in strange places. Riso Noodle, a little-known but delicious Chinese shop in West Ashley, serves a Shanghai noodle soup that I spike with their spicy chili oil. But the pinnacle of Szlam's concept may lie down the street at the Chinese mega-buffet my daughter loves to visit. Cheap delights abound, and the Mongolian barbecue is a mix-and-match delight, but I often gorge on boiled shrimp, foraging a cocktail sauce from various steam tables and salad bars — mine consists of ketchup, fermented chili sauce, and a dumpling sauce that tastes of soy, black vinegar, and sugar.
I frequent bars, spiking french fries with strange accouterments and pouring fried shrimp baskets over burgers. I wandered starving into A.C.'s Bar and Grill the other night looking for my favorite burger in town, the Grand Marnier. Perhaps some caramelized onions? It's already grilled, then flambéed in the liqueur, and topped with melted cheese, bacon, and mushrooms. I ordered one straight up for nostalgia's sake and pondered the half-pound stack. I took a bite, then another, and I finished it realizing that some things shouldn't be tinkered with.