A handful of tables dot the inside and outdoor patio of Black Bean Co.'s tiny Spring Street location, but the bulk of their business is takeout, delivery, and catering. Local art adorns the walls, and proprietor Ellis Grossman keeps the operation green, with energy-efficient lights and biodegradable utensils and vessels. The restaurant's website is cleanly designed and has a streamlined, user-friendly online ordering system. It lets you customize your order with optional additions, subtractions, and sides. It may take a few times to get a feel for the current online menu, but the food is original and appealing.
Black Bean Co. calls itself Charleston's "premium organic, all natural, speedy service restaurant," specializing in "carry-out, delivery, catering and online ordering of energy food, which can be made vegan friendly upon request." It's been open since September 2010, and Charleston native and Culinary Institute of Charleston graduate Grossman already has additional locations on deck, with one set to open on James Island in early March. Ambitious and enthusiastic at age 25, Grossman personifies the restaurant's frenetic sense of purpose. "Sometimes when people think health food they think expensive, and I want to show them that it can taste great and be moderately priced. It's all about flavor."
The food mostly consists of healthy wraps stuffed with lean proteins, vegetables, beans, cheese, nuts, and homemade sauces and condiments, all drawing from multiple cuisines. The wraps are relegated to four different sections of the menu: "Pure Energy Wraps," "Power Gyros," "Good for the Soul Wraps," and "Vegan Wraps." There are also "Springers and Energizers" like soups and spring rolls, salads big and small, and a few sides and daily specials. Grossman's focus is on healthy, local ingredients, reasonably sized portions with plenty of options for those who don't eat meat.
"We took vegetarian and vegan cooking as a challenge," says Grossman. "That's not necessarily our background, but we wanted to do something no one else has done. We wanted to show that it could taste great without being really heavy."
Unlike other concept-heavy restaurants, Black Bean Co.'s marketing and menu both have an understated, authentic quality about them. Though the food has a definite unifying theme, the dishes feel like they were put together by a cook, not a corporate board.
"The menu is based on our travels around the world," says Grossman, when asked about his culinary inspiration. "In the Middle East, for example, I noticed the vegetables always tasted so different. The dressings were simple, but the vegetables were recently picked and tasted so good." He says they try to focus on real food despite nutritional trends. "In the '90s avocados got a bad rap, but now we've learned that they're good for you in a lot of ways. The vinaigrettes aren't necessarily low fat, but they're made with extra virgin olive oil, and you're only given like an ounce or so per portion. Everything's OK in moderation."
Sourcing ingredients locally when possible helps Grossman deliver on freshness and flavor. "We actually own a plot of land out at Thackeray Farms, so 80 percent of our produce comes from there," he says. "It's a form of assisted growing. They help me with setting up the growing calendar, and I pay for the labor."
The flavor of the food pretty much lives up to Black Bean's claims. On a recent visit, I tried the gazpacho soup ($4). It was a pretty good version, a purée of tomatoes, red onion, garlic, cilantro, red wine vinegar, and cucumber. It's January, though, and tomatoes aren't exactly about to burst on the vine right now, so that summer ripeness was absent. The gazpacho's texture was thick, too, almost like a sauce for the wrap I had alongside it more than a soup. On a chillier day I had a gutsy cannellini bean soup, a better seasonal match that was really well done. Served steaming hot, it was a smooth but dense bean purée with a few whole beans mixed in, creamy in texture and teeming with rich bean flavor, made meatier and saltier with freshly grated parmesan cheese added at the end. Like most of Black Bean Co.'s sauces, salsas, and soups, this was made from scratch with dried beans, and that came through in the dish.
On another visit, I was craving vegetables, but they were out of the beet salad I saw on the online menu. So the person taking my order recommended one of her favorites instead, the East Meets West ($6 half, $11 whole). It definitely drew on cuisines from East to West, from Italianesque mixed greens, mushrooms, and tomatoes, to a few sliced radishes maybe from northern Europe, to Greek influence in feta and watermelon, and to Asia with scallions, crunchy rice noodles, and a ginger-soy dressing. I would have preferred a little more ginger and a little less sweetness and soy in the dressing, and the crispy Asian noodles are a throwback, but overall it was a good lunch salad with plenty of substance.
The vegan Green Beach Burrito ($9) was a solid wrap: a spinach tortilla filled with black beans, mixed greens, aromatic jasmine rice, house-made tofu "ricotta," mango salsa, guacamole, and roasted tomatoes. The tastes, flavors, and textures all worked well together. The meaty beans played nicely with the aromatic rice, creamy green guacamole, sweet mangoes, and crisp lettuce. My only complaint was that I would have liked twice as much of everything (especially beans, of which there were only a few) and half as many mixed greens. I realize that portion control is part of the idea here, but with food this healthy and with fillings that match so well, I wanted more.
The "Good for the Soul" Rosemary Chicken Salad Wrap ($8) was heartier and really did make my soul feel good. The roasted chicken was copious, moist, tender, and cut into bite-size chunks, along with green onions, celery, pecans, fat free yogurt, fresh rosemary, and Dijon mustard, all wrapped up with fresh greens and sprouts. I was glad to see rosemary and chicken salad paired together, and the nuts and celery gave the chicken salad a good texture. The mustard lent bright acidity, and the greens and sprouts added even more textural contrast and nutrition.
It seems like Grossman is only getting started. "The new location on James Island is going to revolutionize the fast food industry," he says. "It's going to be a 12-car capacity drive-thru with 50 seats, and a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Dinner is actually going to be more strongly based on what we can get locally. And 80 percent of the produce, even as we get bigger, will come from Thackeray Farms. The quality won't be lost. I'd like to get at least two or three more going in Charleston, with the next spot in either Mt. Pleasant or West Ashley." The James Island location is aiming to open on St. Patrick's Day.