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Despite its kitschy names and flashy accents, RuRu's falls short on flavor

Alright, Alright, Alright

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There's nothing really bad about RuRu's Tacos + Tequila, the Mexican restaurant that opened at 159 East Bay Street back in February.

It's a nicely decorated space. For instance, there's the large dining room with high ceilings, white walls hung with colorful paintings that blend vaguely Mexican images — a bull, a bouquet of flowers — with Charleston street scenes, all painted in bold reds, oranges, yellows, and blues. The wooden booths, which have slightly arched backs and soft tan cushions, are spacious and comfortable.

There's lots to choose from, too: nine appetizers; three salads; four options each for quesadillas, fajitas, burritos, and bowls; and a full slate of 13 tacos, each of which is given a kitschy name that's a quote or character from various movies and television shows.

Those who have eaten at one of the 700 or so outlets in the Moe's Southwest Grill chain might recognize that naming scheme. RuRu's is the brainchild of Martin Sprock, who co-founded Moe's in 2000 and sold it to Roark Capital in 2007. He opened the first RuRu's in Charlotte in 2014 and it's done so well there that he decided to replicate the concept here in Charleston.

The colorful paintings and a little exposed brick add a Lowcountry accent to the setting, but one feature remains relentlessly true to the Charlotte original: the menu. And I'm not just talking about the selection of dishes but the physical menu itself.

On the appetizer list, the "Get in My Belly" (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, $7.99) caught my eye: a bacon-wrapped hotdog with black beans on sweet bread. I tried to get one in my belly, but I was informed with an apology that that particular item was available only in Charlotte, since the restaurant had been unable to find a baker to supply the sweet bread here in Charleston.

I understand being unable to source the bread, but I'm pretty sure Charleston has commercial print shops or, failing that, a store that sells Wite-Out.

That's not the menu's only problem. The clever quote-y names seem fun until you try to scan the page and see what jumps out. You have to stop and read the fine print to learn "Fat Guy In A Little Coat" (Tommy Boy, $4.49), is a skirt steak taco. I know it was G. Gordon Liddy who said, "It's All Ball Bearings" (Fletch, $11.99), but I have no idea what it has to do with a chicken, white bean, and rice bowl.

To worsen matters, many of the names invoke an ingredient that's not in the actual dish. No apples are rolled inside the "How Do You Like Them Apples" burrito (Good Will Hunting, $11), just grilled chicken breast, rice, and beans. The "But It's Shark Week" taco (who the hell knows, $4) has not shark but crispy buffalo chicken instead, along with cheddar and ranch. There's no duck in the "Long Duck Dong" taco (Sixteen Candles, $4.50), much less any dongs. It's actually a steak taco, though it's Korean-style sweet and spicy steak, so it does manage to evoke a crude ethnic caricature that seemed hilarious back in 1984.

On the bright side, I don't know why one would call a bowl of guacamole "Ma The Meat Loaf" (Wedding Crashers, $8), but it's enjoyable — smooth and creamy but with a few avocado chunks and a bright touch of citrus. The "I Am McLovin'" queso (Superbad, $7) is mild and rich, though also very thin and prone to sprinkle little white droplets all over the table as you race a dipped chip to your mouth.

All the tacos come by default on warm, soft flour tortillas, though you can ask for corn instead.

The "It Was the Dukes" taco (Dukes of Hazzard . . . No, wait, Trading Places, $3.99) has a thin connection to its namesake film, since it features slow-cooked pork belly, which is pulled into soft, tender shreds and layered over thickly shredded coleslaw with a very spicy orange dressing.

That's a pattern repeated in many of the tacos: layers of binary flavors that are either meekly mild or blasted with heavy-handed spice. I poked around in the Dukes with a fork and discovered a few bits of green cilantro secreted away inside, but I couldn't taste them over the slaw's spicy howl.

The duck taco (that is, Korean beef) has a very sweet first bite, but the slaw adds a nice crunch. It's among the best two of the lot, along with the "Lookin' Good Louis" (Trading Places again, $4.50), which strikes a welcome balance of texture and flavor with Southwest-seasoned shrimp, cool and crisp pico de gallo, and a light squiggle of chipotle aioli.

Ruru’s opened in Charlotte before bringing the formula to East Bay Street - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Ruru’s opened in Charlotte before bringing the formula to East Bay Street

To the extent that RuRu's has a concept, it seems muddled. Its website boldly declares "Authentic Mexican Cuisine," but copy elsewhere qualifies it as "Mexican-inspired" and then notes "Although it's Mexican on the menu, RuRu's draws inspiration from Latin, Korean, American and Greek fare." Huh?

I've been impressed at other recently opened Charleston restaurants by how thoroughly the proprietors have thought through every last detail of setting and style, down to the table linens and the coasters for the cocktails.

RuRu's seems to come from a slightly earlier era, when theme was more of a veneer. The irregularly shaped stoneware bowls and plates, with pale red and blue glazes, add a dose of stylish color to the table, but the rest — basic flatware wrapped in white poly-blend napkins, standard-issue shaker pints for water and beers, old fashioned glasses for the margaritas — seems rather generic.

As for those margaritas, the "Friend Zone" house version (Friends, $8) is solid, with fresh lime flavor and an accent of orange, but the more creative cocktails are puzzling. I don't think the "Fake Chow" (you don't want to know, $12) is supposed to be layered, but the first sip is all tequila and orange bitters and it gets sweeter and sweeter with each sip. The "I Told You She Was Going to Yak" (The Wedding Singer, $10) combines two bold, distinctive flavors — mezcal and ginger beer — that somehow cancel each other out and fade into nothingness amid lime and peach puree. All three are handicapped by being served over flat squares of machine ice. And really, guys, those names . . .

I try to be optimistic. In theory, there's no reason why a "concept" germinated in Charlotte couldn't be transplanted to Charleston and really knock our socks off with bold but nuanced flavors and unexpectedly daring combinations. It just never seems to happen. In any case, here in Charleston, especially in the heart of East Bay's restaurant row, using fresh ingredients and making your own salsa and margarita mix is not exactly cutting edge.

At RuRu's, the combinations seem predictable and the flavors uninspired, with a little sweet-and-spicy sauce and chipotle aioli about as edgy as it gets. Maybe it all goes back to the names of the dishes themselves. Everything seems clever and bright on the surface but it doesn't really connect to what arrives on the plate.

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