With more focus on authentic Caribbean offerings, strip mall refuge JuJu could be the next locals hangout 

Good Juju

click to enlarge The conch fritters appetizer comes with seven round, fried croquettes filled with bits of white onion, red and green bell peppers, and chewy conch

Keely Laughlin

The conch fritters appetizer comes with seven round, fried croquettes filled with bits of white onion, red and green bell peppers, and chewy conch

Despite its residency in the relatively depressing Moultrie Plaza strip mall on Coleman Boulevard, JuJu is a sleek and stylish space. Presumably named for the West African spiritual practice, the sign declares the cuisine to be "Urban American Caribbean Fusion." Considering Caribbean cuisine spans 26 countries and represents a mix of African, European, Latin American, and East Indian cultures, not to mention Creole, Cajun, Chinese, and Native American influences, the broad-reaching description justifies the serving of, well, pretty much anything.

And so it goes. Case in point, the West Indian ahi ($12), which finds five thin, red slices of yellowfin plated with fresh avocado. The edges of the lightly seared tuna are coated with a spicy dry rub and slathered, unfortunately, with a dark orange 'guava drizzle.' The overly sweet coulis is the dish's downfall, and the punchier ingredients of the region ­— pungent garlic, bright citrus, or sharp ginger — would provide a welcome flavor boost.

Conch fritters ($9) are generally associated with the Bahamas, and JuJu's don't disappoint. The seven round, fried croquettes are soft and doughy, filled with bits of white onion, plus red and green bell peppers. The conch itself isn't visible, but the chewy texture comes through. Seasoned with cumin and served with a smoked pepper aioli, it's one of the more authentic appetizers available, standing out among 'fusion' offerings like cheddar cheese and slaw-topped pork sliders ($9) or deviled eggs adorned with fried oysters ($11), the current It Girl of bar menus across the Lowcountry.

When it comes to soup, Caribbean cuisine ranges from earthy green Jamaican pepper pot to sunny yellow Trinidadian squash and corn, but JuJu eschews all that in favor of Gazpacho Olé. A variation on the Spanish classic, the blended raw veggie soup pops with the flavors of fresh tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper, plus raw garlic and piquant wine vinegar. Chunkier and much redder than the traditional almond and olive oil-infused Andalusian standard, this interpretation highlights the vegetables. While the plating is comically pretentious — a single, thin, skewered slice of baguette balances precariously over the soup like an edible tightrope act — the cool dish is still a welcome treat on a warm summer evening.

Even more so on JuJu's gorgeous outdoor patio (adapted from what was, until this past spring, Bambu Asian Bistro) an unexpected Shangri-La. Surrounded by tall, dark fencing, the large, private terrace features a variety of seating options, including a sexy, private cabana with a bubbling fountain. With its koi pond, outdoor bar, and regular live music, it's easy to imagine the extensive outdoor space becoming a popular hangout for locals.

click to enlarge The bajan curry comes with either shellfish or chicken, bell peppers, a mild coconut milk and yellow curry powder-based broth, and white rice - KEELY LAUGHLIN
  • Keely Laughlin
  • The bajan curry comes with either shellfish or chicken, bell peppers, a mild coconut milk and yellow curry powder-based broth, and white rice

The corresponding drink menu is predominantly fruity, focusing mostly on mojitos ($9), mules ($7), and margaritas ($8). There's also a wine list, plus bottles of Kalik ($5) and Red Stripe ($4) beer, among others.

The menu includes several sandwiches, such as the El Cubano ($13) made with sliced pork tenderloin, honey ham, and Swiss cheese. The Mojo ($18) is basically a cheesesteak, with the thinly sliced ribeye replaced with a scattering of tenderloin chunks. Served on a huge, super soft hoagie, the meat is topped with grilled onions, sautéed tomatoes, and fresh lettuce. The description mentions chipotles, but the part was played by a bounty of sliced red and green bell peppers, the flavor of which dominated each bite. Although accompanied by some outstanding hand-cut fries, The Mojo lacks mojo.

My misaligned expectations likely stem from optimism that 'mojo' meant the tart, garlicky marinade and dipping sauce ubiquitous in Puerto Rico and Cuba. Although Chef Juan Hernandez hails from Puerto Rico, there's nary a mofongo or tostone — not to mention a single empanada — on the menu.

There is, however, a flavorful Bajan curry ($18). Served on white rice, six plump shellfish arrive nestled in a mild coconut milk and yellow curry powder-based broth. Redolent with coriander, cumin, and turmeric flavors, there's once again an oversupply of bitter bell peppers dominating the otherwise balanced dish.

click to enlarge KEELY LAUGHLIN
  • Keely Laughlin

The peppers mind their manners, however, as part of a pineapple-based garnish on the jerk platter ($15). The fresh, fruity salsa is served atop a thin, grilled chicken breast. Although perfectly cooked, the tender meat lacks any of the Scotch bonnet heat anticipated with the Jamaican classic. Accompanied by soggy white rice, plus firm black beans in a thin red sauce, the highlight of the plate — if not the menu — are the four slices of fried ripe plantains ($3 as a side). The starchy fruit has a sweet, caramelized outer layer, which gives way to the tender, tart flesh inside. It's a must-order taste of the tropics, and a hint at what could be.

Considering the welcoming, stylish space; enchanting outdoor terrace; and friendly, earnest service from the winsome staff, JuJu has a lot going for it. Still, the largely generic menu seems to be trying to please the masses, which feels like a lost opportunity. With any luck, the chef's roots will eventually prevail, supplanting hackneyed dishes like street corn ($4) and shrimp tacos ($9) with authentic Puerto Rican, Cuban, and other Caribbean fare.

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