Abe's Oyster House
713 Coleman Blvd.
Entrée Prices: Inexpensive ($5-$14)
Serving: Dinner (Mon.-Fri.), Lunch & Dinner (Sat.-Sun.)
I'm not quite sure what to make of Abe's Oyster House in Mt. Pleasant. Maybe I expected too much.
I'd been watching eagerly as the old yellow building on Coleman Boulevard was refurbished. For three decades it had been the home of Luna Rossa pizzeria, until its owners retired back in May. When the brown sign with "Abe's" on it in cartoonish red letters appeared out front, I thought, "Mt. Pleasant really could use a good oyster house." I wondered which direction they would take it. Upscale, with lots of chrome and stainless steel and rows of fresh-shucked shellfish laid out on beds of gleaming ice? Or, maybe more old-school, like Boston's Union Oyster House and its centuries-old brown wood and comfortingly-cramped interior.
Abe's certainly didn't go the upscale route. It's pretty bare bones inside, just a big rectangular room with booths along the front wall, tables in the middle, and a long bar across the back. The booths are the uncomfortable kind with straight backs and bare wood benches. At night, it's quite dark inside, with overhead lighting placed without much thought to the tables below, making it hard to read the menu and see what you're eating. The service is friendly enough but slow and spotty, with long breaks between beers and a lot of memorized-and-then-forgotten-so-I-have-to-come-back-and-ask-again orders.
In my book, none of these things are necessarily a knock against a restaurant. They are all characteristics of many of this country's great local dives — places that are frumpy and short on pretension but still manage to find a place in your heart. But for it to work, the food has to shine through.
At Abe's, of course, oysters are front and center. The selection rotates. On my recent visits it included Apalachicolas, Chesapeakes, and Malpeques, along with local Bull's Bays, which I had to skip since they come in clusters and can only be served steamed, and I'm a die-hard raw oyster guy.
Abe's oyster presentation is about as basic as it gets. They come out on round plastic trays with a layer of crushed iced beneath the half shells. There's a slice of lemon and plastic cups of cocktail sauce and horseradish with plain saltines on the side. The Chesapeakes ($8 for a half-dozen, $14 for a dozen) are big and mild and need a little goosing from hot sauce and lemon, while the smaller Malpeques ($10 for six) are brinier and more flavorful. They are enjoyable, but not remarkable enough to write home about.
Beneath the ice on the green tray a small red star caught my attention and revealed that the oyster dish was actually an old tray, complete with a cork ring around the edge and a half worn away Heineken logo. On the one hand, that's the kind of thing you might find at a classic old oyster dive ("they serve their oysters on old bar trays!"). On the other hand, it's kind of gross.
All in all, the oysters service is workmanlike and competent, but the rest of the menu doesn't hold up too well. There's a routine selection of sandwiches that runs the gamut from reubens to French dips, plus bar fare like chicken fingers, nachos, and wings. A cup of gumbo is usually a nice accompaniment to oysters. Abe's version ($4 cup, $6 bowl) is warm and filling, with lots of white rice and chunks of chicken and sausage, but there's not a trace of roux, and it relies on industrial-strength spices for flavor.
The sliders ($6) are bare bones, too — just beef and cheese and bun. My first bite had a big hit of the unmistakable flavor of flame-grilled beef, but after a few more bites I realized that the balance just wasn't there. They had a little too much bun, and they really could use some pickle or onion to pick things up. To top it off, despite the charred exterior, the patty was quite rare in the middle. I certainly don't mind a medium rare burger, but since no one had asked me how I wanted it cooked, I can only assume the underdone beef was unintentional. Between that and the overly puffy bun, the slider texture was just all wrong.
And speaking of all wrong, the tuna tacos (2 for $7 or 3 for $10) are served on plain old flour tortillas with black grill marks, and the first bite slams you with a sickly-sweet blast. Further inspection (not easy in the dim light) reveals a few thin strips of tuna doctored up with ultra-sugary coleslaw. There are blue cheese crumbles in there, too, but as pungent as blue cheese is, you can't even detect it amid the overwhelming sweetness of the slaw. Restaurants can screw up coleslaw in any number of ways — too much mayo, not enough flavor, or way too much of one flavor, like celery seeds — but I've never before seen anyone appear to try to transform cabbage into a dessert. If the dollop on the taco isn't enough, there's an additional cup of it served on the side. There are also little plastic cups of guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo, but these are really better suited for beef and chicken tacos and do little to help out the tuna variety.
I'll give Abe's this: with almost a dozen flat screen televisions lining the walls and 10 good beers on tap, it's a fine place to watch college football on a Saturday afternoon, and maybe even have a dozen oysters while you're at it. But it's got a long way to go on the culinary front.
Maybe it just needs more time. Great local dives have to age so that their starker features mellow and their flaws evolve into quirks. I'll wait a few years and see how things go.