BY KELLY RAE SMITH
CHARLESTON CITY PAPER, JULY 2014
CHARLESTON CITY PAPER, JULY 2014
The first time we tried to go to Boxcar Betty's for lunch, we wound up eating somewhere else. An unassuming white building buried in a mix of cash loan joints, tattoo parlors, and car lots, it was easy to miss the restaurant along the crowded Savannah Highway in West Ashley. But that was a few weeks back, and now after several visits, it's safe to say we could never pass it by again — and we wouldn't want to. Fair warning, though, things can get a tad messy at Boxcar Betty's, so this is no kind of food for first or second dates.
As we reported back in April, owners Ian MacBryde and Roth Scott met working downtown at Magnolias and eventually decided to bring Charleston something they felt the city had long been lacking: a quick and casual place to eat a truly great fried chicken sandwich.
Fittingly, Boxcar Betty's decor reflects the rustic simplicity of life on the rails. With a minimalist color scheme that's all grays and beige, plus chipped paint and battered boards, the space is shabby chic in a way that's honest and believable. Small, clear vases hold sprigs of rosemary adding a touch of whimsy to the tables. One long yellow bench and a few Shepard Fairey prints add subtle pops of color. And nice and easy folk music plays overhead, making you forget that this is essentially a fast-food joint — and I do mean fast. We timed one visit for two of us at half an hour total. That may also speak to how hungry we were, but still, that's quick.
The theme of going back to basics is also underlined with the limited menu. Boxcar Betty's is so confident in their chicken sammies that you only get three choices — the Box Car, Buffalo, and Chicken & Not-So Waffle (all $7). A build-your-own-sandwich option ($7) is there, too, and they also serve killer fries — both hand-cut sweet potato ($2.50) and regular ($2). Chicken tenders ($4.50) are available and seem to be popular with kids. Also under the Extras menu is a small side of fried green tomatoes ($3), which were pickled then fried in the house batter — a unique and delicious take on the normal FGT. The three modest slices were small enough to eat before the batter had a chance to slide off.
The Box Car sandwich is served with pimento cheese that's not drowned in mayo, peach slaw that only faintly tastes of peaches, housemade pickles, and spicy mayo. Oh, and fried chicken. We've read one complaint online about the chicken being too salty, and call me Southern to the core, but I couldn't disagree more. The flour-based batter is mild and once fried to a golden-brown crisp, it's a bit like the texture found in tempura, and the content is juicy and full of flavor. How it's all accomplished is a mystery but somebody must've spent some time in their grandmother's kitchen, because the taste is certainly reminiscent of what can only be described as finger-licking good.
There's also the Chicken & Not-So-Waffle and the Buffalo Chicken sandwiches. The latter is bathed in a not-too-hot buffalo sauce and topped inevitably with blue cheese, plus lettuce and tomato. That tomato is unlike anything you'd come across at the fast-food chicken competition down the road. With its color a vibrant red, the garden-fresh flavor is the kind you could enjoy on its own with a dash of salt and pepper — the taste of Southern summers. It all made sense when I learned the restaurant started sourcing produce from Joseph Fields Farms on Johns Island. The Chicken & Not-So-Waffle comes with a bun (not a waffle) and their signature fried chicken, plus pimento cheese, tomato, maple bacon sauce, maple syrup, and, the kicker — bacon jam. Made up of teeny-tiny bits of bacon bound together with what tasted like brown sugar, the jam is more like a bunch of bacon than a traditional jam. It's dreamy, and is what makes this sandwich the star by far. It's difficult to distinguish the syrup from the sauce, but that didn't matter. It all coalesces into the perfect condiment and, paired with the chicken, proves that sometimes the waffle may be a bit much when all you really need is a drizzle of maple syrup. Pairing all of this with pimento cheese may sound crazy, but it totally works. It also confirms that the sweet-and-savory marriage is a groovy thing.
A later visit proved just as pleasant. One of the chefs who's always smiling remembered me, and I noticed he was familiar with several others as he rushed outside to greet a couple of kids with their dad. After ordering Boxcar Betty's only salad, another guy appeared from the back to offer it with candied pecans as they're considering adding it to the recipe. And it made a great addition. The salad also comes with a bed of cool Bibb lettuce, watermelon radishes, thinly sliced shallots, and a surprisingly light agave buttermilk dressing. You have the option of adding chopped fried chicken or a pimento cheese-stuffed Portobello mushroom, and I opted for the latter. It was battered up and fried, negating the otherwise healthy salad. As a self-respecting Southerner, I enjoy nearly anything fried, but I also felt it would have been just as great if the mushroom had been served baked or grilled.
Speaking of fried things, the smiling chef came out again to let me try a possible addition to the menu — fried pimento cheese balls. I thoroughly appreciated the hot cheese spheres as well as the gesture. And no, he didn't know I was reviewing the restaurant. As I've observed on several visits dating back to April — as I live not far away — his generosity reaches out to every person that walks through the door.
The only desserts on the menu are the vanilla ice cream float ($3.50) and the pecan pie in a cup ($4). I tried the pie, a gooey bottom layer of pecan topped with vanilla bean ice cream and served, you guessed it, in a to-go cup. If the corn-syrup goop is your favorite part, then you'll dig it, because it's mostly made of that good, sugary goo. Though it does gel well with the ice cream, like a caramel syrup, I wish there'd been more pecans holding it all together.
Some places try to pull off the rustic, country-living look because it seems the trendy thing to do, but then fail when the prices are high and the satisfaction level is low — not here. The dishes are all recyclable, there are no servers, no silverware, and no frills — and none are needed. The portions are plenty, the flavors are present, and the price tag is right.