Thirty minutes after opening, it’s a calm afternoon for chef Matt Smith. He’s chopping, marking notes in a booklet. The plancha grill ignites, followed by the rush of spattering oil like a burst of phone static. He’s got a window of time for research and development in the tiny solo kitchen, which means he gets to play around with the menu. He’s testing a lomo saltado dish next, which means frying potatoes. First, he’s tackling the order that was walked over: his brand-new cheeseburger, made with melted cheddar, chopped and hot-crunchy giardiniera and a fried egg framed with the thin corn shell of an arepa.
The burger shows up with hard-seared potatoes that have a crunchy skin. Those potatoes are eye-openers, hanging out with pickled red onions and a shut-up-I’m-eating chimichurri-meets-mayo sauce. It might be one of the most startling happy hour deals in the city: Seven bucks gets you a patty that’s beach paperback-thick. It’s Angus beef with a crackly layer of sear, and it’s seasoned, big and clear, with only salt and pepper. Egg runneth over.
The arepa, thin and bright as a last-minute birthday card, has a finely crusty outer layer. Smith labors over the cornmeal from scratch — very fine cornmeal, a little water and salt punished into a batter-like mixture, then wheeled out and hard fried in a good amount of oil — and they show up steaming. They’re crunchy-thin enough that it’s possible to create a disappearing illusion when you rotate them around.
A few bites in and you can see the singular flavors in easy, bright pictures in your mind: Corn, cheddar, beef, salt. Crunchy, pickled giardiniera veggies add fireworks.
“I’m the new kid on the block,” Smith says wryly. He's been in the kitchen for around three weeks.
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On this visit, he works casually, wearing an army-green T-shirt behind his black apron and sporting a beard and a Houston Astros hat.
“I’m embracing small," he says.
The street food that you remember the longest knows how to use the superpower flavors of hot, crusty, salty and pickled. The best dishes get handed to you, steaming like a train, from the hands that cooked it a few seconds ago. Order, cooked and devoured in a few short minutes. So, that’s how it goes down at Shoals: Smith walks the cheeseburger over to the tiny bar table, and then it’s gone.
Shoals and Sounds, 2614 Elm St. Suite # 110