James Islanders have been salivating for a while over the prospect of something good opening at 951 Folly Road. The address has had a bumpy track record of short-lived restaurants — Brinsons Beef & Brew, Roadside Kitchen — causing some to call the site "cursed." Enter Stereo 8. The initial reviews of the music-themed Stereo 8 weren't exactly glowing. One reviewer bemoaned the lack of local brews; now there are four Charleston breweries represented. Another critic took fault with the randomly shuffled delivery of dishes, something that seems to have been ironed out. Other diners requested more mainstream options, like burgers and chicken fingers for kids — done. There's even a new Monday Burger Night, and I can attest that the burgers are damned tasty. Stereo 8 has fine-tuned its offerings.
But back to the name. Stereo 8 refers to classic 8-track players, some of which are on display above the restaurant. A giant black "8" topped with red headphones outside beckons from the clean, minimal façade making it easy to spot Stereo 8 despite its location among non-descript storefronts on Folly Road.
Music hits you as you park in Stereo 8's deep lot. Upon entering, the playlist changes from room to room. Outkast may serenade you with "Hey Ya!" on the expansive back deck, featuring a giant firepit, strung lights, and palmetto trees. But before you've finished humming "Alright, alright, alright, alright," you've entered two former shipping containers converted into outdoor exhibit spaces for rotating artists. Back in the front dining room the Avett Brothers may wax philosophical as you weigh sake-based cocktails against bourbon. The bar area might stream the Black Ghost while you admire the craftsmanship of repurposed railroad tie supports. From Hozier to Tangled Eye, Hendrix to Bach, even the bathroom has its own soundtrack. I've been to plenty of restaurants where music soured my meal, and this is not one of them. In fact, I wished for greater volume. Co-owner Joe Walker curates all the tunes and hands out CDs to the first 500 diners each month — a clever way to keep the restaurant in people's heads and to keep diners looking forward to next month's mix.
Walker knew he wanted a strong music component before he even knew what he wanted to serve. But if that makes you nervous about the food, don't be. The dishes are as eclectic and intriguing as the playlists. Super eclectic, in fact. It's as if someone traveled the world and said, "I want to take all the things I enjoyed eating in Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Morocco, and Mexico and serve them up in one restaurant." Boom. That someone is restaurant consultant David LeBoutillier, known for helping launch successes like McCrady's, 39 Rue de Jean, Coast, and Poe's Tavern. Considering that Stereo 8 has been through four chefs in three months, LeBoutillier's culinary vision is the one constant. I doubt James Islanders are looking for celebuchefs anyway — just good food.
LeBoutillier lays out a varied, international menu of affordable, shareable plates. Pescavores can opt for tuna tartare ($12), with ginger-forward layers of sesame-sprinkled sashimi and fresh avocado, scooped up with crispy house-fried wonton chips. Carnivores might enjoy the pork belly steamed bun ($7). Nestled into zigzags of sweet and spicy Peking-style hoisin sauce over a cloud-light bun, the crispy slices are topped with pickled veggies and side of kimchi. Vegetarians can feast on a Vietnamese cold noodle salad ($11) of julienned carrots, green beans, cucumber, basil, cilantro, mint, and peanuts over rice noodles, all tangled up in a light, sweet nuac cham with just a hint of spice. And most anyone will love the fried kale chips ($4), whose translucent crunch of teriyaki sweet-meets-salty deliciousness is crazily addictive.
If you arrive before 7 p.m. on a weekday, happy hour allows you to try slightly smaller versions of many dishes for $5 a pop. On one such night I was able to savor Moroccan-spiced lamb kefta ($7) for a steal. The hot and tasty meatballs played nicely over cool harissa yogurt on soft pita wedges, tousled with pickled red onion. Ceviche ($12) pairs zesty chunks of snapper and shrimp with crispy fried plantain slices for scooping, a delicious and gluten-free option laced with opal basil, sweet peppers, yuzu, finely diced Serrano for subtle heat, and pink peppercorns. Those who crave more heat can try the spicy Thai version with avocado crema and mint.
Dishes are shareable, but some you may wish to hog yourself. The duck confit black fried rice bowl ($15) is a meal chock full of pearly Imperial black rice laced with finely shredded duck, a poached egg jiggling on top. The steaming hot ramen bowl ($13, add egg for $1) takes an umami-rich dashi base with hints of oyster sauce and kombu (seaweed), then adds pork, thick noodles, and shiitakes from Mepkin Abbey.
As for drinks, Stereo 8 helps the indecisive with flights of wine ($8), as well as flights of sake. Instead of committing to a bottle of cucumber sake ($20), cloudy nigori ($14), or lychee sake ($16), you can select three 2-ounce shots for a total of $8. Presented in artful glassware that fits snuggly into a recycled wood plank, this is a fun way to entertain your taste buds and try new things. How is it that I have never discovered sparkling sake before now? Light and fluttering, infinitely more subtle than champagne and far less acidic, sparkling sake makes for a liquid dessert.
I have yet to try the six varieties of tacos, including bulgogi, crispy shrimp, duck banh mi with foie gras mousse, and fried chicken mole, all of which make me drool by name alone. They range in price from $5-$7 for single tacos or a flight of any three for $17. The only reason I'm mentioning something I didn't try is to convey a sense of the wide range of options here. I get the impression this place is jam packed on Friday's weekly live music nights, and Sunday's Latin-focused brunch tempts with tortas and horchata.
The folks at Stereo 8 work hard in their bright red Chuck Taylor kicks, with Walker himself checking on customers and inviting criticism. The bill arrives with a comment card and encouragement to fill it out. I, for example, thought that the curried yellow squash app ($4) was too clunky and would be more tender and palatable if sliced thinner. I also thought the kale chips ($4) were too heavily sauced, as evidenced by a pool of sweet soy and sesame oil at the bottom of the bowl (not that this stopped us from devouring them all). Now is the time for James Islanders to give Stereo 8 the feedback it needs so that it continues to hit the right chords.