Santi’s A Tale of Two Cities
The original Santi's, on Meeting Street, has been around for quite some time. It took them opening their newest location, in Mount Pleasant, to reinvigorate my curiosity. So, on a mission, I ventured out in the summer heat to the beloved Santi's on the South Side of the Ravenel.
In an eager dash to hit both spots before the dreaded witching hour of work, I arrived at 11 a.m. on the dot. Their sign was still off, and for a brief moment I feared my plan had been shot to hell. I made my friend "hop out and tug on the door", but as she obliged a nice young man assured her, "We are open!" I loosened a belt notch in preparation for the two lunch gustation that was ahead.
Once inside, it was time to decide how to launch a fair compare/contrast Dine or Dash that would feature not one, but two spots. I didn't feel that having two totally different meals would really showcase their consistency, but I was also torn about the fact that … well if its good, it should all be good.
As we sat with the menus before us, and no decision in mind … we sprung for a couple lime margaritas on the rocks … they couldn't hurt the process. The lunch menu featured twelve to fifteen items. We debated back and forth until I finally knew what had to be done. Tamales.
I have not ordered a Tamal since I left Birmingham, Al. I cooked side by side with a guy named Javier who had a friend that made the most incredible Tamales, fresh every week. There were two options, red or green-both would have pork. I always requested the green … with its slow serrano heat and vibrant cilantro flare. Once I saw that Santi's offered these in three different styles: ranchero, green, or red and also with the option of chicken or pork, my mind was made up. I opted for what I knew best … green and pork, hoping I would get a slight glimmer of my old home. Within minutes our dishes arrived. Lunch #1 had begun. The Tamale's outside "masa", (a corn dough typically steamed in a corn husk wrapper) was moist and fork tender, while the pork insides poured out of it the way it should. The verde sauce that accompanied it was full of that spice and effervescence that I described earlier. I was a happy girl.
My friend decided upon Beef Flautas. The closest thing she'd ever had to this particular dish was "taquitas" from the freezer aisle of the Piggly Wiggly. Needless to say, the dish was a revelation for her. As much as she enjoyed the food, I actually think the ambience of the place ran a close second in captivating her. She kept babbling about a retro-chic Mexicano feel. It was her first time at Santi's and I got what she was saying. There is a sort of funky, authentic vibe in the place that leaves you a bit off kilter, yet oddly comfortable.
Neither my friend or I were as enthusiastic on the other side of the Ravenel. The ambiance was pleasant but you knew it was something else before. Sometimes changing restaurant concepts in a single space is like fitting a square peg in a round hole. The staff was more inviting-with an obvious "we just opened" attitude. The manager even swung by and apologized for the heat and said it would be under control by the following week. I politely replied with a, "It's July in Charleston."
Admittedly my friend always orders tacos at Mexican restaurants. The American way - crunchy shell with all the trimmings. She stepped outside the box and tried a Mexican taco — soft tortilla, spiced beef, cilantro and fresh lime. It was simple and fresh and each ingredient shone brightly. She felt that maybe the beef was a little dry, but she would definitely try it again.
I stuck to the Tamal agenda and ordered a single Ranchero, again with pork. This time it came to me by the third, maybe fourth server. It was clear that it was not going to be the same as my previous experience. The Ranchero was deflated and stiff and crumbled like overcooked cornbread at the touch of my fork. This Ranchero was just, 'eh, okay.
While I appreciated their positive energy (that even made me forget about my wobbly table) at the new comer in Mt. P, I was undoubtedly miffed by their lack of consistency. For those Santi's aficionados and those that have yet to try either, I