RESTAURANT REVIEW: Conch 

Conched Out: Conch cracks into the beach bum aesthetic

Conch
Seafood
Entrée Prices: Moderate ($-$$)
11 Center St., Folly Beach
(843) 633-0100
Serving lunch and dinner, daily

Over the last few years, Folly Beach seemed to be undergoing something of a renaissance among eating establishments. Numerous openings — Taco Boy and 11 Center Street come to mind — stretched the old shanty town beyond its traditional beach bum aesthetic and promised to diversify the market. But 11 Center Street fell on hard times, and in the wake of its closure, we have Conch, the newest offering on the beach.

From the outside, Conch looks to be a happening place — music drifts from the open bar on the second floor, bright colors and updated graphics reveal a professionally run operation. The top floor might be the coolest place to have a drink on the Center Street stretch; the back patio sports a brick fireplace for lower temperatures to come, and the interior space, plastered with surf culture ephemera, could just as well be Ron Jon's surf shop, complete with logo-emblazoned T-shirts.

As a place to hang out and drink a beer, Conch is a perfect perch, but when the waitress takes your order, the trouble begins. Laminated menus promise a wide variety of seafood offerings, from conch fritters ($7.99) and fish tacos ($3.99) to Bahimina conch salad ($8.79) and the obligatory shrimp and grits ($13.95). Add creative fare, like the "Yardbird on the Edge" ($10.95), featuring a marinated chicken breast topped with garlic chile sauce, bacon, pineapple, and buffalo mozzarella, and you have all the ingredients for a trendy little bistro at the Edge of America serving cool and creative food.

That is, if the stuff tasted good, and unfortunately, we are required to report that it most certainly did not on our visits. I'd go so far as to say that even if you're tempted by the live music drifting off the top floor cabana and the waitresses in tight shorts, continue across the road to the beach, past the Holiday Inn, and throw your money in the ocean. It will be better spent.

Conch could be such a cool oasis in the midst of a 95 degree day in the hot sand, but instead you'll feel ripped off by the tourist prices. A seafood combo basket runs $13.95, but the combination of fried shrimp, fried oysters, and grouper can hardly be stomached. I found the grouper so dry that I could manage only two bites — think eating cardboard with fish grease soaked into a batter exterior. My companion spit his out.

The conch salad comes out so acidic, so full of crunchy onion and cucumber, and so devoid of actual seafood that you might wonder if it isn't just a vegetable salad with a squirt of lime. The fritters, which sport a modicum of conch within, are so doughy that you might have visions, not of a brilliant soft sand beach in the outer islands of the Bahamas, but of a moldy Tempur-Pedic mattress.

At such a junction, one has to reassess the entire worth of such an establishment — obviously stocked with local college talent for the summer, but unable to put forth a decent plate worth eating. You can try for yourself. Order the seafood nachos ($8.95) and the lump crab cakes ($14.95). You'll need to look pretty hard for a lump of crabmeat in those, but it's not worth the effort. They are mostly bread, barely tasting of crab, and in no way worth the $15 price tag. Or you could torture yourself with a citrus fish taco ($3.99), cheap but not worth powering through the tastelessly dry fish, watery salsa, and bland chipotle mayonnaise that drips from the bottom of the unmanageable fistful.

Take our word on this one; beyond the need for a tourist T-shirt, a cold frozen drink among a throng of beach bunnies, and a cheesy piano player on a perfectly breezy Center Street perch, Conch will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth and a thin wallet that could have found much better offerings just down the street.

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