Driving past The Rusty Rudder on N. Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant, I nearly wrote it off as dive bar. Inside, however, what I found was more what I’d call a “barbecue-joint-meets-family-friendly-sports-bar-meets-seafood-restaurant-meets-outdoor-patio party-spot.”
Sound like a lot of personalities? Well, it is.
The menu runs the gamut from quesadillas to mahi mahi.
The smoked and grilled wings ($11.95) are as-described and more backyard barbecue than Buffalo, N.Y. Offered with a choice of sauces and rubs, I went for the buffalo hot. With visible grill marks, the wings aren’t as crisp as the traditional fried preparation, but come imbued with deep smoke notes. Absurdly messy when covered with buffalo sauce, I reckon one of the dry rubs would go better with the grilled flavor … and not so fervently soil every article of clothing on my body.
With a nod to the seafood restaurant element, there is tuna tartare ($13.95). Dressed with discernible soy sauce and sesame oil and tossed with green onions, the chunks of raw tuna arrive scattered atop a pyramid of fried wonton crisps with squirts of sriracha sauce here and there. Reminiscent of Hawaiian poke, the dish is light and fresh. The clunky presentation could be improved, but that shouldn’t prevent you from ordering it.
The menu also features tacos. We sampled the honey sriracha shrimp variety ($11.50) which comes with an eclectic choice of fries, collard greens, coleslaw, or gouda and bacon mashed potatoes.
Two flour tortillas come loaded with three large shrimp apiece. Overwhelmed by the deluge of honey sriracha sauce, it was hard to taste anything but chipotle and flames. If you have any napkins left standing after the requisite post-hot wings sponge bath, use them to dab the fiery red sauce back to a reasonable level as the volume-adjusted combination really sings. The crunchy fried shrimp, topped with a crisp slaw and a slightly sweet peach salsa, were notably fresh and plump. Once the heat level is in check, the other balancing flavors are able to come through and the combination is excellent.
Gilding the lily is a bit of a theme, and the lobster roll ($15.95) did not emerge unscathed. Although close to utter perfection with respect to its Maine style preparation and presentation, our buns seemed to have fallen into a vat of oil before hitting the flat top. If you’ve ever been the overenthusiastic victim of pumping your own butter-flavored oil at the movie theater, then your stomach will instantly drop at the taste-bud memory spurned by this roll. It’s butter flavor gone wild, and once again, too much of a good thing overpowers the real star of the show: the lobster. Dump the greasy bun and dig into the sweet, fresh meat. Mixed with chunks of celery and some Duke’s mayonnaise, this is as close as you can get to Eastport over the Cooper River.
In addition to its multi-themed menu, The Rusty Rudder offers three distinct dining vibes: a metal-clad bar dominated by two large TVs overhead, adjacent family-style dining areas, and a large outdoor bar/patio equipped with a bad-ass fireplace. If you show up during Monday Night Football or similar sportscasts — or dine outside the nights there is live music — expect things to get loud. The young staff is friendly and enthusiastic and food is brought to the table as soon as it’s prepared, so eat quickly if you’ve ordered starters.
This advice goes double for the she-crab soup (cup for $4.95, bowl for $6.95). Unnaturally rich and creamy, the soup was dense with real crab. At first akin to the bisque version of something you’d dip chips in, as it cooled the soup took on the consistency of cheese. Every second counts as you race against time, temperature, thermodynamics, the expanding universe, and whatever remaining elements comprise the speed at which the whole thing becomes uncomfortably stiff. You’ve been warned.
While we’re recounting disappointments, let’s give the oyster seafood platter ($17.99) its due. Nine tiny fried oysters were accompanied by some celery seed-laden cole slaw that had seen better days. The hand-cut fries were the runaway highlight and provided in generous portion. Still, considering the price tag, we expected more.
The crab cake and fried green tomato salad ($16.95) is an interesting invention. A salad in name alone (may we suggest “stack”?), this is a notably decadent option. Two crisp, fried green tomato slices embrace a large, lush crab cake in a juxtaposition that works quite nicely. While the cake is made with bell peppers, celery, and green onion, crab meat comprises the majority of the pan-fried cake. As an appetizer, this would shine, but as an entree it arrives cowering in the dark shadow of an accompanying mountain of tasteless rice and saddled with the added burden of some wilted green tomato slaw and the vegetable of the day — salty sautéed spinach and onions. It’s a good idea in the wrong part of the menu. A local blue crab cake with two fried green tomatoes as an appetizer, however, sounds like a home run.
Back on the barbecue side of the spectrum, the Rudder Signature Ribs (half rack for $15.95, full rack for $28.95) are worthy of the name. The meat was tender, but still had some chew, and the visible smoke ring confirms the authenticity of the deep flavor. Topped with a thin layer of sweet house-made barbecue sauce, this is where it’s at. The accompanying collard greens are also expertly done. Earthy and tender, they’re the perfect accompaniment to the meaty ribs, leading one to wonder if maybe The Rusty Rudder should abandon all other means of cooking in favor of the smoker.
While the name implies casual, the menu is a bit of an identity crisis, and the prices too much for what’s delivered, your best bet — for now — seems to be to treat The Rusty Rudder as a somewhat pricey sports bar with a solid grip on barbecue.