In larger cities, finding authentic ethnic food might be as easy as walking down the block, but here the search becomes a bit more of a hunt. A tremendous international population is just simply not in the Charleston demographics. But we say embrace the challenge! There are pockets of multiculturalism; you just need to train your eyes and ears. I checked out little places that I'd always driven past and asked the advice of many fellow food lovers. Sometimes I met with disappointment, but more often than not found pleasant surprises. Please think of this rough map to authentic ethnic as a starting point and open up your mind and palate to dining adventures.
Tienda Mexicana Puentes
Johns Island. 3247 Maybank Hwy.
When I walked into Tienda Mexicana Puentes, the two women looked surprised, and I almost felt as if I had stepped into their living room rather than their Johns Island convenience store. But they cheerfully left their Spanish soap operas and plates of porridge to help me. I asked if they served food, and their expressions grew even more puzzled. Suddenly a light bulb went off and they gave the magic answer, "Oh, yes, tamales." They offered only chicken on this particular day, and I ordered four with hot sauce.
I went no further than my car before digging into the prize. I made quick work of the foil wrapper and found the requisite corn-husk covering. Beneath this lay the tamale itself -- delicate masa filled with spicy chicken. The sweet masa melted on the tongue, and the just-falling-apart chicken provided the perfect foil of heat. The hot sauce resembled none I've ever seen, with an almost creamy consistency (perhaps emulsification with oil brought out this trait), but the flavor was straight hot pepper, probably habañero, and brought the meal together into a delectable, fiery bite.
Tongue Taco and Pork Skin Torta
$1.25 (taco); $5 (torta)
Johns Island. 4455 Betsy Kerrison Pkwy.
At El Jaliciense I took my place in line with young Hispanic men and waited patiently for the girl in the old delivery-van-turned-food-truck to take my order. A dog rolled in the grass at my feet, and loose chickens searched for their own lunch. The truck's parking spot belongs to Rosebank Farms Market (hence the chickens and merry farm atmosphere.) When my turn came to order, I sheepishly spoke loud English and pointed to the menu written on a dry erase board. Luckily, a fellow customer stepped up to translate, and my order seemed successful. I grabbed a soda from a nearby cooler and watched with anticipation as the lunches began to roll out. I caught glimpses of bright, fresh fare as the guys made their way to the folding tables and chairs that surrounded the van. All was quiet, which always strikes me as a good indicator of happy eating, and my excitement grew.
Finally, she called my order, and I retired to my tailgate for a makeshift picnic. I feasted on tongue (lengua) taco and a pork skin (chicharron) sandwich (torta), and I really cannot label one as better or more authentic. Tongue certainly scares off many, but it is a true delicacy when prepared correctly. The tender meat became one with the corn tortilla, and the raw heat of the pico de gallo garnish proved perfect.
A pork skin sandwich might be difficult to imagine, but just think sublime decadence. The pork skin soaked up juices from a medley of tomato, avocado, white onion, pickled jalapeño, and cilantro -- creating a vibrant taste sensation. The pork skin itself seemed to melt on the tongue, confirming its strength as a starring role in sandwich preparation. Be forewarned that the truck parks most days at the Rosebank Farms Market, but there is no set schedule.
Abalone and Black Mushroom Soup
Palais de Jade
$10 (medium bowl)
Mt. Pleasant. 1501 Hwy. 17-N. 216-0972
Palais de Jade bears no resemblance to the stereotypical Chinese-American restaurant we've come to expect. You'll find no garish dragons or pools filled with koi, but instead an almost understated elegance that belies its suburban strip mall location. This sophistication in décor translates to equally elegant dishes -- specifically the abalone and black mushroom soup. Mushrooms are abundant in Chinese cuisine, as they are valued for their flavor and medicinal purposes. Here, the abalone (or oyster mushroom) stands out with a delicate taste that contrasts nicely with the more woodsy black mushroom. Both are cut on the bias into large but manageable slices and served with napa cabbage in a light broth. The ubiquitous Chinese ingredient of cornstarch finds its way into the soup, giving it a full body and velveteen texture. All of these nuanced touches marry well to create a dish that seems almost romantic when shared in the Palais de Jade's cozy banquette.
Three Flavor Fish
$MKT (About $25)
Downtown. 460 King St. 724-3490
One must wonder whether it's possible to find truly authentic ethnic food in a restaurant as wildly popular as Basil. It's easy to imagine that a certain legitimacy comes with the colorful character of beloved holes-in-the-wall rather than the posh environs of a contemporary ethnic restaurant. Yet Basil contradicts such notions by consistently providing fresh Thai dishes with a touch of refinement.
One need look no further than the Three Flavor Fish to find genuine gustatory pleasure. The flounder arrives whole (as promised), which always seems to assure a lack of over-Americanization. Indeed, Three Flavor Fish is a traditional Thai dish (Pla Lat) that contrasts sweet, hot, and sour through the interplay of sugar, chile, fish sauce, and lime juice. One bite confirms that promise. The crispy skin gives way to moist flesh and the sauce coats with a fiery sweetness. The generous garnish of roughly chopped, fresh cilantro finishes the job, cleansing the palate for another round. Be forewarned: you can dictate the heat level of your dish at Basil, and while "medium" provides a nice tickle on the back of the throat. "Thai hot" will deliver quite a punch.
Nirlep Indian Restaurant
West Ashley. 908 Hwy. 17-S. 763-9923
The charming atmosphere at Nirlep sets the mood for an Indian feast from the moment you set foot in the door. Soft lighting plays off the gold and red motif, creating a warm glow about the room. The heady aroma of Indian spices perfumes the entire space -- proving just as inviting as the hardworking family running the show. The father manages the dining room with the help of his older son while the younger boy studies at an empty table. The mother is obviously hard at work in the kitchen, since she does not appear except to deliver my sizzling cast-iron platter of tandoori chicken.
Ordering this dish is a no-brainer as it is considered a staple of Punjabi cuisine (the type of Indian food most commonly found in the United States). Nirlep's menu even gives a brief history of tandoori cooking -- describing the marinating of the meat in sour cream, garlic, lemon juice, and spices before cooking in a tandoor (clay oven.) They claim the roasting "awakens the spices leading to an aromatic burst," and I must agree, as a strong whiff of my dish led to an instant coughing fit. Of course, this seems a sure sign of the goodness to come, and the tender, juicy chicken does not disappoint. The sweet spice of the garam masala (a combination of garlic, ginger, cumin, and cayenne) permeates every bit of the bird, and I am overcome by a blanket of warm, food euphoria. My only advice would be to enhance your experience by also ordering the condiment tray, which provides a nice garnish of salty pickle, mango chutney, and raita (a cooling cucumber sauce).