It has only been open six weeks, but Eli’s American already feels like a Columbia County institution. Its décor is anything but the cookie-cutter chain restaurant vibe that most places on that side of the CSRA have, its service is impeccable. And the food?
Well, let’s put it this way. In only six weeks time, there are already a handful of menu favorites.
It’s not surprising, really. After all, this restaurant — in a strip center across from the Walmart in Evans on Washington Road — is owned by Bryan Mitchell. Mitchell is the former owner of The Cotton Patch downtown, a place known for favorites like rancho potatoes (fries topped with cheese, ranch dressing and bacon) and Charleston chicken with grilled shrimp.
Those two items make an appearance on the menu at Eli’s, but it’s abundantly clear that this is a place to get a great burger.
How did we know that, never having eaten there before? When we sat down for a late lunch last Saturday and looked around at the other diners — of which there were many, surprising since it was nearly 2 p.m. — an overwhelming majority of them were digging in to the half-pound ground chuck sandwiches served on brioche buns.
But before we talk food, I want to mention the décor.
Anyone who visited Mitchell’s Cotton Patch probably noticed its distinct New Orleans vibe, and that has carried over to Eli’s. From the two-story façade, complete with second-story balcony and two giant flags framing the entrance, to the warm rose-colored interior with a thoughtful collection of found pieces and interesting decorations picked out by Mitchell’s wife (the hammered copper bar area is especially beautiful), there is a definite old-world air to the wide-open dining area.
As I sank into a seat at the banquette (I made my husband take the chair opposite and I’m not sorry about it), I could feel myself relaxing, and it was while I was surveying my surroundings that I noticed the overwhelming number of diners who had ordered burgers. It was easy to tell, even if you couldn’t see exactly what was on the plate, because they all had giant steak knives sticking out the top.
About that time our server, also named Bryan, arrived. Over the course of our meal, we learned that this is Bryan’s second job and his first is at a local engineering firm. Because he saw paint on my husband’s hands, we also learned that he and his girlfriend, who works at Eli’s as well, are involved in a few home improvement projects of their own.
Now, there aren’t a lot of servers who could pull off the level of attention that Bryan gave us without seeming like he was hovering or, worse, just being annoying. But as I confirmed with Jim later, we both enjoyed talking with Bryan and were impressed that, even though this was a second job for him, he actually cared what we thought of our dishes.
As for those dishes, we enjoyed all of what we ordered that day. And, full disclosure: we got to Eli’s just after I had spent the morning exercising. Because I was starving, I pretty much inhaled the spinach-artichoke dip we ordered, maybe without really tasting it. I did notice, and appreciate, that it was mostly vegetables (spinach, artichokes, tomatoes and, I think, onions) and not overloaded with cream. It did have a fine layer of cheese on top, and cheese makes everything better, so we ate the entire ramekin full and then polished off the tortilla chips that were left over.
One thing I also appreciated about our server was his honesty. On our way in the door, we passed a chalkboard sign advertising the Man Burger as the day’s special. “Dude, you gotta try this!” the sign proclaimed. I figured anything called the Man Burger was going to be gigantic, topped with crazy ingredients and, generally, not something I was going to be interested in. Bryan confirmed that when he told us it was topped with Spam and bologna; having already tried it, he declared it to be “not bad.”
Even before this discussion, however, my husband and I had already zeroed in on a few choices. The shrimp and pimento cheese grits at Eli’s are supposed to be divine, and many of the sandwiches, entrées and salads sounded like great choices. I was still starving after our appetizer, though, and really wanted a burger, so I opted for the Dixie Burger, topped with fried green tomatoes, pimento cheese and buffalo cream sauce. Jim got the Cowboy Burger, topped with grilled mushrooms and onions, bacon, pepper jack cheese, onion rings, and A-1 sauce.
Truthfully, I was a little mad that my husband beat me to the punch on the Cowboy Burger, because grilled mushrooms and A-1 are kind of my thing. I got the last laugh, though, because my Dixie Burger contained the one item we both couldn’t get enough of: fried green tomatoes.
I got two fried green tomatoes with my order, and I had to remove one just to be able to eat the burger with my hands instead of resorting to a fork and knife.
When Bryan asked for thoughts about our burgers, this detail seemed to concern him. I was glad I removed it, however, because that gave me a chance to savor it on its own. Bright and tangy, it had a great crunch from the panko bread crumbs that helped it hold up to the weight of the burger. The breading miraculously never got soggy, and that crunch had me and Jim fighting over the last bites.
Had you asked me beforehand, I would have told you that pairing a tangy fried green tomato with the vinegary foundation of a buffalo sauce would have been too acidic for most palates. As we established last week, however, I’m frequently wrong about these things. It helped, I’m sure, that Eli’s mixes the buffalo sauce with cream, which takes the edge off significantly.
I was also wrong in thinking there was no way I would eat more than half of my Dixie Burger. Think about it: putting something fried, something creamy and something cheesy on top of a burger is a sure-fire way to have your diners snoozing in their booths shortly after finishing the rich concoction. It was light, though; surprising since the delicious pimento cheese was so rich.
It was light enough, in fact, that I ate three quarters of the burger, packed the rest up to take home and ordered a slice of deep-fried southern pecan pie for dessert.
I don’t often like to order dessert after lunch because it’s likely to induce a coma. Not that there’s anything wrong with a Saturday afternoon nap, but I had stuff to do. Still, I felt like I deserved it after my morning workout, and I’m so glad we ordered what came to the table smelling like a funnel cake. I’m a sucker for pecan pie anyway, but this slice was rolled in flour, deep fried and served with two scoops of vanilla ice cream and topped with caramel. It was absolute perfection, and my husband and I fought over every bite.
Eli’s also offers six-layer cakes from Reed Road out of Lincolnton, which are made following an old family recipe. I felt like I should have tried one of those as well, but couldn’t resist the pecan pie.
Oh well, there’s always next time. I’ll make it back there soon, and when I do I already know that I’m getting a fried green tomato appetizer and a slice of Reed Road cake. If only the pimento cheese was available as an appetizer. I’ll have to talk to one (or both) of the Bryans about that.
4446 Washington Road, Suite 10, Evans
Open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.