Boston has its lobster roll, New Orleans has its po' boy, and Baltimore has its crabcake, so what does waterlogged Charleston have when it comes to fish sandwiches? Probably fried whiting (perhaps flounder or catfish) with tartar sauce on white bread, which isn't quite as iconic as those other cities' standards. You'd think in a town surrounded by water, fish sandwiches would be a thing, but sadly they have not benefited from the same attention given to burgers in recent years. Burgers have become artisanal stars, with each and every ingredient given deep consideration. Fish sandwiches, on the other hand, are relegated to the bottom of the menu where they're treated like diet food or something. Grilled mahi on a kaiser roll? Boring. A fried oyster po' boy? Well, you're getting warmer, especially if you're using our local species, but the key to that ubiquitous New Orleans creation is lost around here. A po' boy lives and dies by its bread. Put it on an inferior roll and you've got nothing.
For restaurants not making bread for their sandwiches, the question is: What are you waiting for? Baking bread in-house is the key to a great sandwich. Indeed, it's half the equation. That's why the catfish BLT at Husk ranks as a wonderful fish sandwich. The squishy bread, as Chef Sean Brock calls it, serves as a solid companion for catfish lightly dusted with cornmeal and perfectly fried, a smoky slice or two of Benton's bacon, tomatoes, Duke's mayo (with herbs), some crispy green lettuce, and that's it.
"It's simple, but each component has to be dead-on," says Brock, "particularly when people have a reference point (like a BLT)."
With each bite, the catfish BLT gets messier and messier, the mayo soaking into the toasted white bread, the fish flaking apart, the bacon doing its job, adding meaty flavor and crunchy texture. Brock says the catfish BLT and the Husk cheeseburger are the only two sandwiches that have stayed and will stay on the menu. These are serious creations that mean something.
At Butcher & Bee, the newish restaurant on Upper King Street, they take sandwich making as seriously as Brock does at Husk. First, the bread is made in-house, from scratch. No ingredient is ignored, from the condiments to the seasonings to the proteins. And the sandwich combinations are created by a chef who's challenging Charleston's sandwich quo. If anybody is going to invent a quintessential Charleston fish sandwich, it'll be Stuart Tracy.
Butcher & Bee is one of the handful of restaurants that gets its fish fresh from Mark Marhefka's boat, and Tracy is willing to experiment with just about any species and extra bits and bobs, like grouper throats, which he breads and fries up like hot buffalo wings.
Fish sandwiches at B&B are not your grilled mahi on a kaiser roll. Currently, they're playing around with classics from other parts of the world. Tracy makes an unforgettable bánh mi, Vietnam's national sandwich, which starts with a housemade shrimp pâté (using shrimp from Geechie Boy on Shem Creek) and then layers on the scallions, lemongrass, ginger, pickled veggies, and lots of spicy fish sauce. It's served on housemade French bread.
They also have a local take on Boston's famous lobster roll. Indeed, owner Michael Shem-Tov wanted to make a literal lobster roll, but once he started talking to Marhefka and heard the gospel, so to speak, he felt like it would be irresponsible, perhaps even immoral, to ship in lobsters when our waters are teeming with fish. So they decided to riff on the idea using local triggerfish. An amazing sandwich, loaded up with housemade tarragon mayo and served cold on a housemade hot dog roll, it's a perfect fit for Charleston's steamy climate.
Then there's the Tunisian, the chef's favorite fish sandwich of them all. If you haven't heard of the Tunisian, well, then you probably haven't been to Tunisia. And that's OK, because the B&B version of this sandwich is exotic, unusual, and downright delicious.
First, they take a crusty ciabatta roll and spice it up with harissa, a paste found in North African cuisine made of hot chili peppers and spices like coriander and cumin. Then they add some capers, potatoes, and hard-boiled egg (from Celeste Albers, of course). The capper is a piece of fresh fish (cooked sous vide), which varies depending on what Marhefka has caught that week. The Tunisian has featured pamlico jack, triggerfish, and amberjack, and in all its permutations, it remains a mysterious thing, challenging your tastebuds with its spice and heat (which they'll amp up on request) and delighting you with its balanced flavors.
They also do a po' boy. Recently, they made it with jolthead porgy. The fish, which comes to them whole, gets broken down and marinated in buttermilk and pickle juice, kind of like a fried chicken brine, before being fried up and served on their own French bread.
B&B is constantly working on new sandwich ideas. One they've been kicking around is the classic French bagnat, a cold tuna sandwich that's pressed and left overnight to marinate on crusty bread. The trick is the tuna. They could easily get their hands on some non-local stuff, but they don't want to do that. It would be like cheating on their fisherman, and their relationship with him is what allows them to make their extraordinary fish sandwiches. So, instead, they ponder the idea, kicking around options and permutations. Eventually, they'll figure out a way to take the classic form and transform it into a Charleston original, using a species caught by Marhefka. And that is how they will stumble upon the ultimate fish sandwich for Charleston, by focusing on local catch, establishing a sense of place, and making it taste as good as possible. Oh, and by making their own bread, because without that, you've got nothing.