In the four years since its inception, Holy City Brewing has become a ubiquitous presence. You can grab a six-pack of Pluff Mud Porter at Trader Joe's or admire mustachioed professor Paul Roof on the label of Chucktown Follicle Brown staring at you from a Teeter shelf. Perhaps you've ordered a Smoke Break at Kudu or a seasonal brew on tap at Mex-1 Coastal Cantina. Holy City Brewing is well represented in bars, restaurants, and stores from here to Charlotte, an achievement for such a young operation.
If you've never visited the brewery itself, it's high time you made the pilgrimage, not only for the 15-20 brews they have on tap at any given time, but for the grub too. Holy City Brewing now has its own kitchen, where Chef Shay MacDonald has as much fun playing with food as the bearded brewers do with their creative suds.
Located off the beaten path, Holy City Brewing resides in an industrial section of North Charleston, where the rent is, one would assume, cheap (or at least cheaper than downtown). Take the Dorchester Road exit off I-26 and head west, past a mobile home park, bail bondsman, liquor store, and dreadlocks salon. Keep your eyes peeled for the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Holy City sign in front of an auto collision warehouse, then drive to the back of the lot. Just when you start to doubt your whereabouts and consider getting the hell out of Dodge, there it is— a bustling hub of leisure.
Like Abu Dhabi, Holy City Brewing seemingly sprang from nothing, an extraordinary outpost in an unlikely spot. Housed in what could have been a former garage, rows of towering beer vats share space with the long tasting room, so you can sample flights as you literally watch the beer being made before you. Certain days send your olfactory senses into orbit, particularly if Holy City Brewing is brewing root beer (the air thickens with birch bark and molasses), or if Chef MacDonald is smoking pork butts with bourbon barrel charcoal and cherrywood, roasting curried cauliflower, or honey pickling jalapeños.
Upturned barrels form bases for the hand-crafted tables inside. There is no A/C, but overhead fans flutter and large bay doors open wide, rain or shine, onto a makeshift patio shaded by colorful interwoven sails. Outside you might encounter a friendly yellow lab on a leash, giggling children playing cornhole on the cracked pavement, or an exotic bird strutting across a picnic table. Darts, a pool table, and a basketball hoop entertain staff and guests alike. The outer wall of the industrial hanger was transformed by artist Sean Williams into a fanciful, quasi-hallucinatory Charleston landscape. Alligators, hammerhead sharks and jellyfish, all painted in hues of burnt sienna, float above the city skyline alongside a school of stingrays and a pterodactyl. It's the kind of mural that probably makes more and more sense after you've enjoyed a couple of Holy City Brewing's stronger brews, like their Belgian saison or Imperial stout, both of which had my tail wagging — and made me want to crawl inside one of those barrels and take a nap.
For years, food was limited to weekend food trucks, but somehow the Holy City crew managed to lure Chef MacDonald away from his helm at the downtown craft burger joint HoM to form an on-site kitchen called Suelto. That name translates to "loose" in Spanish, and loose this place is, given that the menu changes every week.
One element gracing various dishes is the 60-minute egg, the first clue that MacDonald is serious about his craft (apart from molecular gastronomists downtown, who bothers to sous vide an egg?). The low and very slow technique yields a velvety, custardy yolk encircled in egg whites, overall creating the texture of a delicate, barely set pudding. This bright beauty tops dishes such as the light Frijoles Blanco ($9), a brunch bowl of fluffy quinoa mixed with arugula, white beans, and parmesan or the Sunday brunch Tower of Bok Bok ($9), featuring crispy tostadas inter-stacked with chicken, black beans, guacamole and cheddar. And then there's Suelto's take on shrimp and grits ($13), a decadent heart-stopper of roasted garlic, pimento cheese, and creamy grits smothered in stout-enriched Kielbasa gravy and topped with fried shrimp.
As you would expect from a chef who hails from a craft burger joint, Suelto burgers push the limits of what you thought a burger could be, mixing sweet and savory in ways that invoke both excitement and fear. Case in point: the 5B burger ($9), a creation that would have impressed Elvis himself. Two juicy patties share the stage with some very unlikely co-stars: sliced bananas, slivers of basil, strips of bacon, and peanut butter and brie rendered gooey by the burger's heat. If you count both patties, the bun, and the burps that serve as encores, that's a lot more than 5Bs. At first glance, the proposition seemed so outrageous, I truly did not expect to eat more than the obligatory food reviewer's bite. Yet, I ate the whole damned thing.
On more than one occasion, Suelto was out of burgers on my visits, so clearly MacDonald is still assessing his supply and demand ratio (the kitchen is young, after all). On one visit, guests had gobbled up all the brunch burgers sandwiched between slices of French toast and stacked with fried egg, bacon, peanut butter, and brie (again, if it sounds scary, don't knock it 'til you've tried it). On another, the bartender faulted the Sysco food truck for running late with the hamburger meat. Somehow I had hoped Suelto would source local beef rather than meat from a large-scale food service distributor, but maybe that's about the price-point. As it is, Suelto gives you a substantial bang for your buck. Still, given that Holy City Brewing donates its spent grain to Legare Farms as animal feed, perhaps Suelto could arrange a trade for some local meat?
My main beef with Suelto's lineup is that I'd love to see more apps and sharable plates added to the lineup. As it stands, Suelto's offerings are predominantly singular and heavy, such as the pork chili verde ($9), a brunch item dense with beer-braised pork and cheddar over home fries topped with the signature tricked out egg or the beer brat ($8) saddled in a doughy brioche with grilled onion, spicy mustard, and garlic sour cream. Both are great, hardy meals, as are the fried chicken tacos ($8) or chicken enchilada cheesesteak ($8), but sometimes beer drinking goes hand in hand with snacking, grazing, and passing. Suelto's deliciously fresh guacamole ($7) was perfect for this. Laced with bacon, blue cheese and sweet corn kernels, multiple hands could scoop it up with warm, crispy chips. The same was true for the deviled eggs ($4) which were whipped with roasted garlic, chipotle, and honey. If more communal plates like these were added to the menu, Suelto would round out an already promising and ever-changing hit list of edibles.