For the culinary Mecca that Charleston is, there isn’t a whole lot of top flight Southeast Asian food. Sure, the banh mi pops with flavor at Bon Banh Mi and Xiao Bao Biscuit offers exotic delectables like okonomiyaki and mApo Dou fu, but for the hungry tourist, college student or local, there aren’t a whole lot of choices in our Holy City.
But a walk down middle King Street takes you thousands of miles east. O-Ku, Fire Street Food and CO all offer passing taste buds a bit of the Orient.
Founded in 2012 by former Marine Greg Bauer and now sending shoots into Atlanta, Charlotte, Myrtle Beach, Raleigh, and Savannah, CO is a place for traditional Vietnamese and Southeast Asian cuisine. Named for the Vietnamese word for feast, CO offers a simple menu of banh mi, the Vietnamese street food sandwich; pho, brothy noodle-based soup; ramen; dumplings; salads and a few incidentals including desserts and cocktails.
CO features fresh, hearty flavors arranged by Chef Masanori Shiraishi, a Japanese native with a quarter century of experience soulfully mixing the millennia-old dishes he grew up loving with the flavors of Southeast Asia.
Fare That Tingles the Taste Buds
CO is a vegetarian’s delight, with numerous dishes delivering all the flavor and satisfaction that Vietnamese food (and a mélange of samples from neighboring countries) offers without animal flesh. Asking the server for the vegan and gluten-free menus makes CO accessible to basically any diner, unless you’re allergic to taste.
Warm up with one of the appetizers (or as CO calls them, small dishes) or dumpling options, like pork a ginger gyoza, a Chinese/Japanese standard of meat and vegetables commonly known in the States as pot stickers. Edamame gyoza, spicy crab Rangoon, and beef and kimchi round out the choices.
Small dishes include a variety of spring rolls, Malaysian wings, garlic sesame tuna tacos and steamed edamame for the vegetarian in your group.
Four banh mi selections include lemongrass tofu with a kick of garlic and caramel pork with fish sauce and a sugar cane marinade to complement the usual banh mi flavors. There is jalapeno in their banh mi, so warn your taste buds before consuming.
A Hearty Pho
A Vietnamese staple, pho is the centerpiece of CO’s menu. After walking around the world’s number one tourist destination, there’s nothing more comforting than a flavorful bowl of soup. There are two pho options: beef and spicy beef; they share ingredients, but the spice will cost you an extra dollar.
When CO opened in 2012, the Charleston City Paper called its pho “a fine version of Vietnam’s signature beef and noodle soup. The bean sprouts, basil leaves, and sliced jalapeños served on the side are all fresh and ready enliven the broth, while the thick strands of vermicelli down in the bowl are tender and filling. Most important, the broth itself has a pleasing sheen of oily bubbles on the surface and is richly imbued with complex, savory flavors from long hours of simmering.”
Pho is meant to be a meal and will cost about $15. For the same price, you can choose wok noodle and rice dishes like pad thai, drunken thai noodles (a protein with mushrooms, onions and thai basil) or Korean rice bowl.
The food blogger Yummy Lil Things described the pho ga this way: “shredded chicken noodle soup with herbs and vermicelli noodles – was amazeballs. The broth was perfectly salty and the chicken was tender. So delicious. What I really love about pho is being able to add the veggies you like to your soup. They’re always served on the side.”
The salads are priced in the high single digits and feature exotics like vermicelli-based bun xao. There are mixed drinks and sake available as well. Eater Charleston named CO one of the Lowcountry’s 18 must-do happy hours.
CO is tucked onto the shopping hub of middle King, a few blocks down from Calhoun. Its two-story interior flashes a sleek, semi-industrial feel, dominated by blacks, whites and reds, exposed brick and piping. The downstairs comprises the bar and a community table; with most of the dining – at least when there are no dangerous viruses lurking – on the second floor.
CO is open 11am – 10 pm Sunday through Thursday and 11am – 11pm Friday and Saturday. They request that patrons who take the risk to eat indoors wear masks except while eating and drinking. They also offer online ordering and takeout.