If I ever decide I’ve had enough and am going to cast my life into a whirlpool of dissolute abandon, I might just pick Cha Cha’s Tequila Bar as the place to get started. I would stuff myself silly with Warpig tacos and wash them down with plenty of tequila — and not that Cuervo Gold crap but plenty of fine 100 percent agave blancos and reposados. You gotta do these things with style.
Cha Cha’s bills itself as Charleston’s only Mexican sports bar, and I’m pretty sure they’re right. It’s an odd jumble of a place, a bit off the beaten path, back in the far corner of a fading shopping plaza halfway out to the beach on Folly Road. It’s scruffy but cool — a sports bar meets dive bar meets Day of the Dead. Murals of dancing skeletons and Mexican skull paintings watch over six red-topped quarter tables while football (the American variety) flashes out from a dozen or more flat screens. One half of the U-shaped bar is raised, so you sit on normal sized chairs instead of stools while the bartenders work a few feet below.
With over 100 selections, Cha Cha’s has by far the broadest tequila list in town. It ranges from $3 shots of Durango all the way up to limited edition bling like Don Julio Real (a mere $70) or Patron Gran Burderos ($100). In between are plenty of worthy but hard-to-find labels like Corralejo and El Tesoro.
And then there’s the food. At first blush, it looks like a pretty standard Tex-Mex selection: tacos, fajitas, quesadillas, and salads. But if you look a little closer you’ll note some curious touches: tropical salsa, fennel pollen, and roasted zucchini alongside pork belly, venison, and a “spicy lamb dog.”
The shrimp diablos appetizer ($10) offers pairs of butterflied shrimp lashed together by strips of bacon and cooked till brown and crisp. They’re billed as being stuffed with goat cheese, but it must melt away into almost nothingness during cooking for there’s not a detectable trace remaining. But they’re still a tasty opening bite.
The stuffed jalapeños ($9) put an excellent twist on what is now a sports bar staple. The hot peppers are grilled until they have a nice puckered char, and each is filled with a chorizo-laced queso that has a touch of smoke and elusive cinnamon-like accents. And, of course, the bottom half is wrapped in crisp-fried bacon.
Over time, Cha Cha’s taco selection has more than doubled in size, and it now boasts 20 options (all $3.75 for one, $6.95 for two). There are a few run-of-the-mill entries, like baja fish with slaw and chipotle crema or grilled steak with mushrooms and jack cheese. Most, though, are creative fusions that will make you pause in your tracks.
There are culture-clash mash-ups, like the chicken caesar taco with romaine, caesar dressing, and grated cotija cheese instead of parmesan. The po-boy piles fried shrimp on a tortilla and dresses them with lettuce, tomato, and, in place of remoulade, buffalo sauce and ranch dressing.
On the Philly cheesesteak taco, melted queso stands in for Cheez Whiz, and it turns out to be delicious, coating the big strips of beef, onions, and green pepper and making a gooey, cheesy concoction.
The meat on the venison taco isn’t particularly impressive — just small, dry strips — but it’s topped with cool fennel pollen yogurt, tangy housemade pickles, and a fiery harissa made from bright red peppers, a great combination of flavors. The Hawaiian hen has a similarly pleasing blend, with mild grilled chicken and jack cheese getting goosed up with chunks of grilled pineapple, tangy barbecue sauce, and a smoky hint of bacon.
Then there’s the Warpig, which reads as some sort of monument of excess: pork belly, roasted pork, and, in case you can’t get enough of that magical animal, bacon, too, along with black beans and fried onions. On the plate, it turns out to be delicious. The lightly toasted tortilla is overstuffed with the fillings and topped with several wide squiggles of pale orange chipotle crema and sweet brown barbecue sauce. There’s a great char to the pork, and the crisp bacon adds nice accents that make each bite better than the one before it.
The Warpig, in my mind, sums up Cha Cha’s. There’s a touch of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives excessiveness to it all. Why offer mild and hot chicken wings when they could be “Candy Ass Mild” and “Bust You in the Mouth”? If you want to sell some good tequila, why not go all the way and stock over a hundred brands? And, when in doubt, slap on a slab of seared pork belly and wrap it in bacon.
I, for one, like that aesthetic. If you’re going to do Mexican sports bar grub, why not go all the way?