Outside the Mixson Bath & Racquet Club, a huge corrugated steel tank with Básico emblazoned in bold red letters looks like a rainwater tank, and I have no idea whether there's anything actually inside of it, but it sure looks cool as you turn off Durant Avenue into the Mixson development in North Charleston.
That highly stylized vibe continues inside the brand new taqueria, where a sparse, angular decor is accented with bold primary colors: bright green chairs, turquoise-backed bar stools, a canary yellow wall. Four stainless steel cups wait inverted on your round white tabletop, and your waitress will fill them with water from a clear glass bottle with a wire-fastened stopper.
The place has style enough for two restaurants, which is a good thing, since it's pulling double duty. On one side, it serves the general public as an upscale taqueria. The other side functions as the clubhouse bar and grill for the private Mixson Bath & Racquet Club. They're separated by a huge wall of louvered windows that rises a full three stories to the sloping ceiling high above.
The food is every bit as stylish as the interior. It's the handiwork of a pair of co-executive chefs, Italo Marino and Leila Schardt, veterans of such noted Charleston kitchens as Monza, Closed for Business, and Peninsula Grill. They've taken the now-familiar eat-local, farm-to-table, snout-to-trotter philosophy and applied it to traditional taqueria fare. That means using fresh-caught local seafood and pastured pork along with tomatoes, peppers, and herbs grown in garden plots next to that big steel tank outside.
The freshness of the ingredients shows on the plate. The grouper in the ceviche ($8) is cut into small, crinkly chunks and tossed with strips of marinated onions, kernels of sweet corn, and tiny bits of plum. The fish has a great firm texture, and there's a deft balance to the lingering chile heat beneath the tangy citrus dressing. Best of all are the few sneaky pulses of mint swirled into the mix.
A basket of chips and salsa ($1.50) has a surprisingly rich corn flavor, thanks to housemade tortillas. The darkly spiced red sangria ($6) is laced with slices of orange, lemon, and apple.
That sangria is part of an impressive cocktail menu that includes old classics like a Hemingway daiquiri ($7) and a pisco sour ($7) along with a slate of jazzed-up margaritas and rum drinks. The spicy grapefruit margarita ($7) is a lovely blend of fire and ice, with the heat from habañero bitters and the chile-dusted rim balanced by grapefruit, lime, and sweet agave syrup.
Once properly lubricated, you can mix and match a meal from eight varieties of tacos ($3 each), with fillings that range from braised barbacoa with basil, radish, and pickled red onions to fried chicken topped with pickled watermelon rind.
The pescado frito tacos have small, golden-brown chunks of fried fish topped with a colorful array of pickled corn kernels, cilantro, and corn nuts. Básico's take on al pastor works exceptionally well, replacing the traditional rotisserie-cooked pork with a long slice of roasted pork belly topped with a tangy-sweet pineapple salsa and crumbles of cotija cheese to cut the heat.
Tortas (each $9) — Mexican-style sandwiches — come filled with lamb bacon and grilled peaches or with heirloom tomato, avocado, and bacon. The porchetta version has thin slices of rolled pork roast topped with a sunny-side-up egg on a hard round roll. The roll's sturdiness is just what's needed to contain the delightful gush of yellow yolk unleashed by the first bite. For some reason there's a layer of thinly sliced summer squash and one of sautéed kale beneath the egg. They don't contribute much to the sandwich, but they don't hurt it any either.
The side dishes ($3 each) apply decidedly local spins to traditional Mexican dishes, like braised heirloom beans with house-smoked pork and arroz verde made with Carolina gold rice and green chili sauce. The two half-ears of "street corn" ($3) are remarkably sweet with just a touch of brown char from the grill, and they're topped with a generous dose of queso fresco and pale orange spicy aioli — a sloppy but tasty side.
For Sunday brunch, the menu is adjusted slightly, with a slimmed-down selection of tacos and tortas augmented by spiced-up breakfast fare like huevos divorciados (fried eggs with crowder peas, crispy tortillas, and salsa, $8), chorizo with scrambled eggs and potatoes ($9), and a fusion-y take on chicken and waffles that pairs fried chicken with savory churros and sweetens them with spiced agave syrup ($12).
The name of the place seems a bit of a misnomer. While Básico accurately reflects the restaurant's philosophy of using "the basic, freshest products" and "fundamental techniques," they go beyond the basics here, elevating the food with small touches and attention to detail.
The extreme stylishness of Básico makes its sparse setting all the more jarring. When you step out into the hot August air and walk to your car in the straw-covered temporary parking lot across the street, you are struck by the odd clump of three- and four-story townhomes huddling together at the front of the neighborhood with nothing but open land all around.
The original plans for the Mixson development got derailed back in 2007 when the bottom dropped out of the real estate market, leaving fewer than 20 houses completed on the 44-acre tract bordered by Mixson and Durant Avenues.
Now that development has been rekindled and the master plan adjusted, several big buildings are going up alongside the tract that fronts Mixson Avenue. They'll eventually house more than 200 one- and two-bedroom apartments, and perhaps toward the end of the year as new residents start moving in, the neighborhood will feel more fleshed out.
For now, Básico and the swim club are an oasis of hip, retro urbanism that stick out like a sore thumb among the wide avenues and modest bungalows of North Charleston. But, hey, the food's really good. A few tacos and a cool sangria are a fine way to take a break from a hot day at the pool, and sharing some bright, spicy ceviche and a basket of chips alongside a round of good margaritas isn't a bad way to wait for Mixson to catch up to Básico — even if it promises to take a while.