It's taken long enough, but it finally feels like winter is here. At least Charleston's version of winter. And because it's predicted to be as warm as 75 at the beginning of next week, we should savor this somewhat frigid weather while we can. Besides donning our barely used scarves and cranking up the space heater, there's no better way to enjoy a chilly night than with a warming meal — and I don't know about you, but I'm sick to death of casseroles and winter vegetables. That's why we suggest that you thaw out this weekend with the sweet and spicy flavors of Asian cuisine.
If you find yourself enjoying the cool air downtown this evening, hurry over to Two Boroughs Larder, where chef Josh Keeler has concocted a hearty oxtail szechuan. "Oxtail is exactly what it sounds like," says Keeler. "It's a beef tail." The meat is braised in beef stock for three and a half hours with szechuan peppercorns, garlic, onions, and peppers until it's tender enough to shred. Then it's pan-fried with Carolina Gold Rice, Chinese red chiles, more peppercorns, and ginger oil. "It's a little crispy, similar to fried rice, but it's not like something you'd get if you ordered take-out." The dish is topped with crushed peanuts, scallions, green peanut puree, and a barely-cooked egg. "It's definitely spicy," says Keeler, "but the egg yolk cuts the heat nicely." This texture and flavor-laden dish will cost you $11.
The flavor of szechuan peppercorns can also be found at King Street's O-Ku, where the braised Kurobuta shank offers a different dish with similar ingredients (the name Kurobuta refers to a breed of Japanese black pig). This too is braised for hours in a mélange of peppercorns, sake, plum soy sauce, lemongrass, garlic, chili peppers, and a handful of other ingredients. "It's served on the bone so it still yields the natural flavor of the meat," says general manager Kimball Brienza. "I'd say it's similar to an osso bucco." This $24 dish is served with an assortment of vegetables and citrus rice crostini, which is made in-house with the restaurant's sushi rice.
Executive Chef Craig Deihl of Cypress also has his version of Asian-style braised meat. The confit pork belly ($12) is slowly cooked in its own fat, then chilled and cut into smaller portions. These pieces are fried, giving the dish its signature confit crispiness and served alongside kimchi fritters (fried Korean-style vegetables). "We make our own spicy mustard for dipping," notes Diehl. "It's a combination of Colman's dry mustard, egg yolk Korean red pepper powder, garlic and honey."
Not up for that much heat? Take a hike over the bridge to Mt. Pleasant, where Coleman Public House's Trevor Smith serves up his version of hoisin ribs ($9.95). After being braised for two hours in a Coca-Cola soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and the sweeter flavors of orange and star anise, they are cut into individual riblets. "The anise gives the dish an almost licorice-like flavor," says Smith. The ribs are then flash fried and covered in a glaze that incorporates Mae Ploy, a brand of popular Southeast Asian sweet chili sauce. "The Mae Ploy adds some spice," notes Smith, "but on the whole it's a sweeter dish."
Graze, located near Whole Foods, serves up a spicy dish that's on the lighter end of the calorie spectrum. The yellowfin tempura appetizer is a 4-ounce piece of tuna that's been battered and fried in the Japanese style. What gives it a kick, however, is the spicy bean paste and firecracker mayo that's served with it. "The bean paste is made of a couple different soy pastes we buy from H&L Asian Market in North Charleston," says Chef Michael Karkut. "And we add tobiko (roe) into the mayo." This $11 starter comes with a fresh cucumber salad.