Earlier this year, we spent an incredible week eating and drinking our way through Bilbao and San Sebastián, Spain. In the Basque Country, pintxos (Basque for tapas), rather than traditional meals, rule the restaurant scene. It’s very common to hit up several spots in the course of an evening, having one or two pintxos and glasses of wine at each before moving on to the next stop. Our nightly pintxos crawls were the highlights of our trip, enabling us to try a huge variety of restaurants and food in a limited amount of time – essential in a foodie mecca like San Sebastián.
Here in Charleston, we have a similar embarrassment of culinary riches. There are so many incredible restaurants in town, but with a three-year-old and two full work schedules, our time is fairly limited. So on our most recent date night, we decided to turn our evening into a pintxos crawl. We picked three favorite Upper King restaurants we hadn’t visited in a while, ordered small plates and wines by the glass at each, and then capped off our evening with a refreshing dessert at a new-to-us popsicle shop. It was a great – and delicious – change of pace (and palate)!
Stop #1: The Ordinary
With temperatures in the nineties and humidity to match, we knew we wanted to start our evening with something (or several somethings) COLD. The Ordinary – with its raw bar and impressive wine list – fit the bill perfectly. With two glasses of white firmly in hand (Muscadet for Nina and Chenin Blanc for Tyler, both French), we began picking our bartender’s brain on the evening’s oyster selection. With her advice, we went with an even dozen, divided equally (and in increasing order of potency) among Single Ladies from South Carolina, Savage Blondes from Prince Edward Island and Pemaquids from Maine. The local oysters were great, reminding us of the Ace Basin Blades we enjoy as much as possible during the “R” months (i.e., the typical South Carolina oyster season). The Savage Blondes, though noticeably smaller, offered a bit more salinity. Our favorites were definitely the Pemaquids, which had a nice heft and a good punch of saltiness. House-made horseradish, cocktail sauce, red wine mignonette and a seasonal cantaloupe mignonette accompanied the platter; each was delicious and enhanced the oysters in its own way.
The Ordinary is one of our favorite spots to kick off an evening out, though it’s worth noting that the pleasures here don’t come cheap – our order came to $66 before tip, so we chose to continue on to for our second (and third) courses. That said, the oysters and wine were exactly the refreshing, light start to our crawl we’d wanted, and we definitely plan to return soon.
Stop #2: The Grocery
After a thirty-second walk across King Street, we grabbed seats at The Grocery’s bar and ordered two more glasses of wine (a Spanish Granatxa for Tyler and a Californian rosé blend for Nina). We arrived right at the end of happy hour pricing for bar snacks, so we quickly ordered the shishito peppers and the burrata. The shishito peppers came exactly as we’d hoped, in the classic Spanish preparation: blistered on a screaming hot skillet, then liberally seasoned with quality olive oil and flaky salt. Needless to say, it didn’t take us long to reduce them to a pile of oil-stained pepper stems. The burrata dish came with a golf ball sized mound of the cream-laden cheese, surrounded by sauteed lunchbox peppers, black currants, slivered almonds and a simple herb salad. Toasted garlic bread served as a useful, delicious accompaniment and was quickly devoured after being slathered with cheese and heaped with the pepper mixture. We debated putting in an order for a second portion but instead decided to make our way southward along King Street.
Stop #3: Indaco
We again headed back across King Street to Indaco, which we were surprised to see was nearly full to capacity at 8:00 on a summer Wednesday evening. We quickly snagged the last two seats at the bar and ordered our final round of wine (a Vespolina from the Piedmont for Nina and a Nero d’Avola/Merlot/Syrah/Cab Franc blend from Sicily for Tyler). Indaco offers up a creative menu most akin to a classic Italian trattoria, with antipasti, pastas and wood-fired pizzas filling the menu. We don’t come here often (as we mentioned, so many restaurants, so little time!), but we’re always impressed when we do.
We originally planned to share a pasta dish, but after perusing the menu, we called an audible and went with the polpette and a grilled corn pizza. The polpette (Italian for meatballs) came out first and were nothing shy of fantastic. The meatballs were straight out of a nonna’s kitchen: slow braised in a San Marzano tomato sauce with a big hit of rosemary and a healthy dusting of Pecorino Romano. This was hearty and comforting fare, lacking only a few slices of bread to sop up the incredible sauce.
Shortly thereafter, the pizza emerged from the wood oven with a bubbling and blistered crust, studded with grilled corn and sliced shishito peppers and covered in a thick blanket of mozzarella and Taleggio cheese. The unexpected preparation of the shishitos was delicious; their slightly acidic bite and heat perfectly counterbalanced the richness of the cheese, and the roasted corn added a nice, sweet crunch. Even after so many previous plates, we had no issue devouring the entire, generously-sized pie.
Stop #4: Crooked Crown
After five dishes at three restaurants, we chose to end our evening with a quick, fun dessert. Crooked Crown, the brick-and-mortar outpost King of Pops (a local favorite popsicle cart), offers both alcoholic and non-alcoholic pops, cocktails with pops (next time!) and a small, rotating food menu. We went with boozy popsicles: watermelon mojito and apple cider. Light and refreshing, with both sweet and tart flavors and a noticeable but not overpowering punch of alcohol, they were the perfect accompaniment on our short walk back to the car through the humid Charleston air.
Our pintxos crawl may have been more substantial and expensive than a similar jaunt through San Sebastián, but it was a great way to re-acquaint ourselves with a few of Upper King’s great restaurants. Even better, thanks to Charleston’s restaurant density, we were able to do maximal eating with minimal walking! We’ll definitely be trying it again soon – donde vamos la próxima vez?
The Ordinary website
544 King Street, Charleston, SC
Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday; closed Monday
The Grocery website
4 Cannon Street, Charleston, SC
Open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday and Sunday brunch; closed Monday
526 King Street, Charleston, SC
Open for dinner daily
Crooked Crown website
21 Spring Street, Charleston, SC
Open daily; hours vary by season