Cheap food is everywhere. It’s faulted for ruining our agricultural system, damaging the environment, reinforcing the poverty cycle, making us fat, and causing a host of health issues from diabetes to cancer. Finding cheap food is not hard. Just head to the nearest fast food strip and you can dig into an 1,100-calorie Big Mac Meal for $5.99. That’s as cheap as it gets.
Cheap eats is another thing altogether. It’s good food at a reasonable price. A ratio of quality to cost that doesn’t break the bank. Unfortunately, cheap eats in Charleston is practically an oxymoron. Dining out has always been an expensive proposition in this town, probably because from the days of Chef Nat Fuller in the 1800s, restaurants catered to the rich folks while everyone else cooked and ate at home.
When I moved here from Atlanta, a big city awash in great cheap eats, I was gobsmacked by the prices. In the late ’90s, Charleston’s restaurant scene was geared toward rich S.O.B.’s and flush tourists, forget the hard-working locals looking for a good meal at a reasonable price. Charleston didn’t even have an ethnic area (like Atlanta’s Buford Highway) where you could find authentic fare at a fraction of the cost.
In those days, we avoided the pricey Market eateries and the bland La Haciendas and headed out to Johns Island for lengua tacos and chilaquiles at El Mercadito, the original El Mercadito that operated a grocery store and a tiny kitchen out of a fluorescent-lit storefront in a strip mall, before they moved down the street and upgraded to a real restaurant setting. Johns Island also had Mr. B’s Barbecue, run by the passionate chef Steven Jackson who filled his buffet with fresh local veggies and encouraged you to top those grits with stewed tomatoes. Yum. We drove to James Island for lunch at Mondo’s Delite and noshed on freshly made foccacia sandwiches that clocked in at six bucks.
We also became adept at finding the weeknight deals around town, stopping in for all-you-can-eat crablegs and half-price burger nights, and when a place like Al di La opened in West Ashley, we went there in droves to eat downtown quality food for a reasonable price. Over the years, the suburbs have been a reliable source of cheap eats, and when a place opens that charges downtown rates, they don’t last long. If people wanted to pay that much for dinner, they’d drive downtown — a complaint we heard every time someone dared charge too much.
Med Bistro in South Windermere was a popular stand-by in those days. It was a fancier night out than a barbecue joint but you could enjoy everyone’s favorite, the Rex and Sherry pasta, and a glass of wine for far less than you’d pay downtown for the same. They even had a retail wine area with inexpensive bottles for sale that you could buy and drink in the dining room for a small corkage fee.
The area surrounding the college was also a good bet for finding cheap eats. Jack’s Cafe has always been the standby, but back then you also had pita places, the original AC’s, and the beloved Horse and Cart. On the other side of campus, Bubba Slye’s served up fat sandwiches in an unairconditioned spot on Beaufain Street (now Black Tap), and Yo Burrito opened on the corner of Wentworth and Coming to big crowds eager to slake their thirst with jars of margs and overstuffed tortillas.
Back then, long before Halls Chophouse planted a fine dining flag on Upper King, the northern reaches of the peninsula was home to Alice’s Fine Foods, a soul food buffet restaurant where you could get heaping servings of southern vittles for a few dollars and then sit down in the dining room alongside the cops, pastors, and workmen and watch the latest installment of Young and the Restless. A few doors down, where Basil is now, a Huddle House served up its classic roadside menu but suffered from its excruciatingly slow service. That breakfast sandwich might’ve cost you only $1.95 but you wasted 30 minutes of your busy morning waiting for it. Over on Coming Street, Latasha’s Taste of New Orleans served up the best oyster po’boy in town in addition to meat-and-three dishes with dirty rice, fried catfish, and so much more.
So maybe there were more cheap eats choices than I thought. It just took some time to search them out.
Today, the challenge of finding quality fare at reasonable prices has increased along with skyrocketing rents and a rapidly gentrifying real estate scene. Even the ‘burbs are no longer a sure thing when it comes to affordability. Sure, you can find plenty of bars and pizza joints where you can feed a family for less than $40, but what about fresh local seafood and Johns Island veggies?
If I had to pick my favorite cheap eats places, Five Loaves Café would top the list. They went into the former Latasha’s space in 2003 and immediately set about proving that you could serve sustainable, quality food at reasonable prices. Delicious soups, fresh salads, and creative sandwiches could be split up and/or combined for under $10. The owners soon followed up with Sesame, a burger joint that used quality beef and offered plenty of vegetarian options alongside a craft beer menu that proved they cared about quality over quantity.
EVO was another game changer. Pioneers of Park Circle, they embraced the farm-to-table, Slow Food ethos and found an immediate legion of fans, who were willing to trek to an abandoned main street for the privilege of enjoying great meals and the knowledge that you were supporting local farms at the same time.
In the ensuing years, we’ve seen many places come and go, but the ones that win our hearts are the places like Spero and Bar Normandy, where you can get downtown quality food — downtown — at suburban prices. These are the restaurateurs that deserve our undying loyalty, because without them we would be stuck paying out the nose for fancy food or, more likely, paying dirt cheap prices for Combo Meal No. 3.
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