For shrimp-and-grits devotees, a scan of Acme Lowcountry Kitchen’s menu delivers the same frisson that television viewers felt when they first signed up for cable and suddenly had hundreds of channels from which to choose.
Initially, the multiplicity is baffling. Peaches in the grits? Blackening on the shrimp? Yet the five distinct preparations, ranging from “Island” to “Barbecue,” work for the same reason that a once-unfathomable number of TV stations have become the norm: Turns out there’s plenty of talent available to satisfy divergent tastes. At Acme, the star power comes from 4,000 pounds of local shrimp and a chef who knows how to use them.
Acme Lowcountry Kitchen’s winter purchase of an off-season’s worth of frozen shellfish revealed how far the Isle of Palms restaurant has come since it opened in the 1990s as Acme Cantina, a rowdy bar with a Tex-Mex bent. In 2008, new owners slipped the word “Lowcounty” into the restaurant’s name, and overhauled its tacos and quesadillas with identifiably coastal ingredients.
Shredded lettuce-topped tacos, bedded on thick white flour tortillas, are still around. But just about everything else with cantina associations has been junked like the shell of a smashed pinata, as chef Frank Kline has reinvented the restaurant as an engine of second-wave Charleston colloquial cuisine. Patrons can count on finding startling good renditions of fried green tomatoes, she-crab chowder, Lowcountry eggrolls and, yes, shrimp-and-grits in this bustling roadhouse.
What Acme hasn’t picked up is any highfalutin airs (although one member of the very young service staff has a tendency to grandly declare “bonjour!” when setting down plates.) If you’re intent on drinking too much Fireball, one of eight shots priced at $3.50, you probably wouldn’t be the first person at the beachy bar to do so. Still, I’d guess Acme is as accustomed to requests for booster seats as another round. When restaurants keep bottled ketchup on the tables and kids’ menus at the host stand, families are bound to feel a magnetic tug.
The ramshackle building occupied by Acme dates back more than 80 years, according to a server who’s been alone in the restaurant after hours and suspects it’s haunted. Countless storms and Hurricane Hugo have tweaked the ell-shaped dining room’s right angles, so the wooden planked floors and paneled walls hung with album cover-sized paintings of sunsets and seabirds seem ancient.
That kind of vintage character is a big selling point for visitors, who you’ll want to start bringing here on a regular basis. Unlike its counterparts downtown, Acme doesn’t feel touristy, and the Atlantic’s just beyond the front door. Plus, prices are competitive, especially considering the quality of ingredients, and there’s a full line-up of steaks, burgers and wings for seafood abstainers.
A strip steak is only as good as it has to be, which is to say dull and chewy. Fried chicken brined with sweet tea is a slightly better land-based choice, although the tender meat is distinctly sugary from crust to core. Those small missteps are to be expected from a restaurant facing the ocean. What’s unexpected is the pristine breading thinly encasing the shrimp, pickles, jalapenos and all the rest of the menu items baptized in frying oil.
Another surprise of the happy sort: The Lowcountry egg roll, a museum-quality replica of the appetizer pioneered by Magnolias’ Donald Barickman. Served with a biting honey-mustard sauce, pebbled with mustard seeds, the egg rolls are craggy pillars of sweet shrimp, smoky ham, salty bacon and boldly bitter, pork-inflected collards that dominate each bundle. This is a bar snack, sure, but with sophisticated balance and an impressively crisp finish.
Same goes for the fried green tomatoes, battered in cornmeal that doesn’t go to mush or slip off the sour tomato like a loafer. The greaseless appetizer consists of four svelte slices, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and dabbed with sharp pimento cheese. Unlike the shrimp-and-grits, variously dressed up with pineapples and onion straws, the fried green tomatoes are very straightforward, but the cliche is made darn near compelling through competence.
Of the shrimp-and-grits on offer, I’m most fond of the porky Lowcountry treatment, which gets a coffee-and-cream richness from scads of red-eye gravy. I’d rather dispatch shrimp-and-grits with a fork than a spoon, but the soupiness is tolerable. The lovingly cooked shrimp and brawny white grits are exceptional, even after the deluge. Acme also serves a predetermined shrimp-and-grits trio, for customers who’d like to try three riffs at once, including a version in which the grits are fried into blocks.
Perhaps the best shrimp preparation is the succotash, which also is available with scallops, chicken or fish. The dish isn’t exactly healthy — it’s helped along by lots of butter and bacon — but the sturdy corn and field peas bear a lovely farm-stand sweetness. Field peas stand alone as a side dish: They’re big, meaty and wonderful.
(All of this attentive cooking eats up the kitchen’s time to make its own desserts: The thoroughly decent key lime pie is outsourced.)
Locavorism is in full flower on the specials menu, which typically includes a fish or two, inevitably more interesting than the salmon and crab-stuffed flounder sold nightly. On a recent Saturday, one of the fish was barrelfish, a mysterious deep-water dweller that hangs out around the Charleston bump. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports it’s never been seen underwater. It’s a flaky, firm fish with buttery flesh, and Acme prepared it magnificently. Served over mashed potatoes (also buttery), the fish was further accompanied by oiled cherry tomatoes on the cusp of bursting and ripened stalks of frilly broccolini.
At a table near ours, a young diner wondered whether the fish was classified as sustainable, so she looked it up on her phone. The barrelfish checked out, so she eagerly ordered it. She liked it, too. If Acme can keep connecting diners with local fish and shellfish, especially those with modest reputations, it’s on to something very special indeed.