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Friday, April 15, 2011

Dining in Charleston - Bowens Island Oyster Roast

I lived in Charleston from 1964 until 1971 while attending school, leaving to attend college at Furman University.

During this time, I ate a lot of seafood, all of it fried.

Some of my earliest memories are of trips to NC, we would occasionally stop at Calabash, which is advertises itself as 'The Seafood Capital of the World', and I suspect, at least from a per-capita standpoint, that may be correct. While at Calabash, I would usually order the steamed oysters, which were served on a tray still in their shells, which had opened from the steam. They were hot, tender and flavorful. There was a hole cut into the middle of the table where everyone would throw their empty shells.

So it was with great anticipation that we were going to Bowens Island Oyster Roast!

Our arrival is around 6:00 PM, Wednesday, April 13 2011.

The restaurant itself is located on the south side of the James Island - Folly Beach road. The pavement ends about 3/4 of the way into the restaurant, so the final stretch is on a dirt road. Parking is to the right where the road runs runs out at the river.

It's a jumble of buildings, none of which appear to have ever been painted. Looking around trying to figure out where to go, we spotted a huge ramp, the most dominate feature, so we proceeded up the ramp to the top, which is a 2nd floor screened in area. A few of the tables had people at them. No one said anything, so we proceeded to one of the tables and waited. No menus were in evidence. Finally, a young woman (Heather) called out to us to come over to the left side of the bar, where we could view a menu and place our orders.

We decided we would each have a tray of roasted oysters, at $14.50 each. We placed our orders, were given a ticket with "2" on it, and were told to go downstairs(!) to pick up our orders.

So down we trudged, this time using the stairs instead of the loooong ramp.

On entering, we were greeted with a view of two rooms, both as bare as could be, with lots of old wooden self-made tables with holes in the middle - oyster tables!

We met Dale, and handed him our "2" ticket, and sat down. While there, we decided we would just eat down there, as we could watch Dale cook the oysters.

Dale cooks his oysters over a sheet of plate steel, under which are several gas burners, and over which is spread a wet burlap bag to produce and retain steam. This was the first time I had ever seen this arrangement before; I've seen oysters over coals with burlap, but never on sheet steal over gas burners. An interesting innovation. I noted there were already oysters on the sheet; Dale turned up the gas to get the steam going.

Dale delivered our oysters to us via one serving each from a large, new steel shovel. They were in clusters. They had been washed on the outside, so no mud was apparent.

If you haven't had oysters served this way, then you will occasionally be surprised to open an oyster and find it completely full of mud. This is going to happen in clusters, so get used to it; just toss it away and look for another.

After trying a couple, all of which were cool, I called Dale over and told him they were too cold to eat. Dale tossed both of our servings away, and started a new batch for us.

He soon arrived with two new batches for us - these were hot and good. As is typical with roasted oysters, the heat is uneven, so some oysters are cooked more than others. We had many that were over cooked (small, dried up things), some that could have used a little longer in the heat, and some that were just right. There are plenty of oysters, so even if you toss the ones that aren't cooked to your liking, you'll have plenty of oysters.

The area we were eating in is at ground level, on the march, concrete walls and floor. All of the juices from opening the oysters ends up on the floor, so this is a high humidity area, that smells of oysters.

We noted 'no-see-ums', which are small biting gnats that frequent marsh areas. Nothing new here with that, but it's made worse by the high humidity in this area. If we had been smaller, they would have carried us off.

They were terrible. I mentioned to Dale how bad they were, and he went searching for some "Off!" bug repellent. My wife, with more skin showing than me, used it; I elected to just get bitten rather than use it. They got into our hair, then crawled around on our scalps. They bit everything they could get to. I rubbed my hair and scalp the rest of the evening!

As soon as we could, we finished up our oysters and moved upstairs. We would have liked to have hung out more on the ground floor with Dale, but it was too much - too much humidity, too much smells, and way too much biting gnats!

Moving upstairs, we noted almost all of the tables were now full.

The outside porch, which overlooks the marsh and river, looked inviting with hardly any people, as did the setting sun, so we took a couple of beers and wandered out onto the porch. I thought the 2nd floor location would give us a respite from the gnats, but I was wrong, wrong, wrong! We stayed outside long enough to take a couple of pictures, then went back inside.

Inside, we sat at the bar, where we could have easier access to the bar maid. This was an issue because our bar maid was the only person taking orders and supplying drinks. The 'order station' was backed up about 20 feet, almost to the door. She was working as hard as she could go, and doing a fine job of it, but it appeared to us that you would have a 30 minute wait before you would be able to place your order, get your ticket, and trudge downstairs then back upstairs with your oysters. However, if you ordered anything other than roasted oysters, e.g., fried seafood, they were brought to you at your table.

So, would we go back? Maybe. I don't think we would do the roasted oysters again, but the fried seafood was saw being served looked like it had been cooked well, so we might come back for that. But we would definitely eat upstairs and not go downstairs, because the gnats are just too bad.

I wouldn't order the roasted oysters for several reasons.

I host large parties back at our home, serving 25 - 30 people steamed oysters (not roasted oysters). Using steam, I can cook every oyster to perfection, as the heat is uniform throughout. The steam also carries away any left over mud off of the shell exterior, so they are also cleaner.

My way is a superior method, resulting in hot, sweet cooked oysters - why would I want them any other way?

Would I recommend this place? Yes, particularly if you had never been around some of the old oyster houses. But I would recommend long sleeves, long pants with socks, a baseball hat, and liberal doses of 'Off!' before attempting!

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