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This post is basically an addendum to the la nortena post. If you turn left onto Ashley Phosphate from the 26 exit, you will find a small world of authentic Mexican streetfood from a number of carts and vendors and in restaurants as well.

Los Parados Taco Cart: This is the first taco cart I tried on this street. The tacos are similar to those found all along this strip with slow cooked meats, fresh onions and cilantro on a double stack of corn tortillas served with fresh salsas. This stand is good and similar to the one found across the street (though they have hot pickled carrots served on the side). Generally at these places younger employees will be able to communicate in English and older ones will not. But if you know what you want, all you need is to order that item followed by a por favor. The tacos al pastor are always a good choice as well as carnitas (or whatever you are willling to try…lengua, mejilla (beef cheek), tripe…)

Fruit stand cart: This is basically across the street from los parados taco stand and next to another taco stand (the one mentioned above). They sell some food but mostly offer fruits prepared, if you like, with lime juice and chile powder (a common way to eat fruit in Mexico). Try the cut up mango or jicama with lime juice and chile, cut to order on the spot by a nice abuelita.

Los Parados Restaurant: This was my first Mexican experience on Ashley Phosphate, and though I think the quality can be fickle, it serves some authentic stuff like huaraches (fried or grilled fresh corn tortilla cakes topped with meat, queso fresco, avocado…) along with flat tacos, soups, and other staples. I have to say that this place can feel uncomfortable for a gringo–not as clean and peppy as la nortena.

El Progreso Restaurant: Though this is not on Ashley Phosphate (It’s on Remount) it deserves comment–it fits into this category pretty well. Progreso has a lunch buffet that I would stay away from but does have good huaraches piled high with meat and fixings, all served to us by a very cynical puerto rican waitress who made us laugh by telling us not to order anything and asking why we liked this food.

La Nortena Restaurant: The Nortena on Ashley Phoshate has had some renovations and its Remount location is now closed. Apparently, another Nortena will open soon on Rivers. In the meantime, this Nortena is up to par and is usually full for dinner. Try the torta jalisco or the torta carnitas which are delicious grilled sandwiches with meat, cheese, beans, jalapenos; the kind of food you dream of after the bars. Also the veracruzana fish is pretty good. Avoid the shrimp cocktail though–it is not that fresh and swimming in a sickly sweet tomato sauce. Strangely, the spanish speakers in these restaurants love the shrimp cocktail.

There are a number of other spots along this strip–feel free to add your input–one day we will rottenoysters them all. In the meantime your info would be appreciated. Buen Provecho!

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Anyway, I’m trying not to start this entry with a tedious history of the American hamburger…drive ins, 50s, California culture, and the last gasp of manifest destiny. Hamburgers hold some mystical psychic place for most Americans. I don’t think it’s necessary to tackle that. Just listen to the beach boys and think of the beautiful cars you’ll never be able to drive again because of oil prices.

Anyway, there are two basic types of hamburgers: what I would refer to as the California style and the East Coast. The east coast burger, defined by places like Mr. Bartley’s in Cambridge and Corner Bistro in Greenwich Village (or maybe even the ascetic burger at Louis Lunch in New Haven, where the mullahs don’t allow condiments) features large, round, juicy burgers, thick, toasted buns, and usually a heavy helping of lettuce, tomato, and onion. The west coast style, which spawned most fast food joints (or maybe the causation should be reversed), has a fairly small patty, a thin, usually sesame bun, and mustard and cheese. Thinking both McDonald’s and In N Out here. I’m a fan of both: the juicy, steak like quality of east coast burgers and the greasy synergy of bread, cheese, mustard and meat from the west. Both versions can be done to perfection. It’s just a question of style and mood.

So, with the history lesson out of the way, where does Sesame, the newest entry to North Charleston’s failed gentrification project, fit in? (An aside on the new north Charleston and Noisette – why do people want walkable faux downtowns that are a block long and will be driven to and from anyway…why is this better than a strip mall) I’ve been there twice, and while the burgers are of the thick, east coast style, and their hearts seem to be in the right place, the owners don’t really understand what a hamburger is all about. Maybe they’ve read a little too much Fast Food Nation. And here’s the thing: a hamburger can be gourmet i.e. prepared with care, using high-end ingredients, but it should never be upscale or yuppie, and the fundamentals should always be spot on. At its core, the hamburger is an example of mechanized, assembly line food, and has been ‘fast’ since its crystallization in the 50s. Prepare the basics i.e. meat, bun, cheese, and condiments with care, but don’t alter its fundamental nature in the process.

So why did Sesame decide that everything has to be home made? While I’m all for having house ground burgers, both for the rare center and the lack of mad cow, is it really necessary to have home made ketchup, mustard, and buns. Homemade ketchup is not ketchup: it’s tomato relish.  Should I really have to ask for Heinz when I’m eating steak fries?

In the scheme of things, these are minor quibbles, but they reveal flaws in the approach and understanding of what a burger should be. While Sesame serves different permutations with interesting toppings, they fail to do the fundamentals well. The burgers I’ve had both times weren’t cooked professionally. On my first visit, though my burger was accurately cooked to a medium, the outside was too charred, basically black, ruining the meat flavor. My second visit had me ordering a medium and getting a well done, with the cheese not fully melted (don’t they have a salamander). They served both burgers on a hard, toasted Kaiser role, which impedes a complete bite and pretty much prevents any melding of meat, cheese, bread, grease and condiments.

On a somewhat more upbeat note, the fries, both steak and sweet potato, are good, though they cool considerably while you ask and wait for Heinz ketchup to eat them with (and when is someone going to marry Belgian style frites and flavored mayonnaise with American style burgers). The burgers are also reasonably priced, though I don’t remember exactly how much they cost not to mention what else they have on the menu. I think they also offer chicken and black bean versions of their burgers, but who cares? And why don’t they have milkshakes, specifically Oreo?

Anyway, it’s frustrating that someone would devote so much time and energy to a hamburger joint yet show so little understanding of what makes a really good hamburger. Regardless of style, burgers are about good, basic, even assembly line ingredients heightened by their interaction, not gourmet ingredients standing out from the pack. Do the basics i.e. bread, meat, and cheese well, and provide the typical condiments.

But with their clueless approach, I wonder what’s next from Sesame: an Adria-style hamburger flavored air topped with American cheese foam?

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7671 Northwoods Blvd., N. Charleston.
863-8552

Great Pho. Cheap. Never more than 2 tables dining in this huge restaurant at one time. To me vietnamese is the only Asian food that is light and fresh and doesnt leave you feeling stuffed. The soups are filling and light. The avocado shakes and other fruit shakes are interesting and good. I do wish however that they would step up the quality of the meat a bit. Also check out the new Mt P location, Pho Bac on 17 N. The food is just as good and the atmosphere is a little less weird.

As good as these 2 spots are, we wish that the owner could team up with someone to help him run the place and perhaps make it more american friendly/efficient. First off, the service, though pleasant, is terrible and incompetent. It takes 45 minutes to get a bowl of pho, the server has no idea about wine/beer, and so on. Pho Bac and Kim long could be goldmines if they were run correctly. A noodle place downtown with a clean hip atmosphere would kill among the cofc crowd. Unfortunately, delicious, interesting, inexpensive food does not always translate into a successful restaurant. Someone help these people please.

visits: +10
price: around $7 for pho or entree, $2-$3 for a shake.

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La Nortena

3760 Ashley Phosphate Rd
760-1662

La Nortena is the finest taqueria/mexican restaurant in the charleston area. Everything here is basically great though i don’t recommend the whole fried fish. Carnitas are excellent, burritos are good, and the tacos are the best and a great value at $1.25 ea. Also, try the horchata drink to cool you off from the intensly hot fresh salsas served with the tacos. Not much English is spoken here so be patient or learn spanish. Usually no more than 1 other table of gringos in here. Very friendly staff.

Nortena’s sister restaurant with the same namesake on remount rd is a bit different with a mexican butcher/grocery in the same space as the restaurant. Apparently owned and run by the brother of the man who runs the ashley phosphate location, this location feels more authentically mexican with its carniceria. Though the menus are exactly the same, I prefer the Ashley Phosphate spot because the food seems slightly better. Maybe this is owed to the fact that this location is cleaner and better lit and feels more like a restaurant. But for a unique experience, I do recommend the remount location. If you are not hispanic, you will be the only gringo in site.

visits: +10
price: $1.25 per taco, $5-$10 entree

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