When we were asked to write an essay for the Dish issue that would be focusing on ethnic food, I thought, sure, but two things might stand in the way. First, I haven’t written more than five sentences since high school. And second, I’m a third-generation American with roots from England. What the hell do they think I know about ethnic food?
You you may have never heard of The ‘Wich Doctor before. We’re not scene makers or ahead of our time. My wife Krista and I started our spot on Folly Beach with the intention of bringing really tasty food to the beach, but in the most approachable way — mainly sandwiches and pizza. I guess pizza is technically the first ethnic food most of us encounter. Between our specials and the regular menu, we’ve become known for doing some amazing ethnic stuff, either authentic or fusion. Our specials include stir-fries and noodle dishes from Vietnam, China, and Japan. We do pho, authentic ramen, and rich Thai curries regularly as well. We’ve even done an Ethiopian Berbere brisket.
For 18 months before we opened, I was out of work and recovering from hand surgery. I would wander the aisles of H&L Asian Market for countless hours and became familiar with the strangest ingredients — fermented tofu, fermented black beans, shrimp paste, preserved cabbage, dried jellyfish. Not to mention watching Vietnamese cooking shows on YouTube in Vietnamese and trying to figure out what they were doing.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. My love for Asian food starts with an older Vietnamese woman, “Mama” Rose Durden. She was the chef at Carolina’s for many years. We worked together in the 1990s and early 2000s, and she introduced me to Vietnamese food. She was the spark that inspired. At the time, we had very few Asian-American things on the menu, but in the back, she fixed us the most amazing food such as pho, banh xeo, stir-fries with loads of lemongrass, and the banh mi from the now-closed Captain Tangs. It was so different from what the menu offered customers. Fusion ran strong for a while, and she was put in charge of opening My Tho, a fantastic Vietnamese restaurant that was located at 304 King St., but it didn’t take off. Ahead of its time, I guess.
When I left Carolina’s, we kept in touch. She was like a mother to me and even catered our wedding in 2007. She has since passed away, and I think of her often. I swear on certain days, I can hear her tell me, “You work harder. Make more money.” I am grateful I was able to learn from her. I had the opportunity to visit her in the hospital shortly before she passed. I read her some of the menu, and I could see in her eyes how proud she was that I was including some Asian influences. That has made all the difference.
Today we have so many good ethnic restaurants that excel at doing their thing. Phuong for Vietnamese, Ethiopian Taste, Raul’s Maya del Sol, Kanpai Japanese, Myles and Jun Yakitori in Summerville, Taste of Thai (West Ashley), Pollo Loko Peruvian Cuisine for empanadas, and so many more I have forgotten to name or have yet to discover. Sadly, many of our true gems have closed because they were off-the-beaten path and lacked support. The ones that immediately come to mind are Cafe Europa which served Bosnian Food, Rosaly’s Mexican (the best red and green sauce I have ever had), El Chapin Centro, Silva Spoon Soul Food, and Bin Minh Vietnamese just to name a few. We need to support these mom and pop shops and celebrate a little culinary diversity. Even here at The ‘Wich Doctor, we see resistance to variety and people unwilling to change their eating habits. No burger, they leave. No french fries, they leave. No turkey on white with mayo, they leave, and that’s OK because they will find it elsewhere. But those that stay have their minds blown. Those people, they return for something different with an ethnic twist on a regular basis. Everyone should make it a point to try something different, search it out, get out of their comfort zone, and dig in.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Krista and I have done everything ourselves at The ‘Wich Doctor, without employees. Maybe that’s why we’re so passionate about getting out to new places and supporting small operations, usually families, cooking the food of their own people. For us, the chance to do different types of ethnic food and attract customers who really enjoy what we do is worth all the hard work and time we put in. Even for being a small restaurant, we have a lot to offer and so much more to come in the future. Remember to support your true local mom and pops. Eat well, eat wide, stretch your horizons, and, most of all, enjoy.