Fresh Reviews #7: Converse Deli

20 May

This is a chef.  You can tell by the coat of smugness he wears around his shoulders.

Tastes from the Wasteland I

It seems like a lot of the best and tastiest restaurants on Earth manage to hide themselves in some of the more dismal, murdery places on this Earth.  It’s a bit of a shame, really.  I can find a goddamned TGI Fridays anywhere, but I have to go down a dark alley and knock on a bolted iron door with a password handy for a decent pulled pork.

So I’m starting a little feature/series/thing I’m calling Tastes from the Wasteland.  It’s basically gonna be reviews of restaurants in towns that absolutely suck.  Good food, crappy location.  That kind of thing.  I’m doing this partly because I grew up in a crappy town, and partly because I’m gonna be moving to one relatively soon.  I figure it’s gotta have some hidden goodness, and even if it doesn’t, I’ll review them anyway.  Gotta eat, after all.

Recently I went to one of these places, one near and dear to my heart: Converse Deli, in Spartanberg, SC.  Spartanburg, for those of you who haven’t had the “pleasure” of visiting its fine streets, is home to a surprising collection of honest, inventive restaurants who put a premium on using local ingredients, and using them well.  It’s also 12th in the United States for murder rates.  That’s one ahead of Oakland, CA.  Truly the cornerstone of America, folks.

The reason why Converse Deli is a notable place, and why it deserves mention over the delis in places less likely to stab you, is because they don’t just make one or two things well; they make everything well.  For a place that really only has a reason to give half a damn about one course (lunch and all lunch-related paraphernalia), they do a fantastic job of making every little piece of your meal delicious.  They make a pimento cheese that, simple of a thing as it may be, has the perfect balance of spice and texture.  Ditto for the potato salad and pasta salad, simple things done pretty much perfectly, but still manage to remain a sideshow to the main course.

And, of course, the main course is just as delicious.  Granted, they do tend to commit the eternal deli sin of leaving the pickle under your sandwich, thus ensuring your bread becomes soggy and gross.  But if you can get past that (or complain until they do), it’s good stuff.  The chicken salad in particular is worth mentioning, a fantastically creamy blend of chicken, cranberries, and pecans, with just enough goat cheese mixed in to make things a bit earthy and interesting.  And they put it on a warm croissant, so you get that nice cold salad/warm bread interplay that I love so very, very much.

They also have dessert.  Again, something that could easily be pre-made, shrink-wrapped and haphazardly displayed in a plastic case on the bad side of the counter, but no.  Not here.  Here, they make their own pies, pound cakes, and bread puddings from scratch, a selection of desserts which is both decidedly Southern and decidedly un-deli-like, yet fits the occasion perfectly.  After gorging yourself on heavily salted meats on various kinds of rye breads, having something soaked in cream and filled with sugar makes sense.  It’s the perfect antidote, really.  The bread pudding in particular is portioned perfectly, a feature that’s decidedly un-Southern, but an excellent decision nonetheless.  You get a little more than just a couple bites, but just enough to make you feel truly satisfied without having to chase that satisfaction into the bathroom.  The same holds true for the rest of the desserts, but if you’re gonna pick one, pick the pudding.

So, yes.  Once again I’ve pretty much harped on how much I love a place for a couple dozen paragraphs.  Boo-hoo.  I know these kinds of reviews are supposed to be somewhat unbiased, but I don’t really see the point.  If I’m not writing about something I really like, or something I really don’t like, I’m just writing about…mediocrity.  Where’s the fun in that?  Again, that’s the whole point of this whole Tastes from the Wasteland business: picking out the surprisingly good restaurants in crappy towns, or finding out that those places are just as crappy as the towns themselves.  Hopefully without getting stabbed in the process.  Stay tuned, people.

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