James Island is quickly taking hold of the craft beer craze and running with it. Smoky Oak was doing it before it was cool — with 40-plus taps, smoked barbecue, and wood oven-fired pizzas. Then Bohemian Bull entered the scene in full force with 30-plus taps, a killer whiskey selection, and a beer garden that's become a local favorite.
There's also the The Barrel bar-and-bottle shop combo, places like the Pour House and Bowens Island Restaurant that have solid tap lists, and even a James Island brewery — Tradesman Brewing.
Now, just a mile away from Smoky Oak, there's Big Belly Kitchen + Tap House, where partners Tyler Mai and Chef Ben Culp have outfitted the former Lemon Grove Grill and Fort Johnson Café and Coffee with 40 taps, several big screen TVs, and a menu displaying casual bar fare with inspiration from Asian and Latin American cuisine.
Mai and Culp, who started Fat Ninja Food Truck, originally partnered with Larry White, owner of Lechon Food Truck. They've since parted ways, but that hasn't stopped the duo from creating another laid-back dining option in the midst of so many James Island homes.
The interior of Big Belly is a dark room with a lot of tables and plenty of open space. Above the bar there's a beer list and out back a good-sized patio that will become a focal point in warmer months.
Craft beer plays a prominent role at Big Belly. The tap list covers a range of styles from hopped up IPAs to thick and chewy stouts. Best of all, beer is properly served in clean, room temperature glasses. In addition to the 40 draught beers, the ever-changing bottle list includes 25 or so additional options. The pricing isn't bad either — a full pint of Ballast Point Sculpin IPA for $6.50 or an Avery Ellie's Brown Ale for $5. Beer aficionados will appreciate offerings like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout ($9/12 oz.) and Aviator Devil's Tramping Ground ($6.50/Pint).
To supplement the beer, there's plenty of bar fare to choose from — think pork rinds covered in barbecue rub served with pimento cheese ($6.75), a pork belly gyro ($9), and an array of tacos. The wings are brined and fried whole ($9.25), then they're served hot and crisp in one of three preparations (sweet and spicy Thai chili glaze, house barbecue dry rub, and Sriracha-lime buffalo). The Sriracha-lime buffalo sauce lacks the kick one would expect, leaving the side of basil ranch as a novelty item.
Big Belly's two steamed buns would be great if the pork belly weren't dry as bone ($7.50). And the tacos were overly sauced ($7-$7.95/2), though the underlying — ingredients marinated shrimp, mojo slaw, tomato, and avocado or fried chicken, shaved cabbage, tomato — are pretty darned good.
The same goes with the KFC Banh Mi. Tender pieces of boneless fried chicken — all covered in a crisp golden shell — are tossed in a sweet soy glaze with cucumbers, pickled carrots, and daikon. Unfortunately, they're oversaturated with an off-putting amount of sambal aioli ($8.25).
The $8.50 burger has all the right components — two thin patties, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, bacon, a killer bun, and an optional fried egg. In fact, it could be one of the best burgers in the area if the patties weren't charred, cooked to death, and buried in salt. Naturally, the egg tends to be overcooked too.
The servers recommend the ramen bowl — available Wednesdays only — and it's a beautiful sight. A big white bowl with a blue rim comes to the table filled with an array of ingredients bursting with color. There's shredded carrot, white onion, sliced mushrooms, five-spice pork, a soft egg, and micro herbs. We're told the noodles are made in-house, and the key element is the 24-hour pork (tonkotsu) broth. While we can see the appeal, the broth lacks sheen and a flavorful fat that separates a good bowl of ramen and a great bowl of ramen.
A lot of these issues can be fixed. A lighter hand, less cooking time, and broth refinement could go a long way. The food is good but lacks balance; and we had high hopes for that bowl of ramen right up until the first bite when our excitement got shot down.
The service at Big Belly is certainly admirable, and we could sit there watching ESPN drinking pints of Sculpin IPA for hours. The style of food pairs well with beer. Plus, the patio is going to be a hit very soon. We see potential here, but only time will tell.