A few months ago a round yellow sign with an image of a shrimp strumming a guitar appeared on Ben Sawyer Boulevard, down near the end just before the causeway to Sullivan's where the Island Clubhouse used to be. "Buddy Roe's Shrimp Shack" was the name. I put it on my mental list of restaurants I needed to try someday when I got around to it, but without any sense of urgency. It looked like the kind of place that someone opened up to snare a lot of the vacationer traffic from over on Sullivan's Island.
Then, in July, the New York Post ran a travel piece about classic Lowcountry dining that sort of dissed the downtown white tablecloth joints and suggested that to get the best of the real stuff you needed to head across the bridge to Mt. Pleasant. This was news to me, since I live in Mt. Pleasant but drive downtown to eat every chance I get, but I was happy to take a few easy points for the home team. What really caught my eye, though, was the reporter's raving about Buddy Roe's Shrimp Shack as a "sleeper" with shrimp that was "nothing short of miraculous."
With a plug like that, Buddy Roe's shot quickly to the top of my list. Up and down the South Carolina coast there are any number of delightful little hideaways that serve the best fried chicken, steamed oysters, handmade burgers, and, yes, fried shrimp, too. Sometimes the hardest part is just finding out about them.
So I gave Buddy Roe's a shot. I'm not exactly sure what I learned except that you shouldn't expect a New York journalist to know a miraculous fried shrimp if it smacked her upside the head.
This isn't a knock on Buddy Roe's. You just need to set the right expectations.
Back in March, local singer/guitarist Ronnie Johnson and his wife Kim closed down their Budiroes tavern on Isle of Palms and moved inland to their new digs on Ben Sawyer Boulevard. Along the way, they updated the spelling to "Buddy Roe's" and added the "Shrimp Shack" part. Ronnie performs three nights a week, and local bands and acoustic acts fill the bill on other nights. There's a big bar inside and another tikiesque one outdoors on a wide covered deck; in between is a small dance floor and a stage for the musicians. Big roller doors separate the deck from the interior and when they're raised, you essentially have a single big room that's half inside and half out.
Buddy Roe's is part of an encouraging trend around Charleston: more and more bars are taking their food up a notch and devoting more attention to it. With its shrimp shack theme, Buddy Roe's takes a minimalist approach. Shrimp is the headliner and, like Ronnie himself, it's the local variety. It's featured in a fried shrimp basket, shrimp burger, and shrimp po' boy. Just two salads and four non-shrimp sandwiches form the backup band.
Buddy Roe's shrimp baskets ($11.99) aren't regular fried shrimp but flavored fried shrimp, which means breaded, fried, and then covered in your choice of almost a dozen sauces with flavors like buffalo, sweet bourbon, and lemon pepper. This post-fryer saucing is a preparation I've been seeing more and more lately, but I, for one, don't get it. Local fried shrimp is perfect on its own and doesn't require a crazily flavored sauce, especially if it's something like Buddy Roe's jerk sauce, which tastes just fine but has a powerful blend of Caribbean spices that totally overwhelm the flavor of the shrimp.
Fortunately, it's easy enough to order the sauces on the side, and if you do, you'll find that Buddy Roe's shrimp is pretty good — lightly battered and fried a light golden brown. They are rather small — the ones I had would probably be sold under the "medium" category at one of the Shem Creek shrimp dealers — but there's a fair number of them. Good fried shrimp, but not miraculous.
I have much more unequivocal praise for Buddy Roe's shrimp burger. Here the size of the shrimp don't matter, since they're minced, pattied, battered, and fried. The crispy "burger" is served on a yellowish, Kaiser-like bun with tomato and lettuce, and it's accompanied by a tasty remoulade sauce for dipping. It makes for a crispy, flavorful, and quite enjoyable sandwich.
Most of the side items on the menu are competent if unremarkable. The coleslaw is thick-cut and swimming in sweet mayo sauce along with shreds of carrot and red cabbage. The shoestring fries are your typical fries. At $4.99 a basket, the hushpuppies are priced high enough for one to expect perfection, but they're just regular old hushpuppies that, if anything, could probably use a little extra leavening.
I found the service at Buddy Roe's to be prompt and friendly, and with highchairs, kid's menus, and a miniature golf course outside, you could make the case that it's a family-friendly restaurant. But, it's really a bar and music club and not the best place to go for a cozy, relaxing meal. With the big doors to the deck open, you get a nice indoor-outdoor feel, but you also get heat. To solve that, huge blowers and fans blast cold air all over the place, which keep you from roasting to death but in turn create a loud and rather unnerving eating experience — something akin to dining in a wind tunnel with music blasting around you.
I can't say that the food at Buddy Roe's is good enough to justify a trip out of your way just to eat. Charleston already has more than its fair share of must-try restaurants — both high-end and low — that serve blow-your-mind-good seafood. But, if you're already heading down to Buddy Roe's for the music or for Wednesday night trivia or for a few casual beers, then by all means give the shrimp burger a try — it's good eats and a lot better than what you'll find in your average bar.