Bertha’s is one of a handful of unassuming African-American eateries that make Charleston an adventurous eater’s paradise. Founded by the late Albertha Grant in 1979, it is a primer in Lowcountry soul food that includes red rice with sausage, fried chicken encased in fissured red-gold crust, pork chops with meat as wanton as gravy itself, and macaroni and cheese fetched from the baking pan with shards of crunchy-chewy crust.
Foremost among must-eat dishes is lima beans. Yes, lima beans. An order of beans is a soupy, khaki-colored side dish. Lima bean dinner pairs them with hunks of neck from which weighty nuggets of meat are easily detached by probing with a fork. With the neck or in place of it to accompany the beans, you also can choose pig tails, which are little more than cylinders of glistening, warm pork fat that melts as it hits your tongue. Who knew a menu item called lima beans could be so mighty a meal?
Bertha’s is inexpensive and informal, but every meal is prepared exactly to order. As you stand at the counter, you consult with a member of the kitchen staff as to whether or not you want more pig tails or less in the limas. Do you want red rice, white rice, or hoppin’ John — on the side or underneath? How much gravy will you have with your stewed gizzards? For all the precision ordering, all meals come on disposable plates.
One day when Jane and I arrived exactly at 11 o’clock, Bertha’s opens, we paid at the register and were given a remote control to carry to our table with the food. The cashier advised that because we were the first customers to be eating on premises, it was our responsibility to turn on the set and choose channels. We ate our Lowcountry banquet to the open-kitchen perfume of simmering soul food and a cacophony of legal wrangling in the courtroom of television Judge David Young.