When Santi’s Restaurante Mexicano opened at the corner of Morrison and Meeting streets, tacos and tortilla chips weren’t novel to Charleston, but the upper peninsula was almost uncharted territory for restaurants. In 2003, not much was happening in the area of town now dubbed NoMo. Southern legend Martha Lou’s was there with meat-and-three eatery Kitty’s Fine Foods, but the neighborhood was mostly known as a blue-collar industrial area.
Restaurateur Santiago Zavalza moved from Indiana to South Carolina in search of a warmer climate and outstanding architecture. He saw potential in the former location of diner chain Huddle House at 1302 Meeting Street and decided to introduce the Lowcountry to the food of his childhood in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
The first months were rough, though. Santi’s was robbed 15 times within eight weeks of opening — this is around the time when North Charleston was named one of the most dangerous cities in America, and theft was not uncommon in downtown Charleston. To protect his staff, Zavalza decided to close the restaurant at 6 p.m. every night.
In the early days, Zavalza says he publicized his restaurant by handing out fliers to laborers building the nearby Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. The meager advertising move resulted in an immediate boom for his dining room: the workers loved the food, and soon, they brought their families to dine. His business grew from word of mouth. Even Joe Riley Jr., the mayor at the time, became a fan. Riley and his team inquired why Santi’s was not open for dinner, and Zavalza told them about the robberies. After that, police began patrolling the area more frequently, and the cantina was able to open in the evenings.
“I think Santi’s holds a special place in Charleston hearts because it is a place where you don’t go to see and be seen,” writer and The Southern Fork podcast host Stephanie Burt says. “It used to feel — before that area started booming — a little like the back porch of Charleston, where you can go and hang out without pretense.”
Today, the menu at Santi’s contains all the standard Charleston Mexican favorites, like pastor tacos and a burrito grande, but Zavalza’s distinct touches set the restaurant apart, especially dishes from his childhood in Jalisco, like what he calls the Mama’s Specialty. The comforting chicken soup, served with two beef-filled tortillas, is one of the most requested dishes for its restorative qualities. “It comes from the heart,” the chef says. When he was growing up, his mother would use this recipe to feed a large group of people with just one chicken and heaps of vegetables.
Other distinctive dishes at Santi’s include the caldo de res (a Sunday beef stew), chilaquiles, and the caldo de camaron (a shrimp soup). He concedes that he did have to add American-style tacos to the menu when he first started, but he thinks crowds today appreciate the more traditional dishes.
Even though it’s located on the traffic-heavy thoroughfare of Morrison Boulevard, the restaurant is transporting inside, with its lush patio full of greenery, colorful papel picado (decorative paper banners) and string lighting; it serves as the festive setting for many happy hours, first dates, and family meals. The interiors still have the markings of the former Huddle House dining room, like the curved booths and long counter in front of the cooking area — but now, multiple chandeliers hang from the ceiling, photographs of Mexico dot the walls, bird cages filled with souvenirs fill in spaces, and the occasional lava lamp glows from the rest of the decor.
It’s a little quirky and light-hearted — just like the staff, managed by Javier Valladares, who started as a server but now runs the restaurant. He believes that customers relate to the front-of-house staff because they are “natural and spontaneous” — nothing too formal at Santi’s. There are no uniforms at the restaurant, so many of the front-of-house workers can be found in T-shirts and designer jeans or shorts. They are always quick with a joke and a second margarita.
“Santi’s is hospitable, which is different than uncaring or just tolerable,” Burt says. “That restaurant is part of the community, and although it’s not the back porch quite so much anymore, those of us that felt comfort and community there [still find that there] when we walk in the door.”
Today, Santi’s will celebrate 16 years in business. Less traditional Mexican restaurants in Charleston have come and gone since it opened (Yo Burrito and La Hacienda, to name two), but none has amassed such a fervent fan base. When asked why he thinks Charleston has embraced his restaurant, Zavalza says, “We serve good food at a good price, and it’s quick.”
Visitors generally don’t come to Charleston for Mexican cuisine — they’re here for Southern fare — but ask anyone who has ever lived here and they can probably recite their favorite menu item from Santi’s with a longing in their eyes — even if it’s just the giant, bright yellow margaritas.