Friday, 21 March 2014

Far and away: A panel of Charleston foodies speak out about their favorite ethnic food spots in Charleston

For Winter 2014 Dish by Charleston City Paper
by Kelly Rae Smith

The ethnic food scene in Charleston ain’t what it used to be, and that’s a good thing. Remember when Thai food came to King Street and exploded nearly a decade ago?  It seems that local palates were starving for something that went beyond the Mason-Dixon, past all borders, and into far-flung destinations our senses longed to experience.

Since then, plenty of places have successfully arrived, and some have come and gone. With the onset of the foodie trend, interest is spiked high and the local ethnic restaurant to-do list is growing at a pace more swift than ever before. To help us filter through the hype, City Paper talked to eight top Charleston foodies for their insights. Our panel comprises local photographer Paul E. Cheney Jr., ‘Wich Doctor owners Jeff Butler and Krista Hines, Wine Distributor and taco truck fanatic Harry Root, Chef John Ondo of Lana Restaurant, and City Paper writers Eric Doksa, Jeff Allen, and Angela Hanyak.

According these guys, Charleston may just get there yet. But you gotta be willing to get in your car and check some of these places out because they may not be right in front of your face. “I am completely bored with at least 70% of the restaurants in downtown Charleston right now,” Cheney says. “If you live outside of Charleston or the South, [new ethnic restaurants] are exciting as all get out, but I live downtown and find myself driving to North Charleston or Goose Creek at least one to two times a week.  I find a $3.95 taco incorrectly made by a gringo to be an insult to the taco. With a 12-minute drive from downtown, I can eat $1.50 tacos with twice the flavor.”

So where should you drive to next? It appears that the on and off the peninsula favorites are as follows:

Phuong Vietnamese Restaurant
5634 Rivers Ave, North Charleston 29406
Phuong must be doing it right because nearly everyone mentioned this hidden gem. “One trick I recommend is the VietnaMexican meal deal,”  Cheney says. “Go to Phuong on River's Avenue. I eat there one-to-two times a week. It is the number-one pho in the city hands down. I spent five hours in their kitchen. Clean, and they care. After Phuong, take a right on Remount and go to Tapatia Bakery.  Get a slice of Tres Leches and eat it in the parking lot. Spicy soup > Cool Cake.”

Ethiopian Taste5060 Dorchester Rd, North Charleston 29418
Charleston’s first Ethiopian restaurant arrived in December and is already one of the most Instagrammed spots of late. What’s good? “Everything,” Chef Butler says. “We sat a a four top and had to scoot to the end to make room. They bring out huge platters so we had almost every vegetarian thing, all the meats, samosas, everything but desert. Everything tasted great.”

P.S. Rumor has it the coffee is also a wonder not to be missed.

Kanpai Japanese Restaurant
1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd B9, Mt Pleasant 29464
Sean Park took over the space in Mt Pleasant about two years ago and has been a favorite among local foodies ever since. From the welcoming, personable chef to the heavenly pork buns, there’s plenty of reason to give Kanpai the edge. “I'm obsessed with Sean Park's food,” Doksa says. “He's Korean, so he's got some great Korean dishes on the menu, but he's also an amazing sushi chef. Though there are a few on the menu, he's not focused on all the Americanized sushi rolls with cream cheese and a ton of sauce. His best dishes are kept simple and he brings in quality ingredients. When I want sushi, I go see Sean.”

Raul's Maya del Sol
1012 E. Montague Ave, North Charleston 29405
This North Charleston Mexican joint recently moved to a spot with only a window and outdoor seating but that hasn’t stopped fans from flocking to the new locale for popular plates like rosemary pancakes (for brunch) and Doksa’s favorite dish in town, the carne en su jugo. “Raul Sanchez makes my favorite taco,” Doksa reports. “A traditional beef tongue taco (taco de lengua) and his carne en su jugo,  which is basically a Mexican beef stew, is ridiculously good.”  

Bollywood Cafe
6150 Rivers Ave, North Charleston 29406
Javad Khan, formerly of Bombay fame, moved just up the road last year to open Bollywood, a place that has quickly risen to foodie fame for everything from the iced tea to a surprisingly good buffet. “Indian food is probably the one food I could eat for sport,” Chef Ondo admits. “I love Bollywood. I think they’re really good. Their tandoori chicken is fantastic.”

Pollo Tropical  Charcoal Grill
5335 Dorchester Rd, North Charleston 29418
People are shouting out loud about this Mexican-cum-Caribbean spot with a good selection of Colombian dishes plus a Peruvian chicken that you’re bound to keep on craving. Butler and Hines recommend the empanadas made with cornflower. “Perfect,” Butler says. “Absolutely perfect.”

La Nortena Taqueria
6275 Rivers Ave North Charleston, 29406
(843) 225-7055
Another North Chuck destination, this Rivers Avenue restaurant serves the stuff you won’t see in your average run-of-the-mill Mexican establishment.  Things like fresh ceviche, house-made sauces, and cold horchatas set this place apart.  Chef Ondo’s favorite? The beef cheek tacos.

Ko Cha Korean
3515 Mary Ader Ave, West Ashley 29414
Located quite unassumingly inside an Exxon gas station, this West Ashley restaurant is apparently the real deal. Previously called Rice B, the new owners are dishing out super authentic plates of gochujang, seafood pancakes, fried dumplings, and kim-chee. Don’t be fooled by the less-than-exciting exterior. Cheney says the food is so good it’s “almost tear worthy.”

Riso Noodle House1890 Sam Rittenberg Blvd, West Ashley 29407
This locally owned Chinese restaurant is known for its homemade wontons and a secret menu containing the likes of beef tongue and oxtail soup, but it also serves up other great Asian dishes like curries and Pad Thai. “I was just turned onto this place a few weeks ago,” Doksa says, “and I'm really digging it. They've got a little bit of everything, but the main focus is authentic Chinese: think honeycomb tripe and soybean pork feet.”

Maya Food Truck
Ladson Flea Market
Flea markets and food trucks really do go hand in hand. Look for this guy next time you’re in Ladson hunting down deal. “It's standard fare as far as food trucks go,” Allen says, “but they usually have the good stuff like fried intestines and the salsa verde they serve in big jugs on the fold up tables is serious stuff.  That truck is also surrounded by ethnic grocers selling all kinds of strange vegetables, as well as the usually flea market craziness, which amplifies the experience.”

Taqueria Espres Taco Truck
2700 Ashley Phosphate Rd, North Charleston 29418
Harry Root frequents a taco truck across from the BP on Ashley Phosphate. A lot: “I ordered the pork burrito the first four years I went there,” he says, “probably averaged three times a week.  I never got sick of it.  Even though I know it's not the best thing in the world for me, it's fresh and genuine and bright.   I was always intrigued by the lengua and cabeza, but was always a little scared. I've always noticed how diverse the crowd it there: lots of Mexicans, folks from the airbase, a few guys in ties, etc.  I started to pay attention to what the Mexicans ordered.  One day the three guys in line in front of me ordered 18 cabeza tacos between them.  My reticence to eat the cabeza must have had something to do with being scared it wasn't fresh.  When I realized how much they served, I knew it must be fresh so I followed suite.  That really changed the way I eat there.  Now I have a standard cabeza taco side car. “

Mama Kim’s
349 King St, Charleston 29401
For Korean food downtown, drop into Mama Kim’s relatively-new King Street location, but don’t go blindly.  “Mama Kim's is in front of everyone's face, but most folks order incorrectly, “Cheney says. “Get the Mama Kim's Dinner for Two. Eat with Chopsticks, drink a huge beer and laugh. It is awesome.”

1302 Meeting Street Rd, Charleston 29405
If the sticky sweet waitstaff and expertly-mixed margaritas aren’t enough to get you to Santi’s, then try Chef Ondo’s favorite ethnic dish in town: the calado de res. “It’s the National Sunday beef stew. It’s so good. It’s big chunks of red meat that have been slow-cooked and braised, and it has chayote squash, some corn, huge chunks of zucchini, some jalapenos, cilantro, and onions mixed in a vegetable broth. And tortillas. Delicious.”

Xiao Bao Biscuit
224 Rutledge Ave, Charleston 29401
This uber buzzed-about Asia-meets-The-South restaurant came up several times in our research and is known for its rustic charm, yummy cocktails, and well-executed dishes like Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake) and the Mapo Dofou (a spicey tofu dish).
City Paper food writer Angela Hanyak is one of their many fans. “I love for serving uncompromising food with a strong regional focus.”

460 King St, Charleston 29403
Here’s a scoop you never knew: Basil makes great pho, according to Cheney. “It is off menu,” he says, “and it is awesome. Not so much of a traditional Vietnamese approach, but just a damn good bowl of soup. It was a staff meal, and we saw the staff eating it so I inquired and was surprised to find it was available off menu to anyone who asked.”

Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen
218 President St, Charleston 29403
Downtown but off the beaten track, Lee Lee’s opened in January this year to piles of praise for dishes like the honey garlic ribs and Szechuan dumplings. “I ate at Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen last week and really enjoyed it,” Hanyak said. “Their menu expands beyond the bounded expectations of what Chinese food is, and that's great. I ordered the salt and pepper chicken, and it was a completely new experience to me.”

So what is Charleston is still missing?
The consensus all around speaks to the apparent presence of fusion everywhere we look. Yet taking a specific food from an international region and really owning it is a thing some would like to see a lot of more of.

Take Jeff Butler and Krista Hines of the ‘Wich Doctor on Folly Beach for instance. Butler, who by the way influenced his would-be wife and vegetarian, Hines, to eat meat on their first date, thinks that something simple would fill the gap nicely.  “Just a ramen, just a tempora shop—something run by people who specialized in one thing and just crushed it—that would be amazing. We have an excellent food scene. It’s southern, it’s local. But if we had a good ethnic scene with places cooking specialites using the real ingredients, that would be just what Charleston needs.”

What else is lacking? “We could use a good German restaurant,” Chef Ondo asserts. “German breakfast is my fucking nirvana. It’s my Death Row meal. If I were to die tomorrow, I’d want a German breakfast. It’s really good rye bread, cheese and sliced meats, cold cut salami, yoghurt and granola, back to the bread, more cheese, more sliced meat, pickled fish. It’s all stuff to smear on bread and get your day started.”

Hanyak sees another absence: “I have a Panamanian friend who is outraged that there isn't any good Puerto Rican food in town, and I think she's on to something. We're seeing a huge surge in taco places, but no one's really exploring the subtle nuances of Latin American food. Peruvian keeps threatening to become a national trend, and you still have to go to Miami to get good Cuban. I think the Lowcountry would welcome some variety.”

But Charleston is getting there, and hopefully, dear readers, your to-do list is now full. Don’t sit on it though: get out there and experience tastes you never knew you loved. Don’t let the other-worldly food scene fade away just as it is blooming. After all, and as Cheney so wisely said, “You don't know what is going to blow your mind until you try it.”

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