There’s a large white duck painted on the side of a pale blue wall on Folly Road, and it has nothing to do with Aflac. It’s on an industrial building, one that’s big enough to notice even though it’s tucked behind a boxing club and a tattoo parlor. It’s home to White Duck Taco Shop. The location on Folly Road is fitting, as their tacos have enough filling to satisfy a heavyweight champ and a truly hip environment where one would fit right in.
This isn’t the first White Duck Taco Shop. Ben Mixson and Laura Reuss opened the original in the Asheville, N.C. River Arts District in 2011, and earlier this year they debuted another in downtown Asheville. Now, they’ve begun franchising, and College of Charleston graduate Andrew Pannell jumped at the opportunity to bring the popular tacos closer to the beach.
Inside, the space is bright and wide open, echoing the industrial warehouse vibe. Tables are made out of doors and there’s a collection of mismatched chairs. As you walk in, the first thing you’ll notice is a mirror that runs the length of the wall on the opposite side of the room, creating an illusion of depth. In the back above the seating area, there’s a long, striped mural of a view of Charleston from James Island. Up front you’ll see colorfully decorated chalkboards that list the current menu.
The concept is straightforward: walk in, peruse the chalkboard menu, place an order at the counter, take a number, then seat your self. When your food is ready, it’s brought to your table, but there’s no wait staff, per se. On a typical Saturday, there’s usually a line running out the door by noon, not surprising given how crazy for tacos people are these days. But these aren’t ordinary tacos; you will not see Al Pastor or barbacoa on the chalkboard, and you certainly won’t find lengua or tripa.
You will find carnitas, but instead of cilantro and onions the tortillas are layered with a mound of pork, baked beans, and crunchy slaw, with cinnamon and a sweet barbecue sauce playing prominent roles.
These aren’t tacos for the faint of heart, either. They’re big and filled to the max. The good news is that most of them are $3.50 each and the corn tortillas are fresh and don’t collapse after the first bite.
The bad news: there’s too much going on. The masa-based tortillas serve as a battleground for competing flavors and there’s always a clear-cut victor. In fact, the salsa trio was the most impressive part of all of my visits — particularly the mild and acidic salsa verde, which was fresh and delicious.
In the jerk chicken taco, perfectly tender grilled chicken, sweet marinated pineapple, and cabbage get suplexed by allspice. While in the Bangkok taco, the shrimp goes rock bottom after being punished with a disproportionate amount of chili aioli and sesame glaze. The saving grace was the sweet pickles that stood ringside to the shrimp.
In some cases, the flavors don’t even get into the ring. The beef bulgogi taco suffered from a soggy and flavorless kimchi that lost one too many matches.
The fan favorite, priced a bit higher at $6.50, was a hefty crab salad taco seasoned with Old Bay, where fresh pico and capers add bright notes.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of alcohol to wash it all down — margaritas, craft beer, $2 Tecates, and a couple of sangrias. What’s less fortunate is the consistency in which the cocktails are made. It’s good to see the folks behind the counter mixing drinks to order, but when ingredients are being added to a glass without any form of measurement, you can be certain uniformity will be an issue. We had two different orders of the white peach and blueberry sangria at our table. One was bright blue and delicious. The other was a pale pink and lacked the sweet blueberry punch, though it was better than the watermelon sangria, which tasted like it had been made with cheap brandy and was virtually undrinkable.
That said, there’s something about steak and cheese in the form of a taco that people seem to love. Those asking for big flavors and tortillas filled to the brim will be happy at White Duck Taco Shop. Me? I’m more of a traditional taco kind of guy, so I’ll stick to the chips and salsa and be just fine.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.