Holly Herrick

Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Twist

Formula 1 Fare

The reigning king and queen of Charleston restaurant conceptualization have done it again.


Tim Mink and Karalee Nielsen of Rev Foods, which previously and deliciously brought us Poe’s Tavern, Raval and Taco Boy, have once again merged their minds and Rev’s exceptional talent pool to deliver just the right product, at just the right time, in just the right place and in just the right way. The uncannily on-the-mark result this time around the local restaurant fast track is called Monza. It proves to be a delectably edible ode to the justifiably celebrated Italian racetrack (by the same name) and the even more justifiably celebrated food that fuels Italian appetites – Neapolitan style pizza.

Co-owned by Mink and Nielsen and situated next door to its older, but fresh-as-ever restaurant sister, Raval, Monza is arguably the Ferrari of Rev’s impeccable restaurant pack. Or, maybe it just seems that way because Charleston has been in dire need of Grand Prix-grade Neapolitan pizza for a long, long time. While The Holy City is rich in the likes of fat, juicy burgers (a la Poe’s), tasty Mediterranean style tapas (a la Raval) and ample Mexican goodness (a la Taco Boy), it was entirely lacking servings of Neapolitan pizza’s subtle, sublime goodness hallmarked by a slim, chewy, and airy crust and deftly appointed, quality toppings. Monza’s delivers the added value of serving up the best pizza pies in town in a sleek, happening (and entirely spotless, by the way) setting.

The heat’s on in Monza’s kitchen, to the tune of 1,000 degrees in its eternal wood-burning oven. Oak is the wood of choice that drives the flavor and high heat behind the phenomenal texture and taste of Monza’s pizza dough. An instant puff in the oven ( just under 90 seconds for each pie) made with dough prepared with imported ingredients including San Felice wheat flour, Neapolitan yeast, and filtered, ph balanced water, kneaded tenderly together by a mixer from Naples, makes for remarkable crust after crust.

And, Monza doesn’t create the common small crime that its closest competitors are sometimes prone to – the dreaded sauce and topping pizza overload that leads to soupy, muddled and hard-to-eat pizza. The kitchen maintains idyllic restraint on quantity to maintain lightness, while doling out quality toppings in spades. Each pizza is topped with, among other things, milky, fiore di latte mozzarella and fresh, local produce and meats/seafood. In order to stay true to their Neapolitan mission, Monza does not allow ANY one to vary off course from the existing menu and says no to ALL substitutions.

All eight pizza choices ($9-$12) bear the names of racing greats from Alberto Ciccio Ascari to Emilio Materassi. You can read their brief bio’s on the menu or glance at one of the many black and white photos that grace Monza’s chic walls during your brief wait for what’s sure to be a memorable pizza experience. Mine was! The “Ciccio” ($12) is Monza’s version of a four-cheese or white pizza and came gingerly dressed with a bubbling blend of mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino and parmesan cheese and a heady perfume of garlic-infused olive oil. Talk about uncommonly good – it met its match in the “Fangio” ($12). This was a sweet/hot hit prepared with mozzarella, housemade sausage, roasted local hot peppers, a thin layer of a peppery tomato sauce, onions and garlic, too.

While you’re munching on the pizza, don’t miss an opportunity to soak up the playful, tasteful decor of tangerine colored rectangular glass tiles and hand-crafted zebra wood tables and booths. The shiny, white, aluminum Navy chairs look imposing at first, but have curved seats that are comfortably accommodating and really complete the neat look of the place. The mostly female service staff was dressed in prim, Euro-style black dresses cinched curtly at the waist with black aprons. Our waitress was eager to inform and to please and, as an extra special bonus, admitted when she didn’t know an answer to a question, then scurried off to find it.

With pizza this good, appetizers might seem like an afterthought, but don’t make that mistake. The clams casino ($6) feature sweet, local clams topped with butter and wine-prepped bread crumbs peppered with a delicate confetti of pancetta and red peppers. They don’t get better than this. Neither does Monza’s Italian version of southern shrimp and grits. A special for the evening ($8), it was laced with plump, absolutely local shrimp cooked to opaque perfection and swimming in a sausage-pregnant tomato gravy on top of a creamy, smooth pool of finely-ground polenta. Like the restaurant, the wine list, too, is well-thought out, well-priced and well-done.

Even though Monza delivers the real Neapolitan pizza deal, it only does so in-house. So, go, eat, drink and be merry. Monza’s offers some of the freshest reasons to do so that I’ve come across in a while.

Monza

451 King Street, downtown

(843) 720-8787

Open daily, 11 a.m.-until

(Website under development)

Passport Not Required

It’s easy to miss, but fans of bona fide Cuban fare will not want to lose an opportunity to revel in El Bohio’s simple yet tasty delights. And, unlike American-to-Cuban commerce on the island nation, it’s legal here and doesn’t require travel or a pesky passport. What more can you ask for?

Except for a more prominent sign indicating its unassuming presence (look on the other side of the road as you’re approaching The Terrace theatre shopping center on Maybank Highway), El Bohio is lacking for absolutely nothing. The food is modestly priced (entrees range from $4.50 to $10.50) and packed with the plantain and black-bean flavors of Cuba, service is pleasant (though sometimes slow), and the humble, beachy mood of the place works in spot-on tandem with the entirely happy El Bohio experience.

Considering that it was the brainchild of a first generation Cuban-American, raised on the kitchen creations of her Cuban parents in Cuban-cultured Miami, this should really come as no surprise. Owner Vanessa Luis Harris, a Johnson and Wales University grad, and her husband Alex state her story and their mission on the back of the single-page, laminated menu: “We chose (the name) El Bohio (pronounced El Bo-ee-oo) because it translates to a simple, humble, peasant home with sand floors and thatched roofing. I want to serve you foods that (are) eaten in these traditional Cuban homes.”

Except for its sand-free floors, El Bohio accomplishes all this and more, right down to the semi-circle thatched roofs that decorate the diminutive space and the cigar boxes on every table where they do creative double-time as condiment and salt and pepper shaker containers. An antique oak bar is the fanciest thing about the place, but rather than “jumping out” it seems right at home and makes for a perfect perch to dig into one of the restaurant’s fine sandwiches – which happen to be prepared with dough that’s purchased from a Cuban bakery in Miami and baked on the premises – and a cold brew. It’s so incredibly Cuban and deliciously homey, it’s easy to believe that even Fidel himself would give El Bohio his stamp of approval.

I most certainly do, and though I like everything about the place, I’m especially fond of the endearing little Papas Rellenes ($3.50) which sounds infinitely less sexy in English, a language which ineptly deems them “Beef Stuffed Potato Balls”. Like luck, they come in three’s, but are so fabulously palatable I was yearning for easily five times that amount. An appetizer of the highest order, the potato balls are formed with real (no powdered variety here), fluffy mashed potatoes with a spicy, ground beef and gravy center. They’re enveloped with a crunchy, breadcrumb coating, deep fried and served with El Bohio’s ubiquitous dipping sauce which has a glorious, garlicky kick rounded out with oil and a splash of vinegar and a hit of lime.

The sandwiches are some of the best I’ve sampled in Charleston – bar none. That’s due in large part to the superb bread and the superb fillings, the heart and soul of any exceptional sandwich. Pork and turkey fillings are real (again!) not the processed and pressed versions that are rampant in even the least suspected places, and roasted, with love, in-house. The Cuban sandwich ($6.75) and Medio Dia (“Mid-day”, $6.75) were edible testimonies to Cuban goodness, both punctuated with salty pickles and pungent mustard and more of that that fabulous dipping sauce which is appropriately called the “house mojo”.

Sandwiches come with a bevy of side choices including black beans, sweet or savory plantains, rice, a tomato and onion salad and, of course, French fries. Scratch the latter alternative, which you can get anywhere, and opt for the satisfying, firm-yet-yielding goodness of the black beans, splashed with a lime and sauteed onion background or bite into a crunchy, starchy savory plantain chip.

If a tastier, more pleasant prelude or chaser to a viewing of an artsy, Indie-type film across the street at The Terrace exists, I don’t know of it. But, then, El Bohio provides plenty of reasons to stop by any old time the mood for good food and a good time strikes.

El Bohio
1977 Maybank Highway, James Island
571-4343
Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sat., noon- 9 p.m.

A Different Kind of Cake

A single crepe is a thing of beauty. But, take 20 silky crepes, layered with whisper-thin cushions of flavored pastry cream and whipped cream, and you arrive at something extra special. Jack and Rachel Byrne of Charleston Crepe Company have done just that. Their 9″ wide towering confections come in three flavors; vanilla, chocolate and mocha cream. Each yummy, hand-crafted cake serves 10-12 persons at $50 a pop, or an easy $5 or less per yummy, fat slice .

Each and every concoction maintains a perfect balance of smooth, flavored pastry cream and fluffy whipped cream – both lovingly folded into pure decadence of edible delight. The cakes come topped with a thin, crunchy bite of caramelized sugar for a mild “brulee effect” for idyllic texture contrast. The flavor is incredibly delicate – reminiscent of a cream puff – and the lightness of the cakes is exceptional.

Potential true show-stoppers at a wedding, tea, or for a crowd pleasing dessert just about any time or place, Charleston Crepe Company’s crepe cakes can be ordered by calling Rachel or Jack at (843) 573-3458. Visit http://www.charlestoncrepecompany.com/ for more information.

Fiery Pig with Lip-Smacking Pluck

Already one year old,Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ is without question the freshest and most memorable addition to Charleston’s surprisingly scant barbecue scene. This rough and tumble shack of a place, born of a space that was formerly a circa 1940’s gas station, was fabulously re-crafted by Chastain Construction.

It resembles a country shack walled with ruffled metal that seems to whisper the impossibly tasty, time-worn traditions of southern barbecue. With a young and varied crowd and a heavy propensity towards live blues and bluegrass performed by groups with colorful names like Creech Holler and Southern Bitch, Ron’s feels more city slicker than country bumpkin.

You won’t likely find this type of citified bad boy up in Pee Dee country, but the ribs and the barbecue are the real deal. They’re slow smoked in a state-of-the-art slow smoker that the staff seems to revere as the maternal heart and soul of the joint. She’s even got a name – Bertha.

Chef/owner Aaron Siegel courageously hung up his downtown toque at significantly fancier Blossom restaurant to make a pass at the barbecue pit and succeed he has! The lingering scent of smoke and pork weaves through your nostrils just as you’re getting ready to bite into the succulent ribs, deftly rubbed with an exotic blend of spices that deliver multiple after-shocks of smoke, heat and layered flavor long after they’re savored. Snappy, vinegar and mustard based house-made sauces and a slew of succulent side selections (do NOT miss the collards) round out the mammoth platters ($6.95-$21.95, each served with 2 sides). Lighter bites can be found in soups, wraps and salads.

Food is served cafeteria style through a service line that usually moves at a clip, but service can feel a bit disjointed and bumpy when busy, especially during the very popular weekday lunch hour. Your yummy piggy feast can be eaten in house or picked up “to go”.

Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ
1205 Ashley River Road
West Ashley
(843) 225-7427/(843) 225-2278
www.hometeambbq.com
Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. (Food served until 9 p.m.)
Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. (Food served until 9 p.m.)

Do That To Me One More Time

Uno Mas (meaning “one more” in Spanish) is the latest tempting card in local entrepreneur Sal Parco’s mini-dynasty restaurant hand, which also successfully holds The Mustard Seed(s), Boulevard Diner, Village Bakery, Long Point Grill and Sette.

It’s a snappy take on Mexican fare and puts CIA grad and executive chef (formerly of The Boathouse and Mustard Seed) Jason Ulak’s personal penchant for all things Mexican and spicy to mostly palatable good use. Ulak spent some time working with Yucatan Peninsula native Dudley Neito at his Chicago restaurant ( Xel-Ha) to hone Yucatan-inspired cuisine before creating Uno Mas’ menu, which includes exotic, whimsical backdrops like verdant, slow- cooked banana leaves and assorted flavors of guacamole that are “hand crushed” to order.

The spacious restaurant is peppered with old-world Mexican detail in curvaceous wrought-iron and antiqued wooden double doors and is more colorful and festive than a pinata. It bursts with nearly every exaggerated hue of the rainbow, yet comes together with subdued, South- of-the- border panache. Diners have the opportunity to view the lively kitchen through large, glass windows. It was abuzz with a blur of activity on the packed-house evening I visited. The service staff was efficient and friendly, though still a bit green around the edges, particularly when it came to limited knowledge about certain dishes and occasional awkward timing.

Ulak presents an ambitious and fully-loaded menu, rife with tortas, “re-grooved” tacos from Chile Seared Tuna ($12) to Orange Marinated Pork ($7), and a multitude of house specialties. True excellence is apparent in smoky grilled meats and some sauces, particularly the hot/sweet house made salsa, which magically re-appeared as soon as our little white bowl became empty, the full-flavored Carne Asada “Tampiquena” ($16) and the Adobe Marinated Pork Tenderloin ($15) served with a fat triangle of grilled fresh pineapple. A playful sense of detail was apparent in all the presentations, but there were hints of needed improvement in some preparations, such as the thin, acidic tomatillo sauce served with the pork and the mole, which harbored an unappealing burnt chocolate aftertaste.

These two mild sauce offenses were readily excused with just one bite of a bubbling bath of brazen, ooey- gooey goodness of Mexican cheeses in the the Queso Fundido ($6). A platter of sinful decadence, it was laced with peppery-sweet strands of roasted poblano peppers and sweet, caramelized onions and served with a packet of oven-warm tortillas for scooping. This alone will bring me back, time and time again. Then, too, there is the inherent knowledge that whatever restaurant card Parco plays, it will be backed with his proven knack for carving restaurant niches in untapped markets and staffing them with energetic, talented food pros, like Ulak and Co. “One More” will almost certainly prove to be a long-term winner.

Uno Mas
880 Allbritton Boulevard, Mount Pleasant
(843) 856-4868
Lunch/Dinner/To-Go
Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.
Dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5 – 10 p.m.

Latest from the Blog

  • Super Father's Day Sundaes

    If it's possible to still be a Daddy's girl at 52, then I'm as guilty as the six year-old that wears him like a badge of honor on my heart,...

Books

Never Miss a Post!

Sign up for my newsletter and never miss a post or give-away.