RESTAURANT REVIEW West Ashley Bait & Tackle 

No bait, no tackle, just good food

West Ashley Bait & Tackle
Pubs/Taverns
Lunch and Dinner
Entrées: $5-$10
1117 Magnolia Road
West Ashley
556-1828
Features: Outdoor Dining, Live Music, Parking, Non-Smoking

The little concrete shack stands near the convergence of Hwy 61 and Magnolia Road in West Ashley, where it served, until recently, as a tackle shop and local beer joint, doling out crickets, worms, and cold beers since 1968. It looks the part. Locally known as the "tackle shop," it was a place where you could be guaranteed to avoid the tourist crowd; you still can, but only because they have yet to find it.

When Yates Dew and Andrew Hollowell took over, they spruced up the joint — painted it turquoise, cleaned half of the tobacco smoke from the walls, built a ramshackle covered deck in keeping with the place's "architectural character," placed a couple of upturned outboard motor covers filled with plants by the front door, and hung out the same old sign — with one important difference. The new West Ashley Bait and Tackle stills serves cold beer but, as the new motto states explicitly, they have "no bait, no tackle." What they do boast is live bluegrass, a new kitchen, and a pretty darn good chef.

This is not the kind of place one expects to find delicious grub, and while the menu is anything but fancy, the place delivers. Weekend bluegrass bands on the patio are accompanied by an eclectic menu that mixes everything from microwave popcorn ($2.50, regular or buttered) to Southern fried chicken ($10), which comes with pepper gravy and two sides. In between lies a smattering of Americana that blends the best of white trash cookery with well-prepared, traditional Southern standards, as if the Duke boys decided to quit running from the law and open a backcountry grill. You can dine in the dark, cave-like interior (no smoking allowed) or out on the bluegrass porch. Either way, you are in for some good, greasy eating.

The menu is technically divided into sections, but there is little point to this. You order at the bar, unless the place is relatively empty and the bartender takes time to help you out. The "Small Plates" are generally good. The microwave popcorn comes exactly as one would expect (no surprises there!) but Chef Thompson, who hails from Wisconsin of all places, interjects with what should become a newly adopted Lowcountry classic, "fried cheese curds" ($5). These little puffs of cheesy goodness are a must have, served with a delicious dipping sauce and dripping with golden ribbons of high-quality melted cheddar. Other small plates deliver as well. The boiled peanuts ($3.50) are good, as are the Southern chips and cheese ($4.00), which pairs blue corn tortilla chips with hot, melted pimento cheese. The Buffalo shrimp ($7), B&T's answer to hot wings, taste downright weird. Large, crispy fried shrimp come generously bathed in a classic buffalo wing sauce, splayed around a mound of chopped lettuce and sprinkled liberally with blue cheese. Well executed, but not my cup of tea. Perhaps others would disagree.

The sandwiches and specialties portions of the menu lay on the flavor, yet more gourmet cheese, and the cholesterol. There is something about these Wisconsin boys and their cheese. Order the "Tackle Burger" ($7.50) and a big, juicy half-pound hunk of grilled cow flesh comes flying at you topped with a "thick chunk of melted gourmet cheese" (choose among cheddar, Swiss, blue, pepperjack, pimento, feta, or American). You only get one side with that, so make it the mac and cheese. Connoisseurs may claim that Cru Café serves the best mac and cheese in town, but this stuff measures up nicely, having that gourmet Wisconsin cheese thing going on in tandem with a crunchy layer of ruffled potato chips beneath the golden baked top. It oozes and drips with cardiac arrest.

The beer-battered grouper ($10) brings on more life-threatening joy. Three large chunks of fish are covered with a shatteringly tender crust of deep-fried batter and accompanied by tartar sauce and two sides, which means you will want either two orders of the mac and cheese or perhaps their delicious, ham-hock laden collards. For the authentic redneck, they even offer tater tots. If you're visiting from Wisconsin, the optional cheddar grits might make for a fine fusion of cultures. The pasta specials, however, are probably best avoided. I found them watery and uninspired, but anyone besides a food critic who orders pasta in a beer joint should have his head examined.

The place will not inspire who perfer "fine dining" establishments, but that's fine by me. Complaints from those kinds of people would only ruin the ambiance of an otherwise cool place. If you don't want to fetch your own silverware from beside the bar and search around for a bottle of ketchup, then stay away. The Bait and Tackle is about good grub and good music, a place where friends hang out into the late evening of a hot summer night. To be surrounded by exceptional pub food in such an unpretentious atmosphere deserves high praise and an admonition to check it out. Get there before everyone else does.

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