Fill 'Er Up: Fuel pumps out Caribbean flavors in the summer heat

211 Rutledge Ave., Downtown
(843) 737-5959
Prices: Moderate ($9-$15)
Serving: Lunch and Dinner, Closed Sun.

In 20 years, should the world economy shift away from petroleum fuels and into a greener mode of transportation, I think we'll know what to do with all the filling stations that will be left to rot like the former icons of Route 66. We have a prototype right downtown with Fuel, a gentrified Esso station on the corner of Rutledge and Cannon.

Fuel deserves an award of some sort, I just can't figure out what it should be. Owners Trevor Whitmire and Justin Broome started from the ground up, did most of the work themselves, and ended up with a funky, Caribbean-style eatery that is all the rage these days. The place thumps with excitement, draws a young, vibrant crowd, and serves up some of the best island food in the city (not that there's much competition to go around). And while they have hit a few bumps in the road, losing a chef and battling the summer heat in an open air space with an inadequate air conditioner, Fuel looks poised to become a new favorite.

The old garage piled high with nostalgic ephemera never succumbs to cliché. The temptation to make it the Taj Mahal of garage bars certainly runs strong, but the space is modern. Sconces made from gas pump nozzles protrude from wall murals painted in orange and white, silhouettes of gasmen and fuel pumps bounce with the aesthetic of an iPod commercial. An al fresco bar serves up innovative fresh fruit juice cocktails inside and outside, opening to a lush tropical patio area. The covered deck out back keeps things cool enough, even on sweltering days — August will be a real test — and the bocce ball court sees regular action.

The menu is diverse, if Caribbean in theme, and for the most part delivers a decent bit of grub, with some tasty fresh seafood dishes headlining. Some items, like the ceviche ($6), could use a little work, not because they taste particularly bad, but because they could be so much more. A recent order of the stuff turned up a plate of salad, wilting in the heat and ringed with a half-dozen fresh local shrimp. They were marinated in lime juice, topped with some marinated onions (which are particularly delicious), and altogether very good — but the shrimp could be better piled into a bowl or centered on the plate, presented as the main attraction and beefed up with fiery chiles.

The same goes for the "Tropical Seafood Bouyon" ($15), which, besides being way too wintry to be served "outdoors" in the late July heat, seems a bit unbalanced. It's tasty, but this savory stew of coconut milk, dolphin, shrimp, lime juice, and cilantro drowns in an overabundance of sautéed onions, an item the menu fails to even mention. Throw in a few of the lovely plantains stacked on an adjacent table for heft and put it on the menu during a cold December lunch, and it would be worth ordering over and over again.

It also pays to order the Anguillan Kabobs ($7) seared on the grill with a rustic spice crust and served alongside a cool mayo-style dipping sauce full of cilantro and lime. The nuggets of beef come out tender and medium rare, and the dish makes a perfect snack to enjoy over a couple of beers on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Or put in a request for tacos, they come in mahi-mahi ($11), tuna ($10), and duck confit ($11) flavors, each with its own accompaniment of home-style relishes, salsas, and aioli slathered into a soft tortilla. They are all delicious.

I keep going back for the BBQ Buffalo Burger ($13). When I first ordered this two-fisted monster, my cursory glance at the menu led me to think it would be in the style of Buffalo wings. Nope. This puppy sports about a half pound of buffalo meat, grilled to your taste (go rare), and topped with a creative mango catsup/chutney number and red cabbage slaw. It's big, bodacious, and dripping with flavor — one of my favorite burgers of the moment and worth the trip to Fuel all by itself.

Fuel certainly has rough edges, its proprietors are young and new to owning their own place, and the service can be slow and amateurish, but sometimes the inexperienced take risks and create places that others would have never dreamed up. I think Fuel qualifies in this respect, tucked away in an emerging part of town, and easily becoming a local favorite. Whitmore and Broome have done a fine job of carrying the spirit of the old gas station into a new realm and pairing that vision with a good array of tasty Caribbean specialties and tropical libations. It already eclipses 90 percent of the places in its class, and these fellas have yet to get warmed up. Those in the know better fill up now, because once the crowds descend, you won't be able to get a place at the pump.




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