A walk down King Street can be magical. On a warm day, the sky above beams blue and the palm trees seem to stand quietly against the colorful store fronts. But a lowered eye may notice something; each sign reads the same. Try it on your next walk, as you spot the never-ending row of King Street restaurants – Co, Proof, Fish, Stars, Hom – they begin to sound alike. Each place stands behind large glass windows and doors, tall and clean and cool. Restaurants on King dominate the Charleston food scene not only for their visibility but also for their great reviews and their on-trend menus. But if one stayed on King, they’d be missing the other half.
A world of restaurants lies beyond King Street in the locally-loved boroughs of this city, and they may take you places you’d least expect. Take Persimmon Café on Calhoun Street, for example. Persimmon Café, owned and run by Chef Robert Cassi, is in a laundromat – yes, you read that correctly. In January of 2012, Rob Cassi decided to open up a sandwich shop with his wife after relocating from Florida. The classically trained chef was looking to do things a little differently, and after searching diligently for the right restaurant location, he found one inside College Laundry. College Laundry was originally looking to rent out its space to a coffee shop, but Cassi ultimately grabbed the spot for its potential practicality and local buzz. As one would imagine, Cassi does not receive most of his business from laundry-washers, but from people who have heard of “the new café inside the laundromat.”
This odd pairing got Charlestonians talking, and inevitably, eating. Rob Cassi’s concept was simple; he wanted to give people an experience in a neighborhood café a little off the beaten path, or King Street, for that matter. As he explains, “My thought was why couldn’t a walk-up café with limited space also be a great place to eat? I didn’t want to limit myself and what customers received – I wanted a menu that you would read or experience in a full service restaurant.” And Cassi did just that. Take his Crab Panini for example. He takes a good portion of lump crab and tops it with charred onion, mayonnaise, Jarlsberg cheese (similar to Swiss) and a little sherry gastrique – and delivers the best sandwich you’ve ever had this close to a washer/dryer set. His roasted chicken sandwich, a Persimmon favorite, features roasted chicken, Gouda, caramelized onions and garlic mayo that melts in your mouth into one rich, indulgent flavor. Customers keep coming back for his consistently gourmet sandwiches and soups, in spite or in favor of his unique location. Since opening, Cassi has been saying one thing to himself over and over, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” On Rutledge and Calhoun Street, in the midst of the MUSC neighborhood, Persimmon Café really can’t be ignored.
Fuel Cantina on Rutledge and Spring Street is another example of an unconventional restaurant with undeniable flavors. After viewing several properties in the Charleston area, owner/chef Justin Broome decided that a former 1950s era Esso gas station turned fish market would perfectly fit his concept for Fuel, a Caribbean-inspired restaurant. Chef Broome decided to utilize the gas station’s garage door openings to create an airy Caribbean-style indoor/outdoor cantina with cuisine to match. Formally recognized by Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, Fuel serves delicious plates including a savory Chorizo burger, braised pulled pork tacos and delectable sweet plantain fritters served in a house-made rum sauce. At Fuel, feelings of nostalgia are everywhere – from the intact exterior to the retro glass accent walls. Chef Broome elaborates, “Any time you are in a historic structure there is a sense of time and place exclusive to that building. Our décor is meant to reflect the building’s historic fabric and remain true to the concept of Fuel.” Fuel takes the customer somewhere tropical, someplace relaxing – all within an old gas station in the Cannonborough-Elliotbourough neighborhood.
Just down the street, yet worlds away, Xiao Bao Biscuit has also set up shop in their own gas station. After honeymooning in Asia for eight months, couple Joshua Walker and Duolan Li decided to bring the flavors of the Asian street vendors to Charleston. They started with several late-night pop-up dinners and after consideration renovated, as Joey Ryan the Beverage Director puts it, “a beautifully decaying building in the middle of the downtown area.” The run-down gas station reminded them of the buildings the couple saw in Asia, and felt cohesive with their budding concept for Xiao Biao Biscuit. Joshua noticed that the food he loved most from their travels was a lot like southern comfort food – the fried chicken, the passion for pickling and the communal family dinners – it was all soul food. For example, their Hong Shao Rou features a double cooked pork belly found on many southern menus but served in a lighter, Asian sauce. Other items like their Bahn He chive and scallion fritter and their Som Tum fried chicken evoke southern comfort while their dumplings and Okonomiyaki deliver uniquely Asian flavors. But as Chef Joshua Walker says, “We feel it’s impossible to simply recreate something out of context. We have tried to embody the spirit and essence of the history that informs the food and culture it comes from while at the same time recognizing we’re in Charleston and letting that factor in as well – that’s one reason we fell in love with the building that we now call home.” Just this past month, Xiao Bao Biscuit has been nominated for Bon Appétit’s “Best New Restaurants in America 2013,” with a nod to their gourmet gas station.
Persimmon Café, Fuel Cantina and Xiao Bao Biscuit all have something in common; they take unconventional locations and turn them into something greater. Many tourists and newcomers may first visit these restaurants for the present trend of oddly-restored buildings, quirky combinations or because of their stint on The Food Network. But for Charlestonians, historic preservation isn’t a trend – it’s a part of our identity. Just as these restaurants take something decaying or unconventional and make it their own, they also effortlessly weave their individual flavors into the food culture and context of Charleston. Be it a gourmet sandwich in a laundromat, a gas station-inspired cantina or an Asian soul food oasis – the boroughs of Charleston are making a brand of culinary magic all their own, tucked away from the bustle of King Street.