Josh Keeler has worked nearly every day at Two Boroughs Larder since he and his wife Heather opened the tiny restaurant in August 2011. He missed his first day only a couple months ago to attend a wedding. And then again a couple weeks ago, when he stayed home with a cold, entrusting his team to keep the kitchen firing on all cylinders — and that they did.
I happened to be dining at TBL that night, and Keeler's absence was surprisingly unnoticeable as I cleaned plate after plate of first-class eats: a vibrant bowl of conserved tuna and sofrito studded with charred shoshito peppers, a chopped up housemade hotdog in a glistening medley of butter beans, chanterelles, and Brussels sprouts, and a tender ribeye that stands up to some of the best in town.
Initially, Keeler planned to open a sandwich shop that would close at 7 p.m., but that lasted about one week before Keeler realized he wanted to be in the kitchen making the kind of dishes he loves. Some of the original items are still on the menu, and some, like the breakfast sandwiches and ramen, have become staples. He's even turned Charleston on to scrapple.
The menu itself has gone from a free-for-all cacophony to a more harmonious slate of offerings. The farm-to-table motif is still present, but Keeler knows he needs to have at least a couple of sides and snacks and a few local items to go along with the small plates.
Because of the hype, they've also added about 10 seats to the space, and although the no-reservations policy stands, names are taken and they accept call-aheads to avoid any first-come-first-serve scuffles. They've also doubled the amount of equipment they have in the kitchen. "The worst day I had at the restaurant was when I was installing a new stove and moving a dishwasher. I thought I could handle the plumbing myself, but it turned out to be a disaster, and I had to call a plumber," says Keeler. The day turned around when he found out, as he drove his parents to the airport, that he was named a semifinalist for Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation. His mood changed instantly. "I was in shock. I've never been so humble and so scared in my life," he says.
Keeler shared the field with names like Ashley Christensen, Edward Lee, and Joseph Lenn, and locals Craig Deihl and Jeremiah Bacon, but he insists, "It's not my nomination as much as everyone everyone else at the restaurant's nomination. It's our menu. It's our food."
The restaurant is something of a media darling with mentions in Food & Wine, Travel + Leisure, and Southern Living among others. When asked if they're doing anything differently in response to such recognition, Keeler says, "Absolutely. We changed the caliber of food we're putting out, along with our mindset. We need to be ahead of the curve."
It's not only the national attention that's prompting changes in their game: locals and regulars play a big part in the way Two Boroughs Larder shines today. "I never thought I'd have a burger on my menu, but people asked for it, and they love it," he says. The TBL burger has become so popular that Eater named it one of the 25 hottest burgers in America. Two patties made of brisket and chuck get stacked high with Neuske's bacon, creamy mornay, and pickled vegetables. The bun was recently changed to a milk bread Cuban roll specially made by Browns Court Bakery. At TBL, the roll is brushed with egg wash and topped with benne seeds. The burger forms one huge tower that creates a mess, but it's so good they usually sell out of their allotment of 24 by 8 p.m. on Wednesday nights. If you're lucky, you'll find one on the brunch menu topped with an oozing fried egg. We love the brunch burger, but don't fret if it's not available. The breakfast sandwiches (peperonata, Nueske's bacon, or scrapple) will satisfy just about anyone.
With all its success, TBL gets thrown the occasional curve ball when the storm water basin in front of the restaurant clogs up, causing sand and water (not sewage) to come up through the drains inside the restaurant.
"We've flooded five times in the past two months," Keeler says. "Heather and I keep an eye on the weather and tide schedules daily. This not only affects us as owners, but our entire staff." The good news is, they're working with the city to clear out the basin.
This week, Keeler expects some of the international chefs attending Cook It Raw will find their way to his restaurant, but he's not too nervous. "Sean [Brock] brings people in here all the time, and he doesn't even give me a heads up," he says, laughing, "but I'm always prepared to make the visit memorable for everyone."
If you're one of those lucky enough to have a ticket to the Cook it Raw: BBQ Perspectives event this weekend at Bowens Island, Keeler will be there serving up veal pastrami. Given his track record, it's sure to attract some much-deserved attention.