Photo by Tec Petaja
Photo by Tec Petaja
LeGrand Records serves food with a rock-and-roll edge
While the world swoons over New Orleans and Charleston, the port cities of Virginia’s Tidewater region have created a one-of-a-kind cooking that’s ready for its close-up.
America has fallen hard for Southern food and drink. First it was New Orleans, then Charleston, now Nashville: Our national love affair with all things grits and greens shows no sign of stopping. In the rush to canonize the citadels of New Southern Cuisine, however, the country has ignored Virginia’s Tidewater, the constellation of seven sister cities—including Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach—that spirals out from Chesapeake Bay. And from the shallow waters of this port-city region, where immigrant cuisines thrive and the measure of chefs’ mettle is their prowess with oysters and crab and rockfish and shad, the country’s next great food region is beginning to surface.
I have known the region since boyhood. As a middle schooler, I traveled from my home in Georgia to Williamsburg for primers in colonial history and faux period lunches of sausages and rye bread on pewter platters. But those were bucolic images, rendered in sepia. My introduction to the Technicolor Tidewater began several years ago, when I traveled to Oak Island for an exposition of modern Virginia foodways, hosted by chef Harper Bradshaw of Harper’s Table restaurant. After an evening of Pleasure House oysters slurped naked from the shell, handfuls of sea salt–roasted Virginia peanuts, and conversation with local oystermen, chefs, and farmers—all convinced that the rest of the nation did not appreciate the excellence of the food community then coalescing—I knew I had to return to explore further.
From the shallow waters of this port-city region, the country’s next great food region is beginning to surface.
The Tidewater I glimpse on my return is grittier and more compelling than my childhood memories. Working ports dot the coastline. Cranes tilt skyward. Tugs cut deep furrows in the brackish water. And stacks of shipping containers, painted deep blues and reds, ride piggyback on behemoth ships. Trade and the military made this place—and so did immigrants.
In Virginia Beach, the legacy of Filipino immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s to take jobs at naval ports lives on at Laguna Bakery & Filipino Food, my first stop. Here, Therese Lee, a native of the Philippines’ Bulacan province, channels her heritage with yam porridge and lumpia, those crisp, cigarillo-shaped treats so ubiquitous that some locals refer to them as “Manila french fries.”
The neighboring city of Norfolk, on the other hand, is the province of egg foo yong sandwiches, disk-shaped omelets of eggs and onions and pork on mayonnaise-smeared white bread. Like barbecue joints and fried chicken hutches in the deeper South, restaurants such as Patsy and Haymond Wong’s Sing Wong serve as a portal to the Tidewater’s working-class culture. My sandwich reminds me of how port cities, coursing with people from all lands and latitudes, have long affected the American experiment.
This region is Southern on its own terms.
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Bradshaw, who hosted the dinner that got me plotting more Tidewater travels, is one of the modern interpreters of Tidewater foodways. At his downtown Suffolk restaurant, 20 miles west of Norfolk, set near a stretch of old, but still operational, peanut warehouses and decorated with vintage duck decoys and oyster cans, I eat an elegant oyster stew strafed with arugula and cracked black pepper.
“This place is where it all began,” Bradshaw says, when I ask what inspires him. “You can make an argument that American food culture started when settlers and Native Americans first met. That’s a powerful story, one I get to tell with the ingredients I choose and the dishes I cook.” A great food destination embraces local ingredients in novel ways, Bradshaw says. In the kitchen, he translates that vision into dishes such as Eastern Shore oysters and potatoes, seasoned with country ham fat and lemon.
This article originally appeared online in June 2017; it was updated in January 2018 to include current information.
>>Next: 7 Lesser-Known U.S. Food Towns
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