Charleston's progressive food scene rivals any this country has to offer, but every so often, it's good to put away the culinary thesaurus, stop puzzling over vast wine lists, and take comfort in the classics.
According to news blurbs, that was the mentality for Josh Clayman when he opened Rollin' South Kitchen. The restaurant would eschew the ceviches, espumas, and bacon foams of Charleston's gastronomic acrobats, and instead offer more familiar favorites: reubens, burgers, steak and eggs, shrimp and grits, corned beef hash, biscuits and gravy, meatball hoagies. Think of it as an old-school deli/diner mash-up —Staten Island meets James Island. The result? Solid, hearty breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner fare. No "light dainty stuff" as Clayman told the City Paper before opening. "No $15 croissants."
Sequestered in an old commercial stretch of Harborview Road, past the unpretentious ranch houses that typify James Island, Rollin' South takes the place of the former Sloppy Cow. A freshly painted rectangular box of a restaurant, the no-frills interior sports exposed duct work, hanging burlap sound-absorbing panels, tall booths, and small tables. Nautical maps and a framed recipe for shrimp pie set the mood, as does a wall stacked with exposed kitchen supplies on open shelves: giant commercial jars of vinegar, syrup, pickles, Duke's mayo. Either they ran out of room in the kitchen, or this is truth in advertising. This is an all-American joint.
I pull up a seat at the aluminum siding-wrapped bar for an early lunch on a slow weekday. An older gentleman diligently works on fixing the hinges to the swinging door leading to the kitchen, through which I spot an industrial size can opener. Bruce Springsteen croons from a single radio behind the counter.
The fellow beside me orders a breakfast sandwich ($6.95) of bologna on white with two eggs and American cheese, and washes it down with a $2 Bud tallboy, no apologies. Now that's old school. I opt for the pimento cheese dip ($4.95), a stick-to-your-ribs classic, dense with grated cheddar and pimento peppers, light on the mayo, served straight up on Captain's Wafers. Nothing deconstructed here. The same simple approach goes for the triple-decker BLT Bubba's Bacon sandwich ($7.95), the smashed burgers (single $6.95, double $8.95, triple $10.95), and loaded chili dogs ($7.95), all buttressed by delicious, fresh-cut shoestring fries, and a Kosher dill pickle, served up no nonsense in a red plastic basket lined with checkerboard paper.
Predictable? Well, no, actually. For all its back-to-basics aspirations, Rollin' South has a few culinary tricks up its sleeve. Sure, there's the Bud Light, but there's also a Goose Island IPA ($5) on draft and a Holy City Pluff Mud Porter ($4). The Reuben You The Right Way ($7.95) consists of house-made corned beef. There's certainly no requirement that they make anything in-house, but they do. Rollin' South house-smokes its juicy pastrami. They make their buttermilk biscuits from scratch. That's house-made smoked jalapeño butter on the steak and eggs ($12.95), house-made blackberry compote on the Sunday brunch French toast (8.95), pecan-smoked bacon on the BLT, local sea salt-rosemary panini sandwiching a portabella ($8.95), and house-made apple butter from an orchard in Hendersonville, N.C., on their lunchtime pancakes (who doesn't want breakfast for lunch?). This is not a Waffle House with laminated combos stained with squeeze-bottle buttery fingerprints. These are basics with a fresh wink, a thinking kitchen whose menus are fresh daily off the printer because they keep changing.
Then there's the "hummus of the day." Clearly this chef isn't satisfied with peeling open industrial tubs of puréed chick peas and slopping it into a bowl, which would have been perfectly acceptable in this casual environment. Instead, Rollin' South subtly ups the ante according to the chef's mood resulting in flavors like garlic, roasted beet, roasted carrot, roasted sweet potato, or smoked jalapeño hummus. It's available as an appetizer ($4.95) or in a wrap cleverly titled Who Ordered a Hummus Wrap? ($6.95). I gobble up the roasted garlic app, humbled by Captain's Wafers and celery sticks.
The Cheesesteak ($7.95) pitches it straight down the middle with juicy, thin-sliced ribeye laced with unctuous mushrooms and caramelized onions. "None of that Cheese Wiz, only real cheese," brags the chipper guy manning the counter. The only disappointment is Libby's Materwich ($4.95), but that's my fault for ordering tomatoes in October. Unfortunately, the Chuck Town Chips ($4.95), a fried pickle chips appetizer, pack a sucker punch of super-concentrated salt. My friendly server talks them up: "100 percent Kosher dill! Hell yeah, baby! Just get a jar and fry 'em up!" That said, they probably could stand to soak them in water first to leach out some of the salt.
The desserts are luscious and plentiful, with daily specials made by local baking team Peter and Elizabeth Perrine's Southern Slice. I take home a fresh, moist, generous slice of hummingbird cake ($4.95/slice) that my family eats on for days and make a note to return for key lime and chocolate cream pies.
Rollin' South doesn't have a website yet, but maybe they don't need one. Their Facebook page is live with daily specials and ambitious, ever-changing dinner dishes such as butternut squash risotto with braised beef short ribs, fried whole flounder with hoppin' john, and smoked pulled-pork or shrimp or flounder tacos with fresh cilantro and quality add-ons such as sliced red cabbage, cotija cheese, smoked jalapeño salsa verde, spicy honey, or Sriracha mayo. The pulled-pork Benedict on a recent brunch menu looks absolutely decadent. And with Southern classics such as she-crab soup ("real crab, real roe!") and shrimp served over white stone-ground grits, this place is sure to be a hit with the weekend brunch crowd.
All in all, Rollin' South mirrors the spirit of James Island beautifully: honest, hard- working, and unpretentious. That's worth a trip across the Connector.