Minero in Charleston, South Carolina, is just one of the restaurants in acclaimed chef Sean Brock’s growing empire. This casual Mexican eatery recently expanded to accommodate the crowds who habitually wait (no reservations are accepted) for a spot where the silverware is kept in the tables’ drawers, a taco can include fried catfish and the Bloodies are named Maria, not Mary.
Brock is well on his way to becoming a larger-than-life version of himself: giggling with abandon with Anthony Bourdain on CNN’s Parts Unknown, creating a near mob crush at a Waffle House pop-up with Danny Bowien during Charleston Wine + Food, and of course, there’s Mind of a Chef season two. (Food Republic parent company Zero Point Zero produces both Parts Unknown and Mind of a Chef.)
With all this, it might be tempting to forget the guy can cook. Don’t. Some of the greatest chefs have laser focus in recipe development to examine and reimagine, to create a new viewpoint for the diner. Take the humble salsa sampler, for instance. At many a joint, this merely involves some chips and a chunky red, a really spicy red, and a viscous green. They might have different names, they might come in little cups or bowls with feet on them, but it’s really a way to tack a couple bucks onto a check.
Not Brock’s. Minero’s sampler ($5) is Mexican reimagined, Mexican melded with South Carolina Low Country, and Mexican with a sense of humor, where the pieces and parts can pay homage to a tradition but create a new one all its own —namely that if your table orders only one, you’re going to be sorry.
To understand the chips, start with the corn. The Minero team tested more than 40 varieties of corn before deciding on a combo of three varieties from suppliers Masienda, Geechie Boy Mill and Anson Mills. That corn is ground using a traditional nixtamalization process to make fresh masa twice a day. The masa is made into tortillas, and the tortillas are fried to make fresh chips. Still with us? We’re just getting started.
Each order of hot chips is sprinkled with chip seasoning, a proprietary mixture of spices that are, well, proprietary. We detect some chili powder in there, probably garlic and cumin, as well as a generous helping of salt, but that’s all we feel comfortable with divining. And anyway, it’s distracting from eating more chips.
Brown paper is wrapped around each order of chips to absorb the excess oil from frying and to add another layer of insulation to keep the chips warm as they head to the table. It’s also a good fingertip towel in a pinch.
The wrapped chips are then nestled into a custom-made traditional tortilla warmer from San Miguel Designs. A little kitschy and definitely playful, the fabrics feature everything from Day of the Dead skulls to luchadores. The pops of colors from these warmers on the tables stand out vividly against the neutral textures of the space.
Salsa bowls and spoons
Served together on a neutral brown plate so the colors pop, the bowls are much smaller in proportion than the chips, and that along with the petite spoons and the ratio of chips to salsa suggest one thing: These salsas are a garnish for the chips, meant to be drizzled on, not scooped up. The chips are not a vehicle for transporting salsa to mouth, but part of a cohesive experience.
Made with tomatillo, the green “not-exactly-a-tomato” can have a viciousness akin to the South’s beloved okra, so that subconscious sensory callback is a worthy one for Charleston. However, the fruit also has a lot of pectin, which means that it can thicken once it’s made. You won’t notice that thickening with this one, though, because it’s ultra-fresh, bright and not too spicy.
Rojo with árbol
Smoky, spicy, and deep, this is the dark counterpoint to the brightness of the verde, the one of the three with the heftiest heat factor, though all are restrained.
Addictive, nutty and the perfect partner to the other two. “Benne was the low-oil sesame that came to Carolina from West Africa,” says Dr. David Shields, University of South Carolina professor, food historian and author of Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine. “As a condiment, an oil seed, and a flour, benne enabled a broad range of culinary applications in the West Indies, in Central America, and the American South. Sweeter than modern sesame — nutty, earthy and wholesome — it tastes different from modern high-oil cultivars of sesame. Sean Brock was the first chef to realize its central place in the play of flavors that make up the food of our region.”
153 E. Bay St., Charleston, SC 29401; 843-789-2241; minerorestaurant.com