There are a great number of surprisingly good restaurants tucked away in strip malls. I chuckle as I write this, because the phrase "tucked away in a strip mall" is one of longtime City Paper food writer Robert Moss's pet peeves, or at least it was when he published his Top 10 List for Foodies in 2010. In Moss's opinion, why should we be so surprised to find decent food in a humble location? The Lowcountry's suburban real estate is arguably much more affordable than anything downtown, with ample parking to boot, and strip malls dominate the offerings. Mt. Pleasant new comer Congress is right off of Johnnie Dodds, and I'll cut to the chase: you should go there.
When Chef Mark Ciaburri and his wife Adrienne saw that La Hacienda was for sale, they snagged it and set about erasing all elements of the local Mexican chain restaurant that had dished up plates of smothered chimichanga served with neon margaritas for nearly two decades. Interior designer Whitney Reitz swooped in with bolts of contemporary patterned fabric and fresh ideas. Master carpenters sharpened their tools. The formerly boxy interior now features an L-shaped formal dining room. It leads into a corner community table before taking a hard right past an artful partition into a sleek bar space illuminated with dangling pendants of blown glass. Within seven months from start to finish, Congress opened its doors.
Why the name? Well, for starters, there's "congress" in the sense of "assembly" or "gathering." But the restaurant's servers are quick to explain that the name derives from Congress Street in Austin, Texas, where Mark and Adrienne worked, met, fell in love, got engaged, and carved out their dreams. So Congress is a love story — if only our nation's capital worked that way.
Congress's menu will surprise and perhaps befuddle first-timers, for it straddles seemingly disparate culinary cultures: Mexican and Italian, with touches of Texas and the Lowcountry thrown in. You won't be confused for long, once you understand that Chef Mark Ciaburri was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, the son of a South Mexican mother and 100-percent Italian father. He worked in restaurants in Austin before marrying Adrienne, a Mt. Pleasant native, and most recently cooked for Maverick Southern Kitchens and Hamby Catering. Congress's menu directly encompasses Ciaburri's roots and professional experiences. When it comes to chef-driven cuisine, I don't think it gets more authentic than this.
Take, for example, the chili (cup $7; bowl $9). You won't find it swimming with beans and moist chunks of tomato. Congress's chili is all muscle. Along the lines of a Texas chili con carne, Ciaburri focuses strictly on meat and a nuanced sauce, in this case tender morsels of short rib folded into a thick, smoky, dark blend of Mexican peppers (pasilla, ancho, guajillo, chipotle) simmered with a dark lager and subtle hint of chocolate.
Honing his paternal Italian skills, Ciaburri crafts dreamily fluffy gnocchi ($11), warmed with a thin glaze of browned butter, finished with freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese and crowned with a perfectly crispy, flat, round, translucent disc of pancetta.
A number of small plates lend themselves to sharing. In fact, a group could make a fine meal out of passed plates. Tuna tartare ($16) comprises chunks of bigeye tuna blended with olive oil, bright capers, and a touch of Dijon before being dotted with parsley oil, and scooped up with natural cups of Belgian endive. House-made hand-pulled fresh mozzarella ($11) forms perfect little ovalinis, cross-hatched to receive a nutty pesto of pistachio, rich olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, and just a tad of fresh basil, served with a tousled arugula salad and crisp-but-chewy slices of grilled baguette.
A trio of arancini ($8) offers comfort in the form of duck-confit-and-cheese-laced fried risotto balls, served over gorgeous but assertive quick-pickled slices of fennel and orange, dusted with fennel pollen and a little red chili oil. Seasonal ceviche ($12) is similarly acid-forward and in this case a heavy dose of lime to brighten the snapper (or mahi on a different occasion) with crunches of jicama, cucumber, Serrano pepper, and pomegranate seeds, served with excellent house-baked chips.
To be fair, I only mention the assertiveness of Ciaburri's pickling and use of citrus because my own palate leans more neutral. There are those who could drink vinegar straight out of the bottle (I used to be married to one). Sharper palates will love Congress's guacamole ($9), heavy on fresh lime juice. My dinner date couldn't get enough of it.
The grilled salmon entrée ($23) plays straight to my palate. Perfectly cooked, mellowed by brown butter, book-ended with earthy king trumpet mushrooms and roasted cauliflower, then scattered with toasted pumpkin seeds, this dish alone makes me want to come back to try all the other entrées.
Dessert offerings are limited in number but big on taste. The chocolate budino ($7) is eyes-roll-back-in-the-head worthy, rich with 80-percent dark chocolate, olive oil, crunchy hazelnuts, and touch of sea salt. And Congress curates an excellent cheese plate ($14) for those who like to begin or finish their meals with a balanced ensemble of hard-and-salty pecorino romano, barbers cheddar, and creamy farmhouse goat cheese, rounded out with grilled bread, local honey, and Ciaburri's addictive pumpkin seed brittle. There's also churros ($7), little doughnuts rolled in cinnamon sugar, served with cajeta, a thick, sweet, milky caramel for dipping.
Congress clearly does dinner well. Brunch is also on the horizon — that should roll out any day now — and then eventually lunch, too. I, for one, look forward to seeing how Ciaburri's menu changes with the seasons.
Perhaps Congress's best kept secret at present is happy hour. You can sip local draughts such as Westbrook's One Claw rye pale ale for $5, Texas' Shiner Bock for only $3, and various Italian wines for $5 a glass. You can also get fish tacos (two for $6) and you should. Perfectly grilled flour tortillas and seasonal catch arrive with a refreshing slaw, but most of all, order these tacos for the dab of lightly fermented Serrano-lime-cilantro-buttermilk crema, an almost effervescent light cream that makes the tacos sing. I, for one, am delighted to have discovered such a novel, polished, interesting new restaurant, ahem, tucked away in a strip mall.