Charlotte, you’re living in a golden age of restaurant food. A crispy, crunchy, golden age.
Here’s the proof: This is now a city with two kinds of fried skins, both made by talented chefs who don’t just randomly toss things into hot oil without putting serious thought into it.
That’s a story that begs to be told. And after 30 years as The Observer’s food editor, I decided it was the perfect story for my last assignment before I step down.
When I started covering food here in 1989, Charlotte was a different place to eat. You could count the fine-dining palaces on your fingers without borrowing a third hand. You couldn’t find lemon grass, pot stickers or Korean gochujang in any supermarket, Asian or American. There were coffee shops, not coffee houses, and “locally roasted beans” just meant you’d forgotten to water your garden in August.
I won’t even try to sum up where we are now. Look at Instagram on any weekend and you can see the proof in endless images of sophisticated, complex food.
It’s true that “chef-fried skins” isn’t something most people would call sophisticated and complex. But most people would be wrong.
Skin 1: Fresh fried pork skins at Sweet Lew’s BBQ, 923 Belmont Ave.
Lewis Donald has mighty high credentials for a man who’s dedicated himself to becoming a barbecue pit master. He served a kitchen apprenticeship at The Greenbrier, the historic resort in West Virginia, then was a country club chef before he worked at Reid’s Fine Foods.
But his calling is barbecue, the real stuff cooked slowly over wood. He cooks whole shoulders from old-breed Duroc pigs skin-down for 10 to 14 hours, until the meat pulls free from the bone with barely more than a nudge, and the skin turns mahogany brown.
After pulling off most of the meat and chopping it, Donald isn’t about to waste that skin. In fact, just to be wicked, he showed us one of his favorite kitchen snacks: A couple of pieces of skin between two buns with a squirt of S.C.-style mustard sauce and a few slices of pickle. (It’s not for sale in the restaurant. Yet.)
Here’s what is for sale, almost every day: First, Donald chills the pork skins and uses scissors to clip them into chunks about 2 or 3 inches wide, with bits of meat and fat still clinging to them. Then he tosses them into a fryer for 8 to 10 minutes.
They come out curled and bubbly crisp, crunchy in some spots and chewy in others. Imagine a cross between the hard skin on porchetta, the Italian roast pork, and the fatty ends of bacon strips.
He piles them into brown paper bags and sells them for $2.
Oh, and that oil in the fryer? After frying fresh batches of pork skins all week, he uses it to make the fried chicken he only sells on Sundays.
Who can top that? Let’s see: Take it away, Greg Collier.
Skin 2: Spicy/sweet fried chicken skins with buttermilk chive dressing at Loft & Cellar, 305 W. 4th St.
Before Gregory Collier went to culinary school in Arizona, and before he opened a daring and cutting-edge breakfast restaurant in Rock Hill (The Yolk), he’d started out by working at a wing shack: Ching’s Wings in Memphis, his hometown.
But he swears that’s not where he got the idea to fry chicken skins and pile them on a plate as an appetizer. He says it actually started as a garnish on a grits bowl at The Yolk, which is now located in 7th Street Market uptown (although they don’t have the chicken skins there these days). Back at the original Yolk, Collier used to smoke chicken thighs and he’d nibble on the skins when they were done.
Everybody knows what he knew (and our cardiologists wish we didn’t know): The skin is always the best part of the chicken, no matter how you cook it.
At Loft & Cellar, where Collier is now executive chef, he literally took that idea uptown. First, he simmers chicken skins in salted water, then lets them sit in the cooling water for a little while, to render out as much fat as possible. He chills the skins and freezes them until it’s time to finish them. The stock, now loaded with collagen and chicken fat, gets frozen too, to use for other dishes.
When you order the skins as an appetizer, he takes the simmered skins and deep-fries them for about 6 minutes, until they get puffy and crisp. Then he tosses them in a mixture of brown sugar, cayenne, dried oregano, garlic and onion powders and smoked paprika and serves them with a buttermilk chive dip.
At $7 for a platter, they’re the perfect bar snack, the kind of thing I wish I could buy by the bag just so I could have them all to myself. They’re spicy, sweet and crunchy, all at the same time. With the creamy dip, they hit every pleasure point in my food-obsessed brain.
So which is better, Donald’s pork skins or Collier’s chicken skins? I can only say this: This is a big town now. We can make room for both.