Boone Hall is an evolving enterprise that is steadily becoming a local treasure. Unlike most of Charleston's historic plantations, it's still a working farm. Hurricane Hugo shut down growing operations for a few years, but in 1996 Willie McRae started a U-pick strawberry farm, and over the past decade has added more produce, including tomatoes, pumpkins, corn, and a wide range of other vegetables.
In 2006, the Boone Hall Farms store opened in a big, red, barnlike building on the opposite side of Highway 17 from the strawberry fields. With a mix of everything from vegetables grown on the farm to high-quality meats and seafood plus the predictable benne wafers and Charleston knick-knacks, Boone Hall is a curious mix of touristy gift shop and great local food store.
And it's still evolving. Recently, the store shuttered its ice cream and hot dog counter behind a plywood wall for several months of serious renovations. The result is the Market Café, a casual restaurant that bills itself — accurately — as "a great lunch spot."
Jumbo-sized hot dogs ($5) — served on fluffy rolls and loaded with chili, kraut, or slaw — are still on the menu, as are some pretty impressive burgers ($6). These are made from a third of a pound of beef that's ground right there in the store and hand-pattied. With the addition of barbecue sauce and bacon ($8) you've got a sloppy, satisfying concoction.
The chopped pork in the barbecue sandwich ($7) is cooked out on the porch in a Southern Pride smoker. I'm sad to conclude that, while it's certainly tender and flavorful enough to give south-bound Yankees a taste of real barbecue, it's not the kind of smoked pork that will earn the Market Café a reputation as a premier Lowcountry barbecue joint. The portions are generous, but it's not quite smoky enough or flavorful enough, and it's served with a generic reddish-brown barbecue sauce that could have come from Anytown, USA. But, it's passable 'cue, and will do if you don't have time to make it across town to the real joints that still burn logs.
For those looking for a little bigger dose of country cooking, the Farm Meals offer solid meat-and-two combinations (how come no one seems to do meat-and-three anymore?). The meats include fried flounder, barbecue pork, meat loaf, and a rotating Daily Farm Special. The regular side dish selection includes mac 'n' cheese, mashed potatoes, collards, sweet potato fries, and green beans, and there's always a few more on the daily specials board.
Boone Hall's meatloaf is a massive 3-by-8-inch slab topped with a modest ladleful of tomato sauce. The ground beef is highly seasoned and blended with finely minced onions and green peppers. The loaf is baked until the outside is a deep, crusty brown. Some folks might be put off by that super-dark exterior, which looks almost burnt, but I think the crispy outside bits are the best part, and they'll keep me coming back for more.
The pan-fried chicken ($7) — a recent daily farm special — is about as good as fried chicken gets. The deep golden brown batter is well-seasoned, quite crispy, and not a bit greasy, and the meat inside is perfectly juicy.
The accompanying sides are mostly hits with a few misses. The mashed potatoes and gravy are classic Southern style — thick and creamy and enclosing a pool of savory brown gravy. The collards are studded with squares of bacon, and you just can't go wrong with that. The mac 'n' cheese is workmanlike, while the potato salad, with big chunks of red potatoes in a thin mayonnaise dressing, looks a lot better than it eats. It's a little on the runny side, and there's an odd blend of herbs that just don't go together somehow.
The Market Café does have, I must report, what may well be the best PB&J in town. It's made on broad white bread with fresh-ground peanut butter (from the store's peanut grinder, where you can grind your own) and jelly made right there at Boone Hall (also for sale in the store). The peanut butter is flavorful and has a great crispy texture from the little bits of ground peanut, while the jelly is extra sugary sweet.
For dessert, there's a big selection of housemade cakes and pies and eight flavors of homemade ice cream, too.
Add it all up, and you get a fine addition to the lunch options in Mt. Pleasant.
I live nearby, and the Boone Hall Farms store has become a regular stop on my weekly shopping circuit.
There's a cheese case with a small but good selection of cheeses that always manages to have something new and intriguing. The butcher counter, while a little light for my taste on the more unusual cuts, has a reliable offering of steaks and chops (most of them from Cargill's higher-end Sterling Silver brand), plus a few things you don't see just anywhere, like Ashley Farms chicken and chunks of tasso. The wine section offers a broad choice of moderately-priced but off-the-beaten path wines, including a lot of Spanish varieties, Malbecs, and that sort of thing. And, the store contains an outpost of Mt. Pleasant Seafood that offers a consistently good selection of local shrimp along with scallops, fish, mussels, clams, and the occasional delicacy such as shad roe or, for the past few weeks, soft shell crabs.
Best of all is the produce selection, which includes both vegetables trucked in from elsewhere plus whatever is fresh and in-season at the farm. The prices are consistently lower than what you'll pay for the same, say, Florida-grown lime at the supermarket down the road. Now, with fresh Boone Hall strawberries and asparagus making their first appearances, the local seasonal produce is finally appearing on the shelves, and by mid-summer there will be a wealth of fresh stuff to choose from.
The traffic at the store has picked up noticeably since the Market Café has opened. During a typical Saturday rush, you're likely to wait in the order line behind a lot of slightly puzzled-looking tourists fresh off the long haul down Highway 17. But if the out-of-town dollars can keep this good local thing going, I'm all for it.
Fresh local food is not easy to find in Mt. Pleasant, which is long on supermarket chains and smaller specialty stores. Shem Creek has a cluster of seafood vendors (including Magwood's, Raul's, and Mt. Pleasant Seafood) that make local shrimp and fresh fish readily available. For half the year, if you happen to be shopping on Tuesday, there's the Mt. Pleasant Farmer's Market, which will thankfully resume operations for the season on May 12 under new permanent pavilions at the newly-reconstructed Moultrie Middle School. But, if you're looking for fresh, local produce on any other day, Boone Hall is your best bet.
With the addition of the Market Café, the farm has upped the ante and is now also a pleasant spot to duck in for a big meaty burger or a plate of pan-fried chicken. It makes you wonder what Boone Hall will come up with next.