Mt. Pleasant, 880 Allbritton Road
You could search the Latino enclaves of Johns Island, the taco trucks of North Charleston, and in all the nooks and crannies of the Mexican chains across town, and not find anything approaching the duck nachos at Uno Mas. I’m not sure they’re Mexican at all, but you shouldn’t care really care about that, because with an ice cold margarita and a hungry stomach, they speak any language you want to hear — piled high with fresh cheese, a spicy pulled duck melange, and the drizzle of fresh crema. They are seductive little suckers, as are the other exciting items on the menu at Uno Mas, which twists and turns every preconceived notion of Americanized Mexican cuisine. In the realm of planet taco, Uno Mas shoots for the moon.
There is no reason to expect anything less from the people who brought us the Mustard Seed, Long Point Grill, and the Boulevard Diner — eateries that command a dedicated following and a long waiting line at peak hours of business. And the aptly named Uno Mas is no different. Even before the spectacle coats your senses — bold colors splashing from stucco walls, various ethnic artifacts hung in artful suspension, an assertion painted across the barroom wall that one should temper the passage of life with a shot of tequila — you realize that you’ve stumbled upon a place so popular that people park on the grass, down the frontage road, and in adjacent parking lots in the hopes of finding a waiting booth inside. Tantalizing smells drift from large pots of guacamole, plates of various ceviche, and scorching enchiladas rushed to waiting tables. It’s disappointing then, that so much of what seems exciting on paper succumbs to poor execution, inferior ingredients, and downright overpricing — even if it’s clear from the size of the crowd that plenty of people disagree with that assertion.
You could go solely for the margaritas ($6 and up) and be overjoyed, if a good bit poorer. You could also bring a load of friends, gather around the common table in the bar, order a plate of those delicious duck nachos ($8), a huge molcajete (mortar) full of fresh shrimp guacamole ($10), or a flight of three variations for the same price, perhaps a bowl of melted cheese, the queso fundido ($6), and have a rousing time. The guacamoles are fresh and innovative, big chunks of avocado smashed with tomatoes and lime against the rough hew of a volcanic rock mortar — the shrimp version is worth a trip by itself.
The melted cheese, served with a roll of tortillas (the only tortillas in two visits that displayed any hot, steamy suppleness) with which to sop up the bubbling fondue.
Head for a booth and you’ll find a relaxing, laid-back setting, with prompt service and smiling faces — and you’ll also find many mediocre entrees, with a decidedly modern twist generously applied, but without the quality that the asking price might suggest.
Platters of tacos ($8-$10, or $17 for a six taco combination) flirt outrageously with sacrilege, piles of irreverence accompanied by flour tortillas. Grilled fish gets slapped with a pomegranate cream. Skirt steak mingles with blue cheese. Grilled chicken comes nestled in a bed of arugula leaves.
The chef’s specials feature a selection of whopping platefuls of grilled meats covered in piles of fried onions, tamales ($11) swaddled in banana leaves and filled with smoky chicken, drizzled in cream and the cool butter-baste of fresh avocado. My favorite dish, the Pollo en Mole Poblano ($13), coats grilled organic chicken breasts in a very capable mole concoction which claims 26 ingredients and is so complex you believe such an assertion.
Overall, though, much of the food fails to live up to expectations. The prices don’t reflect the quality, and some dishes disappoint so thoroughly that one has to wonder if the kitchen even tasted the food. The ceviche selections bear none of the acidic twang you expect and many dishes seem overwrought, full of extraneous additions to the plate intended to create impressive complexity but too often disrupting the balance of flavors. It seems unfair to ask $17 for plates of six tacos when they don’t even begin to compare to what might cost you six bucks in more ethnic places. That’s a pity, not only because Sal Parco has a stellar reputation and some really fine restaurants under his belt, but because the really bad stuff masks a good time and some quality dishes. Uno Mas would do well to take lessons from some of the tacquerias around town, in both price and performance. They would find that simplicity can create astonishing results. Until then, I’m sticking to the margaritas — and those lovely duck nachos.