The City Magazine Since 1975

Charleston's 16 Best-Kept Secret Eats

Charleston's 16 Best-Kept Secret Eats
February 2020

Think you've dined your way across the Holy City? Chefs and local personalities weigh in and share their favorites, from daikon steak to Cincinnati chili





(Clockwise from top): Mashed potatoes and meatloaf with gravy, lima beans, biscuit, green beans, and mac and cheese; (inset) Angie Bellinger

Workman’s Cafe
1837 Grimball Rd., James Island

{Meatloaf}

What appears to be a ranch home off Folly Road is a meat-and-three paradise run by Angie Bellinger. The chef-owner has been serving hungry folks, from construction workers to neighborhood regulars, for seven years. It was once a one-woman show, but because Bellinger’s soul-nourishing dishes have become so popular, she’s hired a few helping hands. A pegboard presents daily specials, which are served from a buffet hot table. And the salmon pink dining nook is the perfect homey spot to dig in.

“Angie Bellinger cooks up some of the finest Southern dishes (meatloaf, lima beans, and cabbage, to name a few) in Charleston at her cafeteria-style restaurant. We’re hoping she brings back the crisp-edged alter ego to her meatloaf: her recently discontinued chicken fried steak. Few restaurants in the region serve it anymore, and we just love the textures and flavors; it’s comfort food at its best.”
— Matt Lee and Ted Lee, authors

 

(Left) Co-owners Dat Nyugen (right) with his wife, Phuong, for whom the restaurant is named; (right) Bánh xèo (top left) along with a spread of Vietnamese delights

Phuong
5634 Rivers Ave., North Charleston

{Bánh xèo}

It’s tempting to order stalwart favorites when heading to a place like Phuong, a family-run Vietnamese restaurant a few storefronts north of H&L Asian Market. If you haven’t indulged yet, bánh xèo is a shareable snack that merits entry into your regular rotation. The savory crepe translates to “sizzling cake,” a reference to the sound the turmeric, rice flour, and water batter makes as soon as it hits the piping-hot skillet. Despite its golden hue, this is an eggless dish that bears a pleasing chew.

“I’m definitely a pork-and-shrimp filling guy, but I’ve seen vegetarian versions of bánh xèo from time to time. This dish has a delicious texture (crispy meets chewy). My family loves Phuong and the owner, Phuong Nyugen, for who she is and how she cooks—which is to say deliciously!”
—Forrest Parker, South Carolina Chef Ambassador and owner-operator of Undiscovered Charleston

 

BACCO
976 Houston Northcutt Blvd. Suite O, Mount Pleasant

{Caesar salad}

While the Caesar salad has become an iconic appetizer featured in virtually every American Italian restaurant, the dish hails originally from Tijuana, Mexico. Created by Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini, the chef supposedly improvised this dish during a dinner rush back in 1924, adding the flair of a table side tossing to wow diners. At chef Michael Scognamiglio’s white tablecloth trattoria in Mount Pleasant, the leafy appetizer is an easy pleaser.

“The romaine is cold and crisp, the croutons are fresh, and they don’t shy away from the umami-packed punch of anchovy and Parmesan. What’s not to love? It’s classic, straightforward, and delicious.”
—Brooks Reitz, co-owner, Little Jack’s, Leon’s, and Melfi’s

 

Marina Variety Store
9 Lockwood Dr.

{Sunrise Breakfast & blackened oysters}

Those who’ve ventured inside this Ashley River-front staple know of its discreet charm. Marina Variety Store first opened in an old rice mill down by the water’s edge 56 years ago as a one-stop general store (hence the name), outfitted with tackle, groceries, fuel, and a petite diner. After Hurricane Hugo obliterated the waterfront, Marina Variety Store reopened in 1991 solely as a restaurant above scenic dive bar, Salty Mike’s, where it stands today. Beyond the weathered blue canopy, wooden surfaces and nautical ephemera once embellished the interior, evoking the delightful spirit of a ship’s cabin. Mike Altine, Jr. took over the property from his father in 2014 (which he now runs with his cousin, Richard Ritter) and initiated renovations in 2019. Gleaming whitewashed beadboard may have replaced the tiled ceilings, but rest assured: menu favorites, such as the blackened oysters (shucked East Coast bivalves seasoned with Cajun spices and grilled in a buttery sauce) remain unchanged. The Sunrise Breakfast—a healthy portion of hash browns or grits, biscuit or toast, and two eggs any style—is a steal at $7.29. For a couple bucks more, you can add smoked sausage, ham, or bacon. The panoramic harbor views are free of charge.

“Marina Variety Store is a culinary relic on a peninsula overdosing on a bourgeois invasion. I love the Captain’s Platter—a bona fide nautical cornucopia of sea critters (flounder, shrimp, oysters, scallops, or crab cakes). Blackened oysters are the way to go—a rare, and superlative, preparation.” —Reid Henninger, chef

 

Pho #1 at H&L Market
5300 Rivers Ave., North Charleston

{Com vit: roasted duck with rice and sautéed greens }

It’s no secret that H&L is the Charleston area’s superlative Asian supermarket. Some have ventured to the cafe inside, called “Pho #1” for the eponymous beef broth and eye of round soup. Next time, opt for the Vietnamese roasted duck—flavorful but unfussy, served with steamed white rice and a side of sautéed Chinese broccoli.

“After hockey practice, I usually pick up the com vit at Pho #1 for lunch. It’s a bargain at $9.99. Don’t let the price fool you; the duck’s crispy skin provides texture, and the juices from the tender meat drip onto the white rice that’s placed underneath. The elegant yet simple approach of this dish makes it one worth seeking out.”
—Parker Milner, Stingrays goalie & food writer

 

Bibimbap teeming with vibrant veggies and beef; (inset) chef Sean Park

Kanpai
1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., Suite B-9, Mount Pleasant

{Bibimbap & kimchi}

Top-notch Korean food is hard to come by in the Holy City. The best bites around, it turns out, can be found at Kanpai—a sushi restaurant tucked into an unassuming strip mall off Johnny Dodds Boulevard. Chef-owner Sean Park is known for his specialty rolls and omakase, but the handful of Korean dishes on the menu warrant a sushi-less dinner altogether. Bibimbap (“mixed rice”) dates back to the 16th century, when rural Koreans combined cooked rice with leftover ingredients. Nowadays, bibimbap is seen as a healthy meal in the West, due to its rainbow of prepared vegetables that often include marinated spinach, gosari (bracken ferns), soy bean sprouts, julienned cucumber and carrot, and a sunny side up egg, all stirred together with sesame oil and gochujang (red pepper paste). A particularly alluring version, sold at Kanpai, is served in a dolsot, or stone bowl, which sears the bottom layer of rice to a toasty crunch.

“There’s been a wave of tiresome, bougie kimchi brands hyped for the dish’s inherent probiotic properties. For the real deal, when I run out of my mom’s homemade stash, I head to Kanpai. Plus, the bibimbap—which tastes as dreamy as it looks—inspires in me Proustian-level nostalgia.”
—Jennifer Hope Choi, Charleston associate editor

 

(Left to right) Okra purloo, fried chicken and macaroni beef casserole, The Big Joe burger, fried whiting with fries and coleslaw

Mother-daughter owners (left) Awendaw mayor Miriam C. Green and chef April G. Mazyck

Buckshot’s
10030 Hwy. 17 N., McClellanville

{Okra purloo}

Siblings Miriam and Joseph Green launched Buckshot’s as a carry-out business 30 years ago; today, the family-owned and -operated restaurant is a McClellanville institution. Country home cooking fills the bill of fare here, from fried chicken (a favorite for locals) to the okra purloo.

“Buckshot’s represents Gullah-Geechee food culture to the fullest. Okra is one of the great vegetables that came from our ancestors in Africa. Rice is ingrained in this city’s legacy, which is a complex story of pain, resistance, resilience, and untold truths for the Gullah-Geechee people. Okra purloo is us.”
—BJ Dennis, chef

 

Fried shark with coleslaw on a “bake”; (inset) chef-owner Roxann Melville

Ma Gloria Trinidad
3313 Meeting Street Rd., North Charleston

{Fried bake & shark}

Out on the Twin Islands, breaded blacktip shark filets (imbued with Trini green seasoning, an herb-forward salsa) and “bakes” (Caribbean fried bread) are a common snack combo sold from street vendors and restaurants alike. “Bake and shark,” as it’s known, gets doused in “go-withs”—everything from chadon beni (verdant cilantro chutney) to coleslaw, ketchup to pepper sauce. Get a taste by making your way to Ma Gloria Trinidad and snag chef Roxann Melville’s version, which appears on the weekends and often sells out by midday.

“If a Church’s chicken biscuit and the fried shark from Hannibal’s had a baby, this would be it. It’s dipped in a tamarind glaze, and only available Saturday mornings.”
—KJ Kearny, regional field director for the Conservation Voters of South Carolina

 

(Clockwise) Fried soft-shell crab sandwich, pole beans and potatoes, and classic collard greens

Blackbird Market
1808 Bohicket Rd., John’s Island

{Soft-shell crab & fried chicken}

En route to Kiawah Island, a wooden “GOOD EATS” sign might catch your eye outside this charming cafe and shop owned by Billy and Delana Haynes. What’s on offer ranges by the day, from craft sandwiches to amply-sized plates. Enjoy your meal on the outdoor patio before hitting the beach, or stock up for the trip home. Seasonal produce, tantalizing pastries, local products (sunchoke relish, anyone?), or heat-and-eat entrées (such as chicken pot pie) will entice you to make those good eats last.

“I love the light, airy, and well-seasoned soft-shell crab with the juiciest John’s Island tomatoes, and the perfect amount of Duke’s mayo on buttery brioche. The fried chicken, well, that’s my favorite guilty pleasure. They use quality ingredients and a good ol’ cast iron-pan to fry. The meat is very moist while the skin stays super crunchy every time.”
—Yoanna Tang, general manager, Chubby Fish

 

(Left, clockwise from top) A Cincinnati chili trio: a “Coney” dog, chili and scrambled eggs, and a “five-way”; (right) owners Pete and Juli Twomey

FOOD on Spruill
4262 Spruill Ave., North Charleston

{Shoreline chili}

Buckeye transplants: you don’t have to schlep to Ohio to find a proper chili parlor. Named one of America’s top 20 iconic dishes by Smithsonian, Cincinnati chili is a meat sauce, emboldened with Mediterranean spices, first created in the 1920s by Macedonian immigrants. At FOOD on Spruill, Cincinnati-native Pete Twomey pays homage to Ohio’s beloved Skyline Chili chain with his “shoreline chili” menu, which includes everything from a Coney with cheese (a chili and shredded cheddar-topped hot dog) to a classic “five-way” (pasta, chili, cheese, beans, and raw onions). The “eggs & such” section (featuring, you guessed it, a chili scramble) is especially appealing to early risers on their way to work. You might even catch North Charleston’s Mayor R. Keith Summey here, taking his morning meetings over a breakfast croissant.

“Love the simple and relaxed diner vibe. Check out the ‘Order Here’ counter. There are hundreds and hundreds of pennies under polyurethane.”
— Melinda Monk, art director
 

(Left) Co-owners and chefs Kazu Murakami and Chris Schoedler

Sushi Wa Izakaya
1503 King St. Ext.

{Daikon steak}

Chefs Kazu Murakami and Chris Schoedler helm this delightful sushi spot that specializes in omakase (a Japanese-style chef’s tasting menu) out of Workshop’s annex at Pacific Box & Crate. Yes, you can enjoy unctuous otoro nigiri or local shrimp burnished with miso butter. But start first by scanning the bar-top card, which offers a selection of otsumami—small snacks meant to be consumed with beer or sake—at $5 a pop.

What is inconspicuously listed as “daikon” belies a marvelous creation, brought to Charleston courtesy of chef Murakami’s brother, who has owned a restaurant in Japan for more than 30 years. “It’s not exactly the way my brother does it,” says Murakami. “I gave it a twist, to go with American taste.”

The radish is cut into a thick medallion, simmered in dashi with soy and mirin until supple and fork tender. Then the daikon is piped with a generous swirl of Kewpie mayonnaise, topped with the addition of shredded mozzarella and Jack cheese, and served in its umami-rich broth.

“Most things we can taste in our minds and manage our own expectations. The daikon steak is the opposite: surprising and challenging, while remaining delicious and cravable. It’s one of those dishes that humbles you as a cook, making you wonder, ‘How the hell did they think of that!’”
—Jason Stanhope, chef de cuisine, FIG

 

Panadería Tlaxcalita Bakery
4892 Ashley Phosphate Rd., North Charleston

{Al pastor & carne asada tacos}

Make your way through this Mexican market and bakery beyond the sheet pan racks of pastries, cellophane bags of fried chicharrón pinwheels, and dangling piñatas. At the back service counter, a handmade sign hints to the bounty of antojitos for sale—street foods that will portal you away from the Lowcountry to south of the border. Order the al pastor tacos, and watch as slivers get flayed off the glistening, spit-grilled trompo (an enormous cone of stacked pork shoulder, inspired by the Lebanese lamb shawarma). There are excellent tortas, too, on crusty, fresh-baked bolilos, best when dappled with house-made salsas. While you could start or end here for a proper North Charleston taco crawl, you may want to just stay put and fill up on seconds.

“You can tell a lot about a place by the way they season the meat. Panadería Tlaxcalita gets it right every time. You can taste that there’s someone in the kitchen who cares. Their green and red sauces are stellar as well.”
—James London, chef, Chubby Fish

 

Vernon Pinckney, owner and cook, uses a special “chicken fry” breading for his pork chops, pictured with collard greens; (inset) VIP Bistro’s exterior

VIP Bistro
616 Meeting St.

{Fried pork chop}

Maybe you’ve spotted the sign beside the Highway 17 off-ramp: golden letters that form an enormous glinting diamond. No, VIP is not a nightclub. This comfort food-focused bistro, owned and run by Vernon and Catrina Pinckney (of North Charleston’s Black Diamondz), serves up rib-sticking eats in a no-frills setting. Get the fried pork chop, coated in a spicy breading, served with your choice of sides. Then finish with a slice of carrot cake, made from Vernon’s mother’s secret recipe.

 

 

(Top) Owner Lyn Jones and her mother, Bining Antonio; (bottom) sinigang and lumpia

Mei Thai
7685 Northwoods Blvd., North Charleston

{Sinigang, tapsilog, lumpia, & kare-kare}

Despite the name, Mei Thai offers an enterprising mix of cuisines, including sushi and, as of two years ago, Filipino fare. When Lyn Jones took over ownership in 2018, she added an entirely separate menu, paying homage to the traditional dishes of her home city, Manila. Those hankering for Filipino classics can find lumpia (pork and cabbage spring rolls), sinigang (savory and sour tamarind soup), tapsilog (salt-cured beef with fried egg and garlicky rice), and kare-kare (traditional peanut stew), served in a quaint dining room with cheery, mint green walls. Don’t forget halo-halo (a shaved ice confection) for dessert.

“The portions are large and served family style, just like we would in the Philippines. The sinigang is the perfect level of sour so I almost always eat it all on my own. We come for the food, but also for the titas and lolas working front and back of house—the gestures, customs, and chatter that make a Sunday lunch out feel like a Wednesday dinner back home.”
—Cinelle Barnes, author

 

(Inset, left to right) Owners and brothers Mario A. Obregon and Mario C. Obregon, who spent a year perfecting his chicken recipe. In Lima, his grandmother once owned a polla a la brasa restaurant. Obregon’s spice blend is a version of what she once served.

Mario’s Peruvian Chicken
1909 N. Hwy. 17, Suite a100, Mount Pleasant

{Whole rotisserie chicken & all the sides}

Pollo a la brasa is the chief lure at Mario’s, a fast-casual Peruvian restaurant at Sweet Grass Corner Shopping Center. Chickens are marinated for 24 hours in a paprika, cumin, garlic, and oregano spice rub, then broiled over charcoals. Owner Mario C. Obregon installed custom-built ovens with materials he and his brother (Mario A. Obregon) shipped from Lima, to ensure this popular Peruvian dish could be properly replicated in the Lowcountry. The herb-encrusted chicken, which can be ordered by the quarter, half, or whole portion, is plenty flavorful on its own, but sauces and sides rocket this meal to another level. Garlicky green beans, crunchy yucca fries, sweet plantains, and a mayo-forward coleslaw make perfect accompaniments, as do the condiments made from aji amarillo and rocoto peppers.

“My whole family is completely in love with the succulent and juicy roast chicken from Mario’s. It has the crispest skin and is so tender and flavorful. Although no sauce is needed, slathering the falling-off-the-bone meat in aji amarillo is a pure delight. $23.95 gets you a whole chicken and three sides—an absolute deal. If Mario’s was even just a bit closer to my house, I would probably give up cooking altogether and feast on these birds every day.”
—Cynthia Wong, pastry chef & owner, Life Raft Treats

 

(Clockwise from bottom left) Clam strips; interior, where eclectic coastal kitsch abounds; the diner’s eye-catching exterior; (inset) owner Steven Tockmakis and daughter, Sally  

McClellanville Diner
9905 Hwy. 17 N., McClellanville

{Hamburger steak with all the fixings, BLT, clam strips, & she-crab soup}

On the way to or from Georgetown, make a pit stop at this canary yellow diner perched off Highway 17. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, 18-year-old outpost champions seafood, pulled right from the dock. Owner Steven Tockmakis’s she-crab soup, made from a family recipe, is ideal on a rainy day, and if you fancy, ask for a splash of sherry for that extra bit of zing. Clam strips with tartar sauce, a superlative BLT (with the perfect bacon-to-iceberg ratio), or any Southern mainstay (when’s the last time you indulged in hamburger steak?) are all hits at this roadside respite.

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