Charleston area reviews
Ok, so we went w/ 2 10yr olds so these wouldn't necessarily have been our "date night" sort of places:
Folly Beach - Taco Boy - Many post-ers and friends had said this was the place to go in FB. I found the food pretty disappointing. The guac in the sampler mix (queso, salsa and guac) tasted exactly like a store bought version - not fresh and certainly not bright with any sort of acid or interest. Salsa was just ok - also didn't taste like anything homemade. I had the tempura shrimp taco which I found incredibly bland. At our table we also tried the carne asada and the baja fish and the obrero (vegetarian/bean) tacos...opinions by all were that they were "just ok". Our 10 yr old said that "the tacos at French Broad Taqueria (Marshall) are MUCH better" and I'd have to agree with him. On the plus side....I like the funky, eclectic decor, it's definitely a casual, kid friendly place and the server was very friendly and attentive. I'd go back and try something else and some of their margaritas.
Charleston - Pearlz on E. Bay - this was our 2nd visit during Happy Hour. The staff apologized for the lack of air conditioning but w/ a dark interior and ceiling fans pumping overhead we were fine. Acutally a relief from some of the other hyper-cooled places. We had the fried oyster app and had to order a 2nd helping because it was so fresh and succulent. Loved the spicy dipping sauce. The trio of sliders (tuna, crab and shrimp) also went over very well as did my grilled tuna salad - I love it when they don't overcook it and it is actually barely medium rare. Great service and good prices make this a great place to start your evening for happy hour apps priced at $5-8 and very reaonable drinks or just a good place to stay for dinner.
As far as I'm concerned, you have to go to North Charleston or John's Island to get good Mexican food in the Charleston area. The little hole in the wall places where they don't speak much English are almost always the best. I've heard great things about the taco carts on Ashley Phosphate (in fact there was something in last summer's Charleston City Paper dining guide about them) but my favorite place has been La Nortena. I wrote a review on my blog a while back, here's what I said:
"I was a little nervous on the way because the (person who recommended it to me) led me to believe that I was going to need to call on my limited Spanish skills to make it through the meal. Unfortunately, even though I took Spanish for three years in high school and two semesters in college, mi Español no es bueno. The good news was that it really wasn't an issue. English was obviously our server's second language, but she knew the basics and was willing to put up with us butchering the pronunciation of her native tongue.
Anyhow, on to the food. In a pleasantly surprising twist from your typical cookie cutter Mexican place, La Norteña brings out 5 different types of salsa for their free chips. Be forewarned though, some of these pack some serious heat. I thought I had learned from experience that green salsas usually were safer to go ahead and dig into, but I learned my lesson pretty quickly. I didn't love all of them, but one of the green ones (a more typical salsa verde) and a darker-red-on-the-verge-of-brown one really hit the spot. The chips were fine, but I'm still hoping that someday all Mexican restaurants will start learning from Santi's and have the same big, thick, awesome chips.
The menu is pretty large and gives you all sorts of options. I had heard that things like cabeza (beef cheek) and lengua (tongue) were pretty common at the more authentic Mexican establishments, and although I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater, I decided to play it safe on my first visit there. That being said, I don't think that either of the above things are gross, and I will probably try them both the next opportunity I have. My stance on foods I'm not used to seeing on a menu is this: if something is commonly found on the menus of a given type of cuisine, then that means that the restaurants sell enough of it for it to be worth it, which, in turn, means that there is probably a reason that so many people buy it.
Sorry, I went on a bit of a tangent there, but back to the subject. I ended up getting four tacos (which are sold at $1.49 a piece, an obscenely good deal). Two of them were carnitas, which just means shredded, braised pork, and two were al pastor, which is essentially the Mexican equivalent of gyro meat or shawarma. Wikipedia describes the preparation tacos al pastor as:
Usually pork, it is marinated during one or two days with a blend of different spices and herbs (such as adobo), and then slowly cooked on a vertical rotisserie called a Trompo (lit: spinning top), often with a pineapple on top. When ready, the meat is then thinly sliced off the spit with a large knife.
The tacos were prepared the way they typically (from what I have read) are prepared at most traditional Mexican taquerias, which means two small (slightly bigger than palm sized) tortillas stacked on top of each other, followed by the meat, chopped onion, cilantro, red or green salsa, and served with lime (this is pretty much what is represented by the picture at the top of this post, even though it's not actually from La Norteña).
Now that we've got all of our explanations down, let me just tell you that if you haven't had tacos al pastor prepared in this way then you are really missing out. The meat was amazing. It was tender and whatever spices they used to marinate it really brought out a great flavor. It was sort of subtly sweet and tangy with a hint of pineapple. Unlike most Tex-Mex American tacos, the meat is really the centerpiece of this variety. With a lot of the ingredients we are used to being in tacos (e.g. lettuce, tomato, sour cream, cheese) stripped away, your palate really gets to focus on what it is supposed to. You'll wonder why you've been putting all of that other nonsense on your tacos all along (then you may remember, as I did, that you did so because the meat you'll find at a place like La Norteña is prepared with significantly more care and skill, than the chunk of ground beef you throw in a pan with a packet of taco seasoning at home). The carnitas was also very good, but not memorable in the way that their al pastor was.
Another interesting item that we decided to try midway through our meal was an horchata a Mexican iced beverage derived from rice that is milky in appearance and also includes sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Sarah and I decided that this was some sort of Mexican egg nog equivalent. It was actually very good, and did nice job of taking the bite out of some of the salsas that came with our chips. One side note on this point, we decided to get the "grande" size since we were going to share it (and since it was only $2.29). This turned out to be totally unnecessary; the grande size seriously had to have been more than a liter. I felt like they gave us a gallon bucket with two straws.
All-in-all, it was a really great meal for a really great value. I plan on going back up that way soon and getting a little more creative with my ordering. I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys Mexican food, or just enjoys good, simple food in general."
My editor at C of C's student paper wants me to review Taco Boy sometime early this semester, so I'll report back with my opinion once I get the chance.
http://dhisgood.blogspot.com - One Charleston College Student's Guide to Food and Film
Santi's (on Meeting Street Road where it and Morrison Drive intersect) holds its own against any Mexican place we have tried in the Charleston area or is flat out better. And versus El Mercadito (which was the gold standard on John's Island) based on our last visit there, it was waaaay better.
No need for the long drive for good Mexican from downtown Charleston.
On another note, we tried Uno Mas in Mt Pleasant again after a very disappointing visit last year. It was excellent. Very high level Mexican cooking. Uno Mas is owned by Sal Parco (Boulevard Diner, Mustard Seed).
Santi's is by far, the best mexican place near downtown. La Ha should not even be considered when talking of good food, IMO. If you go to Santi's order Tacos Al Pastor (it's not on the menu) mexican style, after the first bite, I knew I would be disappointed by any other dish, it was amazing. La Ha is fine for drinks and free chips, but their food does nothing for me but fill my gut.