I’m from Scranton, Pennsylvania, a place where the Mom & Pop culture still lives.
Every single time I go back to Scranton, I stop by Nickie’s Fabulous Hoagies and pick up my favorite foot-long sub for $2.50--that’s right, you read that correctly--pay in cash (I heard a rumor they just got a Visa machine), and talk life with the owner. Mom & Pop culture is part of my DNA, so when I first moved to Columbia in 2010, I found a local and asked the most important question one can ever ask any local of any place: “Where are the best local places to eat?”
He gave me a list of 100 places, a list I checked off very early into my time here at Shandon. Once I exhausted his list, I began to search for the most obscure holes-in-the-wall I could find, with one place being so secretive that the guy who took me there said he was sworn to secrecy not to tell anyone its location (don't ask...I can't tell you either!).
Therefore, after enjoying a taste of the majority of Columbia’s cuisine, I have narrowed all the local eateries down to my top five. I have not included fine dining places, as that will be another list for another time.
So, without any further delay, here is my overall top five:
The. Best. Pimento. Cheese. Ever.
This alone would place them in the top five, but their sandwiches, salads, desserts, and brunch are all out of this world. From the moment I first stepped in DiPrato’s I was won over--not only by the ambiance, but also because they make a Vermont white cheddar pimento cheese. Enough said.
#4 – PASTA FRESCA
Any place that makes pasta and pasta sauce from scratch is worth mentioning, but this local restaurant, which started in Forest Acres, gets creative with its menu, has reasonably priced dishes, and possesses the ever famous creamy marinara. It’s great for a date night or a just-because night. Pasta Fresca is all around a great restaurant.
#3 – CAFÉ STRUDEL
Yes, I know this place is technically in West Columbia, but it deserves a special exception. I consider this to be the best local breakfast joint, hands down. I would write about the quality of the lunch and dinner menus, both of which are excellent, but I am only going to highlight the breakfast menu.
The Famous Hangover Hashbrowns by themselves could put this place on the top five. They are so good, in fact, that they were mentioned in a 2006 edition of Southern Living magazine. The flavor of the five or six varieties of coffee are as good as they smell, and, if you’re a pancake person, the cinnamon pancakes are as good as they get. If you haven’t checked out Café Strudel yet, put it at the top of your list for breakfast (or any other meal for that matter).
#2 – NO NAME DELI
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…”
There are so many things that I love about this place that I’m simply going to list them in bullet form:
- The lunch line is out the door.
- The owner, Glenn, is always behind the register in a white apron.
- Most everything is made fresh the morning of.
- It’s cash only which keeps prices down and the Mom & Pop feel alive.
- The menu is very diverse (from salads to gyros to fried bologna).
- There are Bible verses on every napkin holder & Gospel CDs at the counter.
- It has a great local feel, underscored by the mural of downtown Columbia.
- There are great dessert options, most of which are made in house.
I have taken dozens of people to Southern Belly, my culinary chef sister included, and almost all of the time they stop midway through the meal and look somewhat depressed. At first I asked what was wrong, but now I know. The reason undoubtedly comes back as this: They are sad it’s almost over.
Southern Belly smokes its own BBQ right outside, so as you pull up you see and smell the goodness. The menu is simple – BBQ sandwiches – that’s it. But these sandwiches are so good that Darley Newman, the host of “Travels with Darley,” a web series that has been featured on AOL, Amazon, Huffington Post, and MSN Travel, rated it the second best BBQ in the country! You can read the full article here: http://www.travelswithdarley.com/best-bbq-restaurants-in-the-usa/
When you go to Southern Belly be sure to try as many of their in-house made sauces as you can. My top two favorites are the Southern Belly sauce, a sweet and tangy white barbecue sauce, and the Rebel Red sauce, a sauce with a little bit of a kick.
You simply cannot go wrong at Southern Belly. If you haven’t been, you’re missing out on my top local place in all of Columbia.
Explore something new this week!
Why not invite someone you'd like to get to know better to join you? Great food is best enjoyed with great conversation.
What are your favorites?
Frank Shimkus is the Student Minister at Shandon Baptist Church. In addition to local restaurants, Frank's favorites include Stephen Curry, collecting Air Jordans, parenting 3 boys age 3 and younger with his wife Ericka, and discipling the students of Shandon to maturity in their faith.