MOST OF THE PLACES that make national lists and tourist radar are the four or five-star, white tablecloth kinds of places, but many of the best cheap-eats places in the Holy City are located in strip malls, frequented by locals and unknown to visitors.* And they’re decidedly unSouthern. I’ve deliberately left shrimp & grits, sweet tea, and barbecue off the menu; they’re ubiquitous, swing-a-dead-cat places you can find on your own.
Hands-down, it’s Sesame Burgers & Beer, with two locations: the Citadel Mall in West Ashley or up in Park Circle in North Charleston. From the South Carolina Burger with pimento cheese to the Memphis — topped with peanut butter, bacon and banana — you can’t go wrong.
The burger comes in beef, turkey, chicken, even black bean varieties. When I need to go to my happy place, I get a roasted beet salad to start with greens, goat cheese, and pesto vinaigrette, and my eyes roll back in my head until the last leaf leaves the bowl. Then I dig into a burger.
4726 Spruill Ave, North Charleston or 2070 Same Rittenburg Blvd
Jack’s Cosmic Dogs is like being on an acid trip that brings you back to the 1950s, so you don’t really mind — or notice — that the concrete floor kinda sticks to your shoes.
The original Jack’s is in Mount Pleasant, a nondescript cinder-block building outside, but inside hot dog heaven awaits with 24 different kinds of hot dogs amid décor reminiscent of Fonzie’s garage. Your best bets are the fresh-cut fries, the blue cheese slaw, or the sweet potato mustard. Even vegans can indulge here, with tofu dogs and black bean cakes on the menu.
1531 Folly Road, James Island
Mount Pleasant or 3 miles north of the Isle of Palms connector, on Hwy 17 North, 10-12 miles north of Charleston
Best Organic Soul Food
No, this is not an oxymoron. A sign hanging on the wall at Alluette’s Cafe says GOOD FOOD TAKES TIME. Alluette Jones-Smalls is a Geechi Girl from way back, and while her menu is not what most people think of when they say soul food, it’s just as satisfying.
Even vegans will dine well here. Start with a bowl of the organic lima bean soup, and then move on to the hormone-free stewed chicken with organic basmati rice and organic string beans, or local fried shrimp with organic potato salad. In cooler months, if the collard green sandwich is on the menu, order it. No questions. You’ll thank me later.
80 A Reid St.
Best Hippie/Surfer Hangout
A quick look at the menu at Daily Dose Cafe may take you aback: Hot Cowgirl, Hook-Up, Pescado Loco. The name of the game here is Good Mood Food, and almost everything on the menu comes in the form of a pita pocket or a wrap, with beans and rice in mostly everything.
699 Highland Ave., James Island
It’s just not a good idea to visit Charleston without a trip to Folly Beach, a barrier island 15 minutes from downtown that is the self-proclaimed Edge of America. Folly is as much of a island as a state of mind, and one visit to Surf Bar will make that crystal clear.
Surf videos from the ’60s play on permanent loop on the TVs while surfers and beach lovers hang out on the outside deck and a stray dog wanders from table to table looking for a stray hand or scrap. The food is equally laid back and very good, with salads, pulled pork sandwiches and excellent burgers fitting the bill for this mellow Folly vibe. Thirsty? Ask for a Painkiller. You won’t be sorry.
03 W Cooper, Folly Beach
Best Authentic Mexican
The south of the border cuisine at Santi’s Restaurante Mexicano is the real deal, and therefore attracts clientele from the sizable Mexican community of North Charleston, broke college students, and locals who know and appreciate Mexican food that has not been Americanized.
The burritos are overstuffed, the chicken mole is spiced just right, and one order of guacamole won’t be nearly enough. Plus, it’s cheap cheap cheap.
1302 Meeting St, North Charleston
Best Sushi Bar/Asian Bistro/Place to Play Air Hockey & Skee Ball
Quyen Bistro & Party Kingdom is just a trip. Out front, is a mild mannered restaurant with great sushi and pho, and an extensive lunch buffet with around 50 different items to choose from. Traipse on out back, and it’s an anime and videogame lover’s paradise. Don’t miss Teddy Mountain.
1739 Maybank Hwy, James Island Shopping Center
Best Place for Hummus, She-Crab Soup, and Red Velvet Cake
Saffron Cafe & Bakery attracts office workers during the week to dine on Lowcountry-Mediterranean-fusion cuisine: hummus and she-crab soup merge with shrimp and grits and falafel. The beef stroganoff is my favorite.
On Sundays around noon, the place is packed with worshippers from four churches within two blocks who gorge on the ample Lowcountry-influenced brunch buffet. The bakery retail counter is the first thing you’ll see when you walk in the door; the Red Velvet cake is the best in town.
333 East Bay Street
*Many of the eateries on the beaten path in downtown Charleston (the Peninsula or the Historic District) cater to tourists who don’t want to drive. You’ll need wheels to get to some of these places, but they’re definitely worth it.
Maybe you don’t know what kind of history there is in your own back yard. If your back yard is in South Carolina, and you’re ready to explore, check out MatadorGoods’ Book Review: South Carolina (On the Road Histories).
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Lisa Rogak is a travel journalist and the author of numerous books, including A Boy Named Shel: The Life & Times of Shel Silverstein. Her next biography, Truthiness to Power: The Rise (& Further Rise) of Stephen Colbert, will be published in the fall of 2011. She currently lives on the road and her list of places to visit grows longer every day.