Chewy or crispy? Large or small? Local or frozen? Seasoned or under-seasoned? Lightly breaded or cake-like? Tail or no tail? These are questions I found scribbled in my notebook from a long running, exhaustive, someday-to-be-completed mission to sample and evaluate every permutation of fried shrimp in the greater Charleston area.
When Robert Moss and I set forth on this undertaking, we had more than 30 restaurants on our list. Some were good ol’ standbys; others were misguided tips. In seeking the best fried shrimp in town, we made our way halfway through the list, finding a few clear-cut winners, a lot of losers, and a host of worthy candidates. Alas, after consuming over five pounds of fried shrimp in just a few weeks, we decided to put this daunting task on hold. That was a year ago, and it wasn’t until recently that I even considered eating one of those little fried crustaceans again, but I’ve got to say I’m glad I did. Sean Mendes of Roadside Seafood is serving up some that are hot, crisp, and addictive — an unequivocal contender for the best fried shrimp in town.
The breading is thin, but full of gusto. It’s bold but allows the succulent local shrimp to shine. Sans tail, the golden-brown treasures disappear from paper-lined plastic baskets in no time.
Started as food truck in late 2012, Roadside Seafood now has a brick-and-mortar presence on Folly Road. It’s an unpretentious little place where about a dozen tables are draped with vinyl red-and-white gingham tablecloths and topped with a roll of paper towels and a bottle of malt vinegar. Royal blue walls accented with oars, a life preserver, and shark teeth create a maritime atmosphere.
The menu begins with starters (called Cast-offs) including fried green tomatoes ($8), crab cake bites ($9), and local black tip shark bites ($9). But the she-crab soup is the way to go ($4/$6). It’s thick and creamy with a generous portion of lump crab meat and roe. A splash of sherry elevates its rich goodness to sublimity.
In the Handhelds section, big hoagie rolls enter the scene, joining the fried shrimp, crab cakes, and grilled sirloin. The Split Decision ($10) can easily feed two and eliminates the sometimes formidable question of what to order. On one side of the roll, you’ve got a handful of those addictive fried shrimp; fried oysters reside on the other. It’s a mega po’boy topped with lettuce and the house Bam sauce, a Sriracha and mayo blend that packs a punch.
The menu takes an awkward turn with the tacos ($4). There’s fried shark, jerk mahi, and catfish, all served in a standard, medium-sized flour tortilla and filled to the brim. The Bam Bam Shrimp Taco gets topped with shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, Bam sauce, and sour cream. The only memorable part of the taco was the fried shrimp we’ve come to love, as the tortilla was hardening and cracking at the first bite.
But we’re here for the baskets. Take your pick: fried, grilled, big, small, combo (two for $18, three for $22). The usual suspects — catfish, flounder, shrimp, oysters, scallops — are all represented, but Roadside amps up the options by adding gator tail, shark nuggets, and frog legs. They’re all good, but the gator bites are especially tasty.
Red rice, coleslaw, and sweet potato fries are a few of the sides available to round out your basket. The tasty onion rings are crisp and zesty. You won’t find any truffle oil or fancy noodles in the mac ‘n’ cheese, but you won’t miss them in this simple bowl of nostalgia.
There’s nothing fancy about Roadside Seafood, but that bowl of she-crab soup, the mac ‘n’ cheese, and those baskets of fried food trump swankiness with a warm sense of comfort, as does the quick and friendly service. Whether you’re dining in or picking up some food for carry-out, there’s always a genuine welcome at the door.
I’ll be honest, I had no desire to continue on with the fried shrimp expedition, but Roadside Seafood has renewed my interest. I’ve been reminded that, when prepared properly, there’s nothing like great fried shrimp. We may hit a few snags down the road, but with shrimp as good as Mendes is putting out, I know we’ve got our work cut out for us. Game on.