Caliente Lowcountry Mexican Cuisine sits in a cool little shack near the intersection of Highway 17 and Main Road on Johns Island. It used to be Mia's Café, and more recently the Charlestowne General Store. Owners Stephanie and Craig Bente opened Caliente over the summer, and the place has garnered positive chatter for its location, charming roadside atmosphere, and atypical Lowcountry spin on typical "Mexican" dishes like nachos, quesadillas, tacos, fajitas, chile rellenos, burritos, and chimichangas. It's a straightforward menu, which is a good way to go, especially in the first few months of opening a restaurant.
"People from Hollywood, Ravenel, and Bees Ferry are happy to have us here because there aren't a lot of restaurants out this way," says Craig. "They remember Mia's, which is good for us. It would be tougher if we weren't in a spot where there was a good restaurant before."
Caliente's Lowcountry take on Mexican food gets high marks for originality, which, to be fair, might really be a take on Mexican-American food, featuring the requisite meat-and-tortilla-based dishes served with accompaniments like cheese, sour cream, romaine lettuce, salsa, rice, and black beans. The Lowcountry influence shows up mostly in the meats you can choose to fill, top, or otherwise adorn the tortillas. Most come with a choice of expertly cooked pulled chicken, citrus chicken breast, pulled pork, ground beef, and beef brisket, along with a choice of grated cheddar, jack or pepper jack cheese, and a choice of regular, citrus, or chipotle sour cream.
And despite the prominence of meat, Caliente successfully makes good on another of its claims: a lighter, healthier treatment of heavy Mexican-American dishes, often weighed down by greasy meat and handfuls of melted cheese. Caliente is more restrained without compromising taste and flavor. Ironically, that restraint is the very thing that lets the quality of their meat preparation shine.
But before we dive into the meats, let's start at the beginning. The queso dip ($3/small, $6/large) is predictable and satisfying: a bowl of velvety white easy-melt cheese, good for enveloping the crispy, homemade tortilla chips (hand-cut and fried every day), and also good for putting a dent in the often frenzied appetites that go along with a Mexican outing. Craig says they tried serving homemade queso for a while, but patrons longed for the nostalgia of the processed variety. The salsa's good too (and free), made fresh daily with roma tomatoes, onions, cilantro, lime, and a touch of vinegar. Truth be told, I'd prefer a little more roasted tomato and lime flavor than vinegar. The guacamole ($3/small, $6/large) is also good and predictable — smooth, flavorful, and topped with a sprinkling of grated cheddar.
Among the bigger plates, the chile relleno ($11) is well done. The poblano pepper comes stuffed with black beans and a choice of Caliente's tender meats, and is oven-roasted rather than fried. On a recent visit I chose the beef brisket, since it seemed to exemplify Caliente's unique southern take on Mexican. It was just what a good beef brisket should be: well seasoned and braised until extremely tender, and stuffed, along with some cumin-y black beans, inside a smoky, earthy poblano chile. I devoured it, along with a side of pickled jalapeños, which brought some contrasting acidity and heat to the dish, as did a couple of spoonfuls of salsa.
Caliente's enchiladas come in pairs, and you can choose a combination of cheese, pulled chicken, pulled pork, or ground beef. There are a couple of sauce options too. The green is made with tomatillo, onion, and poblano; the red, which Craig calls a "gravy," is made with puréed chiles, onion, and cumin. Or you can get the "Christmas sauce," a combination of both. I picked the pulled chicken, which was surprisingly moist and tender, pulled into delicate, smoky citrus-y shards, and the ground beef, which was good too. Both meats were wrapped up in a flour tortilla and topped with a choice of sauces and cheese (not too much) and then broiled. I picked the Christmas sauce and liked it so much I would have been even happier if there had been about twice as much ladled over the enchiladas to balance out the richness of the meat.
The chimichanga is a favorite at Caliente. A deep-fried tortilla, made with flour instead of corn masa, gets filled with — you guessed it — a choice of meat and cheese. I chose the pulled pork and jack cheese, both of which were generously layered inside the crispy, puffed, U-shaped tortillas, topped with a choice of sour cream, plus queso, pico de gallo, and a chiffonade of romaine lettuce with a side of rice and black beans.
Although Caliente's only been up and running for a few months, recent specials suggest good things to come. At an event with Legare Farms, Caliente featured an eggplant and black bean taco with queso fresco and bacon coleslaw. And an Edisto shrimp puffy taco was featured on the menu not too long ago. Craig thinks they'll offer more and more variations as things move along and their fan base grows, which sounds to me like a great idea given the wide variety of interesting meat, produce, dairy, and grain available locally.
By the way, this may be one of the few Mexican spots where you'll have room for dessert. A good thing, too, since desserts are Stephanie Bente's forte — she was a pastry chef in Atlanta before moving to Charleston and opening Caliente. She's featuring just one dessert a week for now. A recent Lowcountry-inspired offering was gingersnap fried ice cream with candied pecans.
All in all, I'd say that Caliente is doing good work and has a great future ahead of it. They've got a solid base of happy patrons in an unusual location with a unique take on Mexican both in terms of the Lowcountry and the local thing — and that's a combination that's easy to pull for.