Earl’s is right at home in Winston-Salem
By: Jennifer Zeleski
Everyone has a preference when it comes to bar food.
Whether they’re the first to grab the jalapeño poppers, the one to order wings, or the friend who just has to have a mound of mozzarella sticks, there is always something to snack on at the table.
After getting a glimpse at Earl’s, a new whiskey bar and Southern kitchen located at 121 W. 9th St. in Winston-Salem, I knew it was time to find a few new favorites.
Matt Pleasants, the head chef at Earl’s and former owner of the ever-popular Bahtmobile, is serving up Southern-style bar food and full plates at the new location found in the former E.G. Forrest warehouse, which offers an atmosphere as comforting as the menu.
Tin-can candles are found on tables, with rustic, Edison-style light bulbs in each fixture, casting a warm and cozy glow around the large space, culminating with two trees, wrapped in lights at the ends of a long wooden table, fit for groups sharing a meal, or those looking to lean into a relaxing night after work.
Pair that with an order of Hatch chile pimento cheese, Cheetos-flavored pork rinds or a fried bologna sandwich, and you’ll feel as if you’ve found yourself in a modern, yet old-school restaurant on the outskirts of Nashville.
After just a few days off from the hell that is college exam season, my boyfriend Peyton and I decided a celebratory meal was in order. Earl’s had just what we were looking for, offering fried chicken sandwiches, fresh salads, “snacks” and even vegetarian options such as the falafel sandwich and the roasted vegetable pie.
We don’t make too much of a habit indulging in our favorite bar-style snacks often, and we diverge slightly with our preferences. He’ll take a plate of pizza bites, whereas I’ll reach for the tortilla chips. However, we do agree on one in particular — Tater Tots.
Tater Tots are a sacred food for me. They don’t need to be messed with, especially when they have the crunchy golden exterior and a heavy dusting of salt, the kind that makes you crave another sip of your weekend drink of choice. But the tater tot nachos stuck out on the menu, topped with bacon, ranch, queso, scallions and pickled jalapeños. Were these going to break my ideal “naked” tater tot snack?
As usual, it was tough to make our final decisions on what else we would share.
We decided to give one of the chicken sandwiches a shot, especially since the quality of a restaurant’s fried chicken can be the determining factor if the joint deserves the “Southern” name and a potential claim to fame. We chose to split the Winston Hot Chicken to take it a step further than the original “EFC,” Earl’s Fried Chicken Sandwich. The spicy sibling sandwich comes topped with creamy slaw, pickles, mayo and Earl’s dry hot rub.
As if we were attempting to balance out the rest of the meal with something moderately healthy, we ordered the crispy Brussels sprouts. Before you gag on the nearest spoon, hear me out — I wasn’t 100 percent set on the idea either, having been disappointed and a little repulsed by the seemingly harmless, yet most bullied vegetable of them all.
It’s important to note that seating is first come, first served, and we were lucky to get a table that overlooked much of the space, which somehow captured the essence of being outdoors, with all of the benefits of heat, electricity and beer on draft. Also, orders are taken at the counter and brought to the tables similar to many lunch places, which could make the food-to-table operation efficient or disastrous, depending on the attentiveness of the staff and the volume of the visitor base in Earl’s future. I look forward to seeing how they handle it since our food came out promptly, but just a little less warm than one might expect.
The Tater Tots arrived with all of their topping glory. Peyton’s immediate response to the tots was, “This is exactly what I wanted.” I, on the other hand, was cautiously convinced. I thoroughly enjoyed the pickled jalapeños, which added a vinegary spice and addicting flavor, but the ranch and queso were underwhelming. The ranch gave the tots a creaminess that they needed, similar to adding sour cream to your average tortilla nachos, but the queso could have been replaced with just a heavier dusting of salt on the tots themselves. Regardless, these tots convinced me that toppings should not be ignored or denied, and “nachos” aren’t limited to tortilla chips. The freshly-chopped scallions were a great bonus, offering a freshness to cut the weight of the dish, and pairing well with the occasional crumbles of bacon. The plate could have easily been too greasy, but there wasn’t a drop of too much oil or an ingredient that seemed off in the combination. I found myself diving into the middle rather than my common habit of picking around the less-covered outside of the plate. The only real disappointment was the amount of the tots, considering their $10 price tag and only being enough for two people to share, whereas bar snacks tend to come as a portion enough for a table of a few.
Next up was the Winston Hot Chicken sandwich, which came with a large, tender piece of fried dark-meat Joyce Farms chicken on a soft potato bun. It was easy to split (although, beware of getting a little messy with the slaw), and absolutely worth ordering. Within the first bite, you could tell the difference in quality thanks to the locally-sourced meat and combination of spices within the Earl’s hot dry rub. Be warned, it has a smoky, sweet flavor upon the first bite, but the burn lingers if it isn’t paired with the creamy slaw. The slaw was the perfect topping to a spicy, Southern-style sandwich. The pickles hadn’t soaked on the bun for too long, and we were sad to see it all go once it disappeared.
The final star was none other than the Brussels sprouts. I normally hate when people say, “But if I make them, I bet you’ll love them,” or some version of, “But you just haven’t tried mine yet.” I don’t want to do the same to you, but they really are worth a try. Roasted until blackened, topped with a sweet and vinegary chow-chow (a regionally-influenced pickled relish made out of a variety of vegetables), and shredded parmesan. These aren’t just the snack to order for the vegetarian in a friend group; these are the real deal. The Brussels sprouts have the delicious blackened flavor that reminded me of a charcoal grill, and the chow-chow was refreshing with every bite. I wished the parmesan would have added a bit more saltiness, but they were truly done better than expected, and we found ourselves cleaning the remaining bites left on the small metal tray.
Earl’s is exactly the type of place Winston-Salem needs. The atmosphere makes you want to sink into a comfortable spot and stick around to try one of their signature cocktails, an array of their hand-picked whiskey or a beer on draft, and relax as bluegrass and soft rock play over the speakers throughout the night. Look out for upcoming open mic night Mondays, live music over the weekends and even more coming up from Earl’s. Cheers!
Jennifer Zeleski is a student contributor to YES! Weekly. She is originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Communications at High Point University.
121 W. 9th St., Winston-Salem, N.C. 27101, open every day from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. and offering brunch Thursday, Friday and Saturday.