Butcher & Bee – Charleston, South Carolina
I’m not a sandwich store that only sells turkey sandwiches.
I sell a lot of different things.
You might expect that a restaurant selected for inclusion on a list of “The 21 Best Sandwich Shops in America” would have a signature sandwich, its chef d’oeuvre. Pittsburgh’s Primanti Brothers, for example, is known for its pastrami and cheese sandwich. The Darwin Cafe in San Francisco is famous for its roast beef sandwich. Every sandwich shop on the list exalting the best sandwiches from sea to shining sea has its magnus opus, a masterpiece for which it is best known. All but one, that is. The sandwich recommended at the very first sandwich shop on the list is “whatever’s available.” It speaks volumes about that sandwich shop.
The Butcher & Bee is unlike any stereotype or template of any sandwich shop you’ve ever frequented. It doesn’t subscribe to boring and homogeneous conventions such as serving the same things day after day. From the exterior, it’s relatively humdrum, unadorned by neon spangled signage, flash or panache. Its most telling feature may be the lines of people snaking out the door.
Step inside and even Better Homes and Gardens would be challenged to describe Butcher & Bee’s “decorative style,” a mishmash of eclectic and rustic meets thrift shop and tractor supply store. Every table is different, but not as different as the chairs. How different? How about tractor seats, bar stools of varying heights and styles and wheeled contrivances that defy description? After placing your order at the counter and settling your tab, it’s up to you to find a seat. It might behoove you beforehand to scope out seating that’s both comfortable and utilitarian as well as diners with whom you share a table who appear friendly and welcoming.
Suspended from high ceilings are cupboards stocked with preserves, farm-to-table bounty from local farms. The menu hangs on the wall by the front (and only) entrance (and egress). Hand-scrawled in chalk, it lists all featured fare for the day. Savvy diners know they should visit Butcher & Bee’s Facebook page before visiting the restaurant because the day’s menu is posted there. It’s not an overly ambitious menu in terms of size, but what it does offer may lead to the question “this is a sandwich shop?”
The restaurant’s operational statement reads “At Butcher & Bee, we lovingly craft sandwiches using time-honored preparation techniques. We source the finest local ingredients the region has to offer, our ever-changing menu is both adventurous and familiar.” There’s that word again–sandwiches. It doesn’t take much study to see the menu lists only a handful of sandwiches. For Butcher & Bee to be acclaimed one of the best sandwich shops in the fruited plain says a lot about those sandwiches.
In a spirit of true inclusion, vegans and vegetarians should enjoy the menu as much as carnivorous types. On the day of my visit, there were at least as many salad choices (and a vegan sandwich) on the menu as there were sandwiches. In a head-scratching moment as inexplicable as the popularity of Justin Bieber, this restaurant essayist visited one of the 21 best sandwich shops in America and ordered…hold on to your seats…larb. Yes, larb. Gasp!
Larb is a very popular “cooked salad” typically found on the menu at Thai and Lao restaurants, not sandwich shops. It’s essentially a meat dish, most often made with minced or ground meat with healthful elements of a salad. Butcher & Bee’s larb is made with grilled chopped beef, mint, cilantro, Thai chiles, greens, lime juice and fish sauce. To declare it the very best larb I’ve ever had probably still doesn’t justify not ordering a sandwich. I can’t even use fasting and abstinence on Good Friday as an excuse because the grilled beef on the larb was so…meaty.
The dessert menu listed only two items, the most farm-to-table sounding of the two being strawberries and cream. Strawberries grow throughout South Carolina are are always the first fruit to ripen in the spring. That accounts for the freshness of these fresh and luscious strawberries which didn’t taste as if they’d been sweetened artificially. The thick, slightly sour cream was a perfect foil for what has become my very favorite spring fruity indulgence.
Butcher & Bee may not have the venerable pedigree and gentrification of its Peninsular neighbors, but in fewer than three years in business, it’s made a name for itself and now has a nation-wide reputation. Whether or not it has one of the twenty-one best sandwiches in America will have to be determined by someone smart enough to actually order a sandwich.