Shem Creek lights shining on Saltwater Cowboys
“When you think Mt. Pleasant, you think seafood” rings out clearly in my mind, in the inimitable voice of Rial Fitch. At the exact same time, nearly every weekday, I hear Fitch —longtime proprietor of the venerable Mt. Pleasant Seafood — melodically making that pitch on the afternoon radio.
And, for some of us, I hope, he’s right. We live in an era where a child might go from the labor-and-delivery ward all the way to college “living in the Town of Mt. Pleasant.” without ever eating ice cream at Pitt Street Pharmacy, playing at Alhambra or just watching the sun go down on the old bridge. But even as Mt. Pleasant’s population growth continues its inexorable press towards the Francis Marion National Forest, Shem Creek remains at the spiritual heart of the town.
Sure, the local seafood industry isn’t what it once was — if someone’s just looking for some shrimp at a good price, the freezer section of every WalMart in the country is stocked with it by the bagful, straight from some holding tank in Belize or a half-poisoned mangrove swamp in Vietnam. But shrimp is shrimp, right?
Well, no, it’s not. Just ask the aforementioned Mr. Fitch. Or any of the many of the fine folks in this town who’ve worked so hard to keep local foodstuffs on our dinner plates. Thankfully, there are plenty of opportunities to eat local around town … but I’ve found few spots that so beautifully combine dining local and living local than Mt. Pleasant’s Saltwater Cowboys.
Because, while Shem Creek’s seafood harvesting industry is down, its seafood serving industry is in full swing. A beautiful setting, a lively waterfront, ample opportunity to dine indoors, outdoors, or somewhere in between … if some entrepreneur was to put a McDonalds on the edge of the creek, it would have a line stretching out the door come dinnertime.
But Saltwater Cowboys is not McDonalds; it’s the best dining experience I’ve ever had on Shem Creek. Off Mill Street, on the south side of the creek, parking is ample (if a bit bumpy in spots, following all the recent rain) and there are specific spots for golf carts — perfect for those coming from the Old Village. For folks coming from Charleston, you’ll see the large sign atop the roof, boldly denoting the name of the restaurant in all-capital block letters.
And the food is just as bold as the name on the roof — big portions and big flavors abound. After a peek at the main dining room, coastal and contemporary in design, we opted to dine on the deck. The temps were quite bearable for a Lowcountry August and the views, while ample inside, were just too good to be separated from by sheets of glass. The live band played with a understated unobtrusiveness, enhancing the experience while never coming close to overpowering a conversation.
Temps were bearable, yes, but we were in need of beverages. The beer and wine list is varied and plentiful without suffering from the distracting excess that afflicts many similar venues. I chose a Mexican pilsner while my wife opted for the “Geechie Girl,” a chilly tequila-and-blueberry-puree cocktail. I did not know it was possible for a purple margarita to be subtle, but the bartenders managed to do just that here.
There was no subtlety in what came next, the forthrightly-named “Trash Can Nachos.” Like some creekside baked Alaska, this one was all about the presentation; an affable young waiter laughed when he said he did the nacho routine “30 times a day.” For those not in the know, a platter is brought to the table with a metal coffee can on top, filled well above the brim with nachos, beans, peppers, sour cream … you get the idea. The waiter removes the “trash can,” pours out melted cheese over the top (nothing gets soggy between the kitchen and the table) and, voila, enough nachos to feed Patton’s Third Army.
I know “nachos” and “fine dining” seem like they go together like a mule with a spinning wheel, but this was not some generic fast-casual casualty of Guy Fieri’s lamentable influence on American dining. It was a marvel, a marvel for one reason alone … the pulled pork with which it was filled. Saltwater Cowboy’s menu is that of both a seafood restaurant and a barbecue joint, and with three smokers and a range of BBQ fare available, it’s a darn good barbecue joint. That pulled pork, giddily scooped up chip-by-chip, was abundant and oh-so-delicious. Though a range of sauces were at the table, it reminded me of the late J.B.’s of Johns Island — pork so good, no sauce was necessary.
Indeed, the nachos themselves would have been more than a meal, much like the whole place could be rousing success if barbecue was all it served. But it’s not, and that’s reason for further rejoicing. We followed a sampling — okay, an all-out assault — on the nachos with seafood main dishes — local crabs for me; seafood-place-stalwart fried shrimp for she.
My plate was filled to overflowing with fresh local crabs, worth all the work to get to the garlicky goodness inside. The shrimp were perfect, lightly breaded and delicately fried, a far remove from most seafood spots’ tendency to cook all the “brown food” to a crisp sameness. The real rock stars were the sides, and if ever a place needed the Southern meat-and-three “veggie dish” staple, this is it. Past audaciously packaged nachos or punchy cocktails, the sides were simple and delicious. We devoured the red rice, filled with bits of sausage made on site, a creamy and delicious corn pudding and a heap of collard greens. We hit the barbecue sauce basket and applied pepper vinegar to the greens, a personal choice but not necessary for finding flavor.
As we worked on the food, the summer sunshine worked on us, and our full bellies and tired bodies meant we forewent dessert. But with overly generous portions, at notably reasonable prices, Saltwater Cowboys is the sort of place where the remains of one night’s dinner could readily be packaged up for the next day’s lunch. Indeed, with menu options like the Full Smoker — a portion of all the meats they make — one might be wise to plan on just such a move from the start.
But even if the big portions linger (and who’d complain about that?), you’d want to return soon. We certainly do. The service — the one complaint I’d seen other reviewers mention at the restaurant's founding — was top notch. Indeed, our waitress conveyed a passion for her work, a deep knowledge of the menu, and quick-but-genuine conviviality that, just as much as the food or the views, made you want to return. These are the things that take time to suss out, and it appears like the front-of-the-house is now humming along nicely. Even in the context of the establishments around it, this restaurant has tapped into the heart of eating and living in the Lowcountry; Saltwater Cowboys has given us ample reason to continue thinking of seafood — and barbecue — when we think Mt. Pleasant.