She may not be an official part of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, but Martha Lou's Kitchen on Morrison Drive belongs on your list of must-visit restaurants. She has been open for 28 years. Yet until the recent New York Times article by Sam Sifton ("Some of Charleston's best: McCrady's, Husk, and Martha Lou's Kitchen"), one has to wonder if very many so-called Charleston foodies had ever tried the place — the Pepto-pink exterior and "questionable location" being a deterrent.
Back in December 2009, City Paper, which is located across the street, noticed declining patronage in the dark days of the economic downturn and made a call to arms for the community to eat local and try out Martha's "working people" food. Needless to say, the parking lot didn't fill up overnight. But, post-Times article, they're certainly stopping in now. The day we dropped by at noon, Martha Lou's was filled with regulars and tourists from as far away as Nova Scotia.
Martha Lou Gadsden is used to seeing a variety of folks at her restaurant. People looking for the kind of comfort that only a thick plate of baked macaroni, chitterlings, and the tastiest fried chicken on the planet can provide. The restaurant is a no-frills affair. Simple home cooking is delivered on paper plates in a spotless six-table dining area. Murals of Charleston are painted on one wall. Framed memories, pictures of various African-American leaders, and a photo of President Obama line the other.
Martha Lou says she started the tiny diner all those years ago because she'd been raised in the restaurant business. "I was a bus girl at a restaurant on Spring Street growing up," she says. "My mother was the cook there."
And perhaps it's all of those years of experience that allows Gadsden to cook her roll-your-eyes-it's-so-good food. The kind of food so many wannabe soul food establishments try to pass off as the real thing.
It doesn't get much more real than Martha Lou's collard greens, lima beans, and cornbread with pork chops or beef stew, fish or fried chicken, with your choice of beverage (the correct answer is: "I'll have the sweet tea, thank you ma'am"). All for $8.50.
The term "institution" gets tossed around all too often, but in this case it's true. Martha Lou's Kitchen, like the woman herself, is a Charleston institution. And now that the paper of record has sanctified it with high praise and Brock has sprinkled it with some of his magic fairy dust, we hope more locals will become regulars. The way I look at it, eating at Martha Lou's is like experiencing the original Charleston Museum before its destruction or having a chance to hear Obama speak at the Cistern during his historic campaign stop. The time to hesitate has passed. Go get yourself some good cooking at Martha Lou's before the place becomes overrun with tourists.
What's finger-licking good at Martha Lou's
• Iced Tea – If you like your tea unsweetened, forget it. Martha Lou's tea comes super sweet (rot-your-teeth sweet) and lemony. Somehow that combination pairs perfectly with her savory fare.
• Pork Chops – Thin and fried with a crunchy exterior. Bonus: If you know to ask you can have your pork chops served smothered, a.k.a. with a hefty drizzle of gravy.
• Lima Beans – Rich and soupy. Martha Lou cooks them up as she says, "with just a little pork and seasoning."
• Mac 'n' Cheese – This is not your mama's Kraft Easy Mac. Martha Lou does it up right by cooking some delicious macaroni then baking it for that crisp crunch on top.
• Fried Chicken – Help us, Lord, this full quarter chicken has a greasy, salty crunch on the outside with sweet juicy meat on the inside. Martha prepares it fresh (no heat lamps here), and you can taste that freshness in every bite.