Shrimp-and-grits hasn’t been a Lowcountry signature for very long, but the dish has more than made up for lost time with ubiquity.
In Charleston, the combination is inescapable. A staggering number of area restaurants would sooner stop offering water than issue a menu without shrimp-and-grits, which was scarcely considered appropriate dinner fare prior to Upstate native Bill Neal serving it at Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner in the 1980s.
In fact, there are so many shrimp-and-grits interpretations sold citywide that an entire classification system has emerged to help eaters make sense of them: In the shrimp-and-grits kingdom, there is the phylum Brown Gravy and phylum Tomato Sauce; order Bacon and order Andouille Sausage; genus Adluh and genus Anson Mills.
Personally, I’m partial to a smattering of coarse grits capped by shrimp seasoned with salt and pepper, with a bottle of vinegar-rich hot sauce on the side. But plenty of people I respect are high on pork and dairy in their shrimp-and-grits, which complicates the task of naming local favorites. Or, as a recent urgent-sounding message in my inbox put it, “What are your Top Five Places to Get Shrimp and Grits in Charleston?”
Reader, I shirked him. Rather than sort through all of the potentially contentious factors, I faked an out-of-office message and went to my next review meal.
If only I’d waited to respond! Perhaps because I had shrimp-and-grits on the mind, it was the first thing I ordered when I arrived at MOMO Kitchen + Market, the compact restaurant that chef Justin Moore opened last summer in Goose Creek.
The opening chef at Harold’s Cabin and one-time executive chef at Carolina’s, Moore in 2017 traded standard kitchen work for a super shiny food truck that also went by the MOMO name. He later told The Post and Courier that despite being freed from the daily rigors and late-night hours of a restaurant, trucking was “way harder than I ever thought it would be.” So while the truck still makes occasional catering appearances, Moore is now primarily focused on the café he’s shoehorned into a former coffee shop near Crowfield, where most of the restaurants are fast food chains and the price of commercial rent hasn’t yet gone bonkers.
Befitting its strip mall location, MOMO is primed for lunch service and takeaway meals. During the day, orders are taken at the counter, but customers can swing by any time for a burger to-go or a six-pack out of the cooler.
And to be fair, at least visually, there’s not much to entice them to stick around. Even when the kitchen switches from its lunch to dinner menu, the affordable-looking tables remain bare, and the TV above the five-stool (beer and wine-only) bar stays on. It’s a nice enough room, with a wood laminate floor and modern-looking light fixtures, but it’s not exactly overflowing with personality, romance or glamour.
What it doesn’t lack, though, is food deserving of sit-down attention. Moore is making some marvelous dishes at MOMO, including shrimp-and-grits, which have now shot to the top of my requested Top Five Places to Get Shrimp and Grits in Charleston list.
Is there a single attribute that dictates whether a chef will be able to produce phenomenal shrimp-and-grits? A knack for boiling water? An eye for just-pink shrimp? My guess is Moore’s super power in this instance is boredom, since I can’t imagine how many plates of shrimp-and-grits he prepared over the course of a career that stretched from Atlanta to Charleston. In any event, something’s driven him to upend tradition in delicious fashion.
Or maybe it’s landlubbing fashion, since MOMO’s shrimp-and-grits are as much a celebration of barbecue as South Carolina seafood. Perfectly cooked shrimp and yellow grits come draped with pulled pork, its juices commingling with saucy skillet-roasted tomatoes and its smoke echoed by unseen gouda stirred into the grits. The dish’s flavor runs deep and long and away from the coast. Between the grits’ resolute corn character and the dollop of cooling crema atop the spiced tomato gravy, there’s a faint and lovely shout out to Latin cookery.
Overall, it’s a smidge too rich to qualify as a light take on the classic, but it’s a million times fresher than the majority of shrimp-and-grits to which visitors are subjected. The recipe may not have been ripped from the pages of Charleston Receipts, but it’s as vibrant as the microgreens perched atop the dish.
The shrimp-and-grits are available at both lunch and dinner, as is steak, although it’s a butcher’s cut with fries by day, and a sirloin served over roasted root vegetables by night. Otherwise, the lunch menu consists mostly of sandwiches and a set of upstanding salads distinguished by carefully handled cheeses, punchy dressings and, in the case of the Caesar, pliant cornbread croutons. At dinnertime, the hot dog and turkey-on-multigrain are moved aside to make room for more elaborate entrees, including a changing daily special and what’s billed as cast-iron quail.
Whereas the aforementioned sirloin is a bit brooding, with just a fat fingerling potato and bundle of sliced carrots to lift it above a mire of steak sauce that no doubt comes from good stock, the quail preparation is strikingly polychromatic. Tender breasts are scattered exactingly amongst bulging blackberries, caramelized Cipollini onions and whole mushrooms.
It’s as much diorama as dish, but Moore seems to be at his best when he’s working with a more-than-prudent number of elements. Dishes that aim for simplicity, such as a chow-chow topped crab cake and white cheddar pimento cheese without any perceptible pimentos, miss the memorable mark.
Yet MOMO is a very casual restaurant. On my second visit, when we ordered what we considered to be three different courses, all of the food was delivered to the table at once. And if you want dessert, you’re offered a choice of premade Wich Cream ice cream sandwiches. But the servers are friendly, and the whole operation feels like the kind of place you’d like to have in your neighborhood.
Unless MOMO is in your neighborhood, it’s likely you haven’t been there yet. It’s a 30-minute drive from Mount Pleasant and Charleston. But the MOMO crew clearly doesn’t believe that quality should decline with miles from downtown. Appropriately enough, the randomly generated “fortune quote” printed at the bottom of one of my guest checks read, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even if nobody is watching.” Sounds about right for this restaurant.