[image-1]Sean Mendes, the man behind Roadside Seafood and the new Blues Burger Joint, knows what James Island wants, and that’s no small feat. The suburban island to the west of downtown Charleston is a quirky place. Its residents have long been at odds with the fancy folk on the peninsula, seceding from the city in 1993 and waging a decades-long war for independence. The people out here are proud to be different from their aristocratic neighbors across the harbor, trumpeting their “Just Say No To Joe” slogan when he started annexing up property and taxing the island for the benefit of downtown. It should go without saying that James Islanders differ from Charlestonians in more ways than one. Take food, for instance. The most popular restaurants on the island don’t put on airs, they put barbecue in the smoker and pizza in the oven and call it a day. Keep the beers cold and keep ’em coming, and they’ll show up on the regular. But not everyone seems to get it.
When I first moved to James Island in 1998, the popular restaurants over here were La Hacienda and the now closed Locklear’s, serving up monster margaritas and fried seafood plates respectively. Locklear’s felt like a dining room at a nursing home, with muted pastel colors and a white-haired clientele, while La Ha felt like a raucous rumpus room, with kids running around in soccer uniforms and parents guzzling giant mugs of Dos Equis. That’s the spectrum of dining you could find on JI for many moons. Mondo’s was the one bright spot. We would drive all the way over from the peninsula to grab their fabulous focaccia sandwiches and tangy caesar salad for lunch. The parking was easier, the food was damn good, and, in the beginning, an incredible value. Mondo’s slowly matured over the years and continues to be a favorite neighborhood spot, proving that JI residents will support a place that serves good food without the attitude they expect to encounter downtown.
[pullquote-1]As downtown rents have escalated in recent years, James Island has seen an explosion of restaurant openings — with mixed results. Some restaurateurs seem completely clueless as to what JI is ready for, while others, like Mendes, hit the sweet spot. The rest of the world may be overrun with mustachioed hipsters looking for artisanal plates of food, but James Island is a charming mashup of families, old folks, rednecks, and hippies all looking for their own little slice of attitude-free authenticity.
A quick inventory shows what’s popular on JI: four independent pizza places plus all the pizza chains (even Pizza Hut!), two Subways, two combo-plate Mexican restaurants, one gourmet taco shop, and Zia (a beloved institution), a crapload of pubs, one Kickin’ Chicken, a grilled cheese spot, two red-sauce Italian joints, two Thai spots, three barbecue places — including Smoky Oak Taproom, which might just be the most popular spot on the island, and one farm-to-table spot (The Lot).
And yet restaurateurs have been willing to wade into this fray and open super ambitious concepts. Do islanders want crudo and tartare, tacos and ramen — all at the same place (Stereo 8) — and served with a mixtape? Stereo 8 is one of the few places on James Island that has oysters on the half shell, and they serve them up for happy hour at a buck a piece, so they’ve figured out that JI likes a damn bargain. They also added delivery, which means they’re doing what they can to serve the market. It remains to be seen if they can continue to evolve into something that James Islanders can’t live without.
Down the street at Screen Door, what started as an ambitious concept spot for wood-fired plates of lionfish and the like has morphed into a more middle-of-the-road restaurant for pizza, pasta, steaks, and burgers. Seems like the right move, although with a name like Screen Door, I’ve always expected the fare to be country cooking. You know, the type of food you’d eat at the lake house in the summer. Screen Door is in the same boat as Stereo 8, looking for that right combination of high and low and struggling to overcome its original concept to be something people want to visit again and again.
Then there’s CURE, and I’m not talking about the new incarnation of Pantheon but rather the restaurant on Maybank whose name is an acronym for Comfortable Upscale Relaxing Environment (what?). A prime steak, seafood, and craft bourbon house, CURE hasn’t yet lured me in to try them out, but it’s probably the only place on the island you can order a $48 Porterhouse with hotel butter. (Oh, and they serve a dozen oysters for $10 — less than a buck a piece — now that’s a good deal.)
These high concept restaurants seem out of place on James Island, where locals flock to Smoky Oak for a big beer list, smoked meats, and platters of country vegetables, or to Roadside Seafood for shark tacos and baskets of perfectly breaded and fried seafood.
[image-2]Two places that have opened in the last couple of weeks show the mix of high and low that’s just right for James Island. You can’t go too high, as seasoned restaurateur Sermet Aslan knows. His new Southernterranean Cuisine-Bar (yes — ugh is right) has an easy menu of classic Mediterranean fare with recognizable things like risotto, polenta, and gnocchi. It also has quirky twists like the Frogmore Raviolo, which mashes up a pasta dish with the flavors of a Lowcountry boil. The combination made for a rich, flavorful dish, with a fat raviolo stuffed with potato and showered with bits of blue crab, kielbasa, caramelized leeks, shrimp, and corn. Strange but good. The venue, formerly the under-decorated and underwhelming Heart Woodfire Grill, has been warmed up with fresh paint, wooden furniture, soft leather chairs, and a gallery of colorful paintings, many by Sermet himself — an artist whose work I unexpectedly encountered in the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore once. Sermet’s unique expression — in both the food and the setting and that weird penguin logo (what is that all about anyway?) — sends a message that you’re welcome to chill for a while and enjoy yourself, which we did, despite the hectic bustle of the restaurant on one of its first nights open to the public.
Just across the street from Sermet’s and next door to Roadside Seafood is Sean Mendes’ new Blues Burger Joint, which took over the old Island Bar & Grill. It’s already awesome as far as I’m concerned. Inside feels appropriately dark and dive-y, everything you want out of a burger joint. It reminds me faintly of the old Your Place on the Market. It’s so perfect that I’ve eaten two burgers in as many weeks — and I rarely eat burgers. The burgers come pink or no-pink and feature enough variations to keep you coming back for more. The fried pickles come with fried pepperoncini strips, which wins the weirdest-but-best-food-to-fry award. I think if you’re trying to figure out a lesson in all this, the KISS theory holds true for James Island’s restaurant scene. Mendes understands this and his food is gloriously simple yet utterly delicious. When we want that fancy stuff, James Islanders know that they can find it just across the harbor. Over here, we like to keep it simple, stupid.