RESTAURANT REVIEW: El Bohio 

Hip Hip Havana

El Bohio
Cuban/Caribbean
James Island
1977 Maybank Hwy.
571-4343

I was skeptical, I'll admit it. Restaurants and rock music clubs generally don't work well together. Spaces shared by chain-smoking, beer-spilling party fans don't typically lend themselves to dining. When I heard the new Pour House was adding a Cuban restaurant to one side of the building, I had to see for myself.

The new version of the Pour House now sits on Maybank Highway where Easterby's Family Grille once was. It's a nice room for seeing a local or traveling band, where the drinks and the good times flow, and a welcome addition to James Island. The layout of the building lends itself to having a restaurant occupy one end, as that end has its own entrance from the street as well as access to the large kitchen.

The transition from Easterby's bar into El Bohio has been a happy one. A half-dozen nice, large booths line the walls, while a few four-tops fill the floor. The ten-stool bar lines one wall, and a door leads to the music room, I guess you'd call it. We arrived at 6:30 on a Friday night to find the room more than half-full, and the sounds of Colonel Bruce Hampton and The Code Talkers at their soundcheck pleasantly coming through the (closed) music room door.

It's a Cuban restaurant, and the menu reflects their motto, "Cuban Home Cooking." Divided into appetizer, sandwich, and plates, each section seems to have a just-right number of options in each category. While checking out the oversized menu, our server popped by to fetch us some drinks. There are a lot of beers on tap — maybe 15 or 18 and that's just on tap, and getting the server to list them is kind of an ordeal. I ordered up an Anchor Steam draft and thought to myself that writing down what beers you sell on, say, a menu might be a strong move for the owners to make. I am sure customers and servers alike would appreciate it.

We also ordered two tamales (one order, $3.50), an order of croquetas ($3.50), a couple of empanadas ($2 each), and some Papas Rellenas ($3.50 for 3). Fortunately, these are all pretty small items, which arrived at seemingly random times. We were sharing everything, so it was no big deal to us. Had we not been sharing, this would have produced annoying waits for everyone to be served. I'm just saying.

The croquetas were fine — nothing to write home about, but hot, crispy, and relatively tasty, filled with a hard-to-identify mixture of ground meat. The Papas Rellenas were fried potato dumplings, basically mashed potatoes surrounding a similar (if not identical) ground meat filling, and similarly inspired few comments pro or con. The tamales were constructed with the meat bafflingly placed on top of the unstuffed lump of masa. A shame to find a boring filling with such a pretty exterior. The empanadas were clear winners of the first course, fried to a fine, crisp golden brown and stuffed with a delicious, spicy blend of ground meat and more. Nice.

Entrées brought us three sandwiches and one "plate." The sandwiches were all of the pressed variety, squashed in a flat press. The bread was a key feature of each sandwich, with a smooth exterior made just crunchy enough by the press, and soft and moist beyond. The Pan Con Pollo ($6) was, unsurprisingly, a chicken sandwich — grilled onions, lettuce and tomato, grilled chicken breast, not too big or too small — which came with fries that looked impossibly rare, but proved to somehow have a little crispness. A very serviceable sandwich at a very reasonable price. Likewise with the Cuban sandwich ($6.25) — ham and pork pressed up the same way, with those same raw-looking fries — fairly generously portioned and satisfying. I ate the whole thing.

My date wasn't too pleased with her 'Elena Ruz' ($6) sandwich, and one might guess why from the description — turkey, cream cheese, and strawberry preserves. This is a sandwich you will either love or hate — she hated it, but I loved it. The Pollo a La Parilla ($8.50) plate served up a grilled chicken breast alongside plantain chips, black beans and rice, and had the distinction of being the only dish served that night on an actual china plate (everything else arrived on paper or in a basket). The chicken was lightly seasoned, bore nice grill marks, and was cooked properly. Another solid value, too.

As we rose to leave, I looked over at Colonel Bruce Hampton, done with his soundcheck and tucking into dinner in the next booth. I looked at his plate, looked back at him, and raised my eyebrows enquiringly. He gave me a thumbs-up and went right back to eating — I couldn't have put it better myself. The food is good, the beer is cold (and varied) and overall, El Bohio is a great value.

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