Overlooking the marsh at the intersection of Old Folly Beach and Folly roads, Tattooed Senorita Cantina is sure to beckon anyone crawling by in sun-worship-related traffic.
But this is no mirage, and the casual bar/restaurant offers plentiful seating in a range of ambiances. There are four large, flat-screen TVs for anyone wanting to get their sports on, while clandestine meetings would be well-suited to the cavernous area in the back. However, most diners are likely to be drawn to one of the restaurant’s two sunny decks that are dog-friendly.
Despite being about three miles from the actual shoreline, Tattooed Senorita has a beachy, vacation vibe, and the mood extends to the menu. It’s unabashed Americanized Mexican fare, with a focus on tacos, quesadillas, and fruity frozen cocktails. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, some Taco Boy spots are likely blushing. Certainly a page has been pulled from those books, but why not? The ‘reimagined taco’ formula works in Charleston, and this informal, laid-back location with its jello shots (in margarita or strawberry margarita flavor) and friendly service seems particularly apropos.
If you show up hungry, note that chips and salsa will set you back $2, and the star of the show suffers from a total lack of fire. For better or worse, the canned-tomato-flavored salsa’s main thrust seems to be about making things — like the patriotic red, white and blue tortilla chips — wet.
In contrast, the signature beef tacos ($3.50) are the crispest of the bunch. Here, the fried corn tortilla shell is filled with cumin-seasoned ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, and queso. If the presence of ye old iceberg wasn’t a tip-off, it has a comforting, homemade quality.
Meanwhile the blackened local fish taco ($5) provides two small, thin strips of flounder so lightly cooked as to remain translucent. The spicy-herbal notes of the blackening seasoning come through, and the soft flour tortilla-clad taco also includes mushrooms, cilantro, and some crunchy purple cabbage. It’s probably tasty, but in all honesty, I was too unnerved by the inexplicably raw fish to get past it.
Happily, the local tempura shrimp taco ($5) is a winner. Here, a flour tortilla is filled with crisp, tempura-crusted local shrimp, spicy jalapeño aioli, and some tangy, addicting “super slaw.” If you need an excuse to abandon your position in bumper-to-bumper traffic, you’ve got it.
Similarly, the War Pig taco ($4.50) is a sweet and smoky taco-based love sonnet to bacon. Made with both a sugary chipotle bacon jam and spicy peppered bacon bits, there’s also shredded, roasted pork, which adds a Southern touch. Fresh pineapple slaw adds further sweetness and some welcome crunch. All told, this pig did not die in vain.
The fish in the Baja taco, however, maybe could have met a better end. The single, diminutive piece of tempura-battered fish is served in a flour tortilla and accompanied by some pickled cabbage and a nickel-sized chunk of avocado. Unfortunately, all of that (what little there is) is completely drowned out by the powerful chipotle crema. Overwhelmingly hot and smoky, a slightly more proportionate ingredients-to-crema ratio would likely help.
Although I did not notice any portraits of the namesake tattooed senorita, odds are she’s a voluptuous woman. Her food is, anyway. And more often than not, it seems no calorie is spared in the pursuit of decadent flavor. Case in point, the street corn. The husk is tied into a pretty, handle-like bow and the corn itself is topped with a generous layer of lightly spiced heavy cream dotted with bacon. There’s a greasiness to the husk implying the cob has been fried rather than traditionally grilled, but the smoke of the bacon fills in for the missing char flavor. Best of all, they thoughtfully provide a knife so you don’t have to be a total slob. Unless that’s what you’re into.
Following suit, the crispy Brussels sprouts salad ($8.99) is the cheat day of salads. Don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious. But it’s also sitting in a pool of its own oil. The fried Brussels sprout halves are in generous supply and lightly seasoned with horseradish. Topped with queso fresca cheese, candied bacon bits, and fresh strawberries, it’s rich, sweet, and probably not what your doctor meant when they told you to eat more salad.
The classic carne asada ($12.99) delivers a serious meal for the price. The plate arrives with two corn tortillas and some firm black beans, as well as a heap of day-glo orange rice made with carrots, peas, and corn. Although the onion chunks mixed in with the beef are heavenly — I could eat an entire plate of them — the meat itself is tough and heavy with the flavor of marinade. One thing that’s notably lacking is the sense that the skirt steak has been grilled over mesquite charcoal, or any fire for that matter. It’s served, inexplicably, with a peach salsa, which seems to be the house salsa festooned with chunks of peaches.
I reckon that once it was established that reimaged tacos were going to fly, extending that creativity to quesadillas seemed obvious. The grilled Carolina shrimp quesadilla ($10.99) is a prime example, where the South of the Border preparation you know and love incorporates Southern flair. Made with fresh shrimp, forgettable corn kernels, and a chunky pistachio pesto, the overarching flavor is that of garlic shrimp. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that. Served on a plastic cutting board with some fresh guacamole, it kind of makes you want to jump up and say “Ole, y’all!”
Part sports bar, part Mexican-inspired restaurant, Tattooed Senorita’s affordable, approachable grub is perfectly matched to its laid-back location. The varied menu often breaks with Mexican tradition, but likely offers up enough options in ambiance and culinary range to satisfy most sun-soaked aspirations.