Old themes born anew

Seel's Fish Camp
Lunch, Dinner
Entrées: $5-$10
536 Belle Station Blvd.
Mt. Pleasant

It's certainly not hard to find good seafood around this town. From the beaches to the hot shots downtown, Charleston's fresh catch rivals any city's on the Eastern seaboard. With the popularity of seafood in the area, it comes prepared in numerous guises, tinted in African soul, lavished with French butter, atop grits, and, of course, deliciously fried until crispy and golden.

New establishments specializing in the bounty of the ocean seem to pop up every day. The boys and girls at Seel's Fish Camp represent Mt. Pleasant's newest fish house, frying up everything from whiting to crawfish tails and serving up this basic food group with a sampling of respectable sides.

The place is perched out on Long Point road, at a nexus of development that has seen an extraordinary explosion on the dining front lately. Tucked away between a Sonic drive-in and a super-sized Food Lion, it resides in the dark corner of a cookie-cutter strip center. It seems custom-designed for such a spot, as if the management envisions expansion into a local chain or a national franchise.

If it were 50 years old, the nostalgic signs and faux bait shop fronting the rear wall might feel more authentic, but they shine so brightly one might catch a whiff of drying paint mixed in with the smell of fish and grease. Boxes of fresh potatoes sit stacked against the wall, old-timey sodas wallow within galvanized tubs of ice on the new melamine countertops. You can't blame a place for being new, but with the abundance of similar themes in town, a few grease stains on the wall would inspire more confidence when entering through the plate glass façade.

The feel is casual. Ordering takes place at the counter, next to the all-you-can-guzzle soda fountains and stainless steel tanks of sweet tea. Brand-new booths and squeaky clean tables await diners and their overflowing plastic trays and baskets. The menu offers what one would expect in such a venue. Fried shrimp and french fries, hand-cut from those boxes of potatoes, come served alongside some delicious examples of onion rings (available as an appetizer for $2.95), an interesting cole slaw, and some really good, fresh, seasonal collard greens. Fried, grilled, or sautéed platters, varying in size from regular ($8.95) to the three item "cast net" extravaganza ($13.95) include your choice of catfish, flounder, oysters, crawdads, or even chicken tenders for the nonconformist or unfortunate allergic in the crowd. For lighter appetites, one can procure a "basket" portion, piled high with some really good hushpuppies (I was tempted to ask for the recipe) for just shy of eight bucks.

In addition to the übertraditional platters with sides, one can choose to frame their favorite specimen in po' boy fashion, with all the trimmings. For 50 cents extra, they top the whole mess with barbecue sauce. Hot dogs (single or double) and hamburgers also make an appearance, rounded out with an optional choice of slaw, chili, pimento cheese, or even blue cheese.

Most of this stuff tastes pretty good, if a bit mundane, but a fried fish house needs to have great fried grub and Seel's Fish Camp fails in one egregious spot — they don't properly season the seafood. You could line up a whole collection — oysters, shrimp, crawfish, or flounder — and not taste much difference between bland nibbles. I believe this is due to a lack of seasoning. The ingredients seem to be of decent quality, especially considering the price points, but a fried shrimp devoid of that salty tang and piquant whip of black pepper just doesn't make it far off the boat. If Seel's is going to compete in the rough and tumble market of cheap fried grub, then they better learn to lay down the spice before the grease dries. Otherwise, they may end up out to sea.


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