Eclectic Fare at ACME Lowcountry Cantina
My first experience at ACME Lowcountry Cantina was just a pit stop with a friend for summer refreshments; a convenient and shady respite from the hot sun. The AC was on, the TV’s were tuned to sports and there was a Stormtrooper flag hanging on the ceiling… I knew we were in the right place. Our bartender poured us two SweetWater 420 pale ales and we started to make friends with the regulars. While we relaxed, I did some extra-sensory monitoring of a nearby plate of wings, which looked and smelled awesome. We left feeling recharged and I promised myself I’d be back to check out the food. This past week I did return, wondering what kind of dishes were on the menu. Every place I know called “ACME” is a bar with basic pub food. When I think of “lowcountry” I look forward to shrimp and grits and fried okra, and when I hear “cantina” I expect margaritas, burritos, neon signs and fiesta-ware. ACME Lowcountry Cantina delivers all of those things, and despite two pleasant experiences, I have spent all week wondering how to endorse it.
For starters, entering the appropriate portion of the restaurant seemed trickier than it should have been. One of two doors led through a hallway to an empty host stand, and the other to the cozy bar where I’d spent my first visit. I’d scoped out the screen porch and decided to go in that side, but it was under construction. I turned back to the empty host stand and without inquiring about my seating preference, the staff quickly brought us to a booth in the dining room. It is decorated with the same wooden fish and seashore knickknacks as pretty much every other restaurant on Isle of Palms. The drab wooden walls and chilly temperature made me wish the porch wasn’t a construction zone, as it seemed like a more welcoming place to enjoy a plate of wings and a beer. There are definitely two distinct sections at ACME, the “Lowcountry” dining room for family meals and the “Cantina” bar and porch for getting a little more rowdy.
Things got more confusing with the menus, of which there are three; breakfast, lunch and dinner, all offered 7 days a week. The dinner menu offers 17 types of wings plus pasta, tacos, salads and nine sandwich preparations, which you can get with chicken or as a burger. Then there are 18 entrees, including five different surf and turf combos and a dozen sides. All those choices become tedious. Italian dishes like Flounder Piccatta and Shrimp Primavera don’t really fit with the rest of the “lowcountry cantina” theme. And speaking of the theme, the Lowcountry Eggroll didn’t sound bad, but they could have at least called it a taquito to fit the cantina concept.
We decided to ask our server to help narrow down our choices, hoping she’d steer us towards the lowcounty dishes, or towards the pub fare. I was disappointed when her recommendations fell all across the board because it didn’t help eliminate choices, but I’m not going to fault her since the overcrowded menu is really to blame. Finally, we decided on the tasso-crusted scallop special, the fried okra special, 3 types of wings, The Hunley combo and the Carolina Succotash.
The scallops were served over a bed of wilted local arugula. I personally prefer a bit more kick from tasso, but the subtlety here helped preserve the mild sweetness of the three nicely sized scallops. The okra was exactly as advertised and the chipotle-avocado sauce provided a sufficient amount of spice to perk up my palate. The wings were basic Hot, Cajun and “Baby Mama”, the latter of which were named for a pregnant bartender who kept asking Chef Klein to fulfill her cravings for garlic/teriyaki/buffalo wings. All three were just as juicy, crunchy and delicious as they looked.
Our main entrée, The Hunley, is named after the H.L. Hunley submarine, the first sub to ever sink a ship. Well this dish will sink a human. The 8 oz strip was of no special provenance, but was cooked beautifully and topped with truffle butter, which didn’t hurt. Accompanying the steak were two petite lobster tails, some local shrimp and a crab cake with dijon caper aioli… and a side of pimento cheese grits… and collards. The seafood was all cooked perfectly and I was excited about seeing a non-deviled crab cake in South Carolina though the dijon in the aioli was totally overwhelming, the cake had good texture and flavor on its own. The grits were less exciting than expected, actually somewhat bland, and the collards had too strong of a flavor and competed with everything else on the plate. At $28, The Hunley could be split between two adults and be considered a bargain. But a place which looks and feels as casual as this has no business serving a dish meant for one at that price. The Hunley is a good representation of what’s not working at ACME… it not bad, just a little overwhelming and lacking focus.
The highlight of our meal was the Carolina Succotash, which came highly recommended by the server. The combo of local shrimp, legumes and cream was delicious. I kept losing the location of my shrimp against the orange color of the plate, but they were so plentiful and flavorful that it was hard to miss one every time I took a bite.
In the end, the majority of what we ate was seafood, and each piece, though not always local, was fresh, flavorful and prepared just right, which is really what you want and expect from a restaurant/bar/cantina or anywhere else on the Isle of Palms.
At the end of the meal I had a chance to speak to Chef Klein about his 15+ year history in the local food industry and his influences. He is a delight to chat with and is clearly enthusiastic about experimenting in the kitchen. He explained that much of the menu was held over from the restaurant that previously occupied the same location, a decision made by the restaurateurs in order to retain as much of the clientele as they could… and it stuck. However, he is proud of his contributions to the menu, most of which began as popular specials. The phenomenal succotash demonstrates his ability to create dishes that can steal the show instead of competing with ramshackle beach house décor and neon shutters. Let the dishes do the talking, they really have a fabulous thing going on at Acme Cantina.