4 hidden gems: Low-profile places offer culinary delights to diners in the know
Charleston has arrived as a “food town,” and now it’s no surprise when you see Mike Lata’s Chicken and Dumplings recipe in Bon Appetit, Sean Brock profiled in The New Yorker or Robert Carter taking on Cat Cora on “Iron Chef.”
Only a decade ago, Charleston chefs or restaurants were rarely in the running for the coveted James Beard Foundation awards, the “Oscars” of the food world. It would be shocking if there were none today.
Downtown dining gets most of the attention, and deservedly so, because it has elevated the quality and variety of restaurants all across the Lowcountry.
But what about the hidden gems in our midst? The unique but under-the-radar places to find exceptional food?
682 King St.
Here’s a pair of caterers who seemingly can’t stand any down time. Enan and Jennifer Parezo set up shop at 682 King St. almost two years ago, just a week after their wedding, to offer bakery goodies and lunch in addition to their ongoing catering business.
Since then, they’ve doubled the inside seating from a two-chair bistro table to a five-chair community table. There’s also some outside seating in the rear.
Suffice to say, it’s an intimate eating experience. But that’s precisely the charm — you feel one with the table, and with every bite you feel connected to the culinary soul of these talented cooks. The two are just steps away behind the counter crafting their food, and always willing to chat.
The seasonal menu is not large, but everything is brimming with freshness and flavor. You can taste the nuances of each dish, be it in the smoked gouda mac ’n’ cheese or the red wine-braised chicken tucked inside a homemade rosemary brioche with red cabbage and brie. The house salad sings with a tangy but perfectly pitched vinaigrette.
Reserve room for one of Jennifer’s sweets. Her “of the moment” vanilla cheesecake last week was ethereal. On a graham crust in a pool of chocolate, and dotted with griottes — sour cherries macerated in Kirsch brandy — and garnished with chocolate lattice, well, divine doesn’t do it justice.
Ah, then there’s the roasted vegetable tart. As diner Joey Bradshaw volunteered on his way out the door, “It changed my mind about vegetables altogether.”
2408 Ashley River Road
Cafe Fork is the restaurant arm of the West Ashley catering business, Fork Fine Gourmet Catering and Events. This bustling lunch-only spot sits off Ashley River Road in a red brick shopping strip called Pierpont Crossing.
There’s seating for 26 inside and it can fill up fast. The look is French country/art gallery, with several paintings hanging on the robin egg-blue walls. Owners Wendall and Margaret Edwards feed their guests with a personal touch.
Be sure to check out the weekly specials. They take cues from the seasons and holidays, like last week’s Etouffee Burger and the Mardi Gras Shrimp Remoulade.
The menu offers a full stable of regulars, too. Appetizers lead off, such as the Fresh Corn Cakes With Crispy Oysters that showcase Virginia oysters (as the chefs prefer) wearing the barest sheath of a crust. Salads are protein-rich with smoked duck breast, seared sesame tuna and the like.
Sandwiches may spill forth with homey pot roast and cheddar, smoked turkey and triple-creme brie, or marinated shrimp and slaw, Banh Mi style. The entree offerings are fewer but varied, from Steak and Frites to VooDoo Pasta.
Dishes are substantial here, in both the number of ingredients and the feel-full factor.
Cafe and Market
1190 Clements Ferry Road
Maria Baldwin established an outpost of Thornhill Farm in McClellanville in another outpost of Charleston suburbia, the Wando area of Clements Ferry Road. It’s close to Highway 41 but seven miles from I-526, and folks can whiz right by unless they know the spot: an office park called Two Rivers Center.
The farmer, restaurateur and sustainable foods champion has gotten traction with the neighborhood, evidenced by the steady stream of diners at the cafe’s five tables. But others come in just to grocery shop.
Foodstuffs all around the perimeter are locally sourced. Vegetables from Thornhill and other farms. Meat, poultry, fish and seafood from land and sea. Cheese and butter. Familiar names such as Callie’s Biscuits, Rio Bertolini’s pastas and Rina’s preserves.
The cafe itself draws from those local and organic ingredients in making breakfast and lunch. Sit down to a country breakfast with local grits, of course; soup of the day such as the pesto-spiked tomato-basil; or the house roast beef sandwich with pickled red onion and horseradish mayo.
So, as you lift a forkful of Cobb salad, you’re looking around at the pantry from which it came. Light bulb goes off. Or at least that’s what Baldwin hopes.
“The accessibility of local food is my passion,” Baldwin says. “I would love to see the day when there are true local markets open to the convenience of the customer.”
The remote location allows baby steps toward a larger purpose. “If we can bring this here and attract these customers, we think it can be duplicated,” Baldwin reasons.
Can’t stay? You’re good to go. The kitchen also prepares heat-and-eat meals, sides and soups for taking home. Butternut squash and spinach lasagna, chicken and veggie curry, meatloaf, all farm fresh.
H&L Asian Supermarket, 5300-1 Rivers Ave.
Josh Gomer and Gary Simmons and once were strangers, now they are occasional lunch buddies, united by their enjoyment of the Vietnamese food at Pho No. 1.
Not many grocery stores have restaurant sections. But there is no other grocery store like H&L in the Lowcountry, and the food served at Pho No. 1 inside H&L is surely as rare.
“Of the Vietnamese I’ve had, it’s some of the finest,” and certainly in Charleston, says Gomer, who met Simmons by chance in the restaurant several months ago.
An area of booths and tables for seating has been cordoned off at the front of the store, with the kitchen at one end. Menu listings are in Vietnamese with English translations.
An order of Goi Cuon, or spring rolls, gets the appetite in motion. Big pink shrimp beam through the translucent rice wrapper, nestled with pork, rice vermicelli, lettuce and herbs. Take them for a dip in the hoisin sauce with chopped peanuts.
The Mi Dac Biet is a winner — tender wontons plump with meat, floating in a flavorful broth with egg noodles, roast pork and shrimp, enhanced by garnishes such as bean sprouts, cilantro, lime and jalapenos. All the pleasure, none of the guilt.
Gomer, who eats at Pho almost weekly, can’t resist the Mi Vit Quay, a soup of crispy roast duck with egg noodles. “Not many Vietnamese places have duck on the menu, not to mention exceptionally tasty duck. Their iced coffee is good, too,” he says.
Word to the wise: Cash only. And make time for browsing the aisles of the supermarket — they’re fascinating.