What Is "Modern American" Cuisine?

Taking it to the streets with tacos and dosa

Halibut with miso dashi and dark spore mushrooms, a most American dish from CAMP in Greenville
Halibut with miso dashi and dark spore mushrooms, a most American dish from CAMP in Greenville (Robert F. Moss)

By Robert F. Moss

I spent the weekend before last up in Greenville (the one in South Carolina) to serve as one of the judges for the Silver Spoon competition at the Fall for Greenville festival. After our arduous judicial duties were complete (and a brief nap), we were treated to a dinner at CAMP, which opened this summer in a prime location just off of Main Street in Camperdown Plaza.

CAMP exterior.jpg

CAMP bills itself as a “Modern American” restaurant, and the decor certainly reflects that, with sleek lines and lots of gleaming glass. The menu is billed as modern American, too, but that doesn’t mean roasted chicken or grilled New York strips.

The executive chef, Drew Erickson, couldn’t be there that night, but his two sous chefs, Diego Campos and Matthew Ballaro, filled in as our hosts. As part of his welcome spiel, Campos noted that CAMP’s definition of modern American is an expansive one, incorporating the many different cultures that have come together to define 21st century American cuisine. That definition draws heavily on the chefs’ own family backgrounds as well as their culinary influences.

Campos, for instance, was born in California, raised in Puebla, Mexico, and moved to Greenville with his family when he was 11 years old. After graduating from culinary school, he backpacked thousands of miles through South America and all around Europe, and those experiences inform the dishes he’s contributed to CAMP’s menu.

The American fare that night included grilled halloumi cheese with fig preserves, a warm steam bun stuffed with Korean BBQ short rib, enchiladas rojas filled with adobo chicken, and—my favorite of the night—a hunk of tender halibut in a thin brown pool of miso dashi.

This new definition of American cuisine echoed something that Steve Palmer, the managing partner of the Indigo Road restaurant group, said when I interviewed him about the group’s most recent addition to its portfolio. (A feature drawing upon that interview will post to The Southeastern Dispatch in a couple of days.)

Just a few weeks ago, Indigo Road opened Maya, a coastal Mexican-themed restaurant, in the space on King Street that once housed its acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant The Macintosh, which shuttered back at the beginning of 2021. For Palmer, the menu of aguachile, pollo en mole, and tempura fried fish tacos seemed a natural fit for the evolving Upper King Street nightlife district.

“When you say, ‘I’m going to open an American restaurant’”, he told me, “I’m not sure what that means any more.” What was once classified as “international” food is increasingly as much a part of the mainstream restaurant canon as spaghetti and frankfurters—which themselves crossed over from being ethnic food a good century ago. To me, in fact, the menu at Maya seems to be, if anything, playing it very safe.

Looking back, it’s remarkable how rapidly the canon has expanded. Just a decade ago, my fellow food writers at the Charleston City Paper and I were regularly turning out pieces that read almost like boilerplate: “It used to be that no one in Charleston had ever heard of [insert once-obscure “ethnic” food item],” they began, “but now you can find it in a half dozen restaurants around town.”

First it was “real” tacos—the kind made with soft corn tortillas instead of flour or hard-fried corn shells, with bits of al pastor pork or even lengua (tongue!) instead of spiced ground beef. Then it was pho (which we dutified explained as “Vietnam’s signature beef and noodle soup”) followed by banh mi sandwiches, arepas, sriracha, Peruvian chicken, bibimbap. The world got much, much smaller very quickly.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to Charleston. If you happened to miss it, check out Matt Lardie’s feature last month on the flourishing variety of Latin American fare now available in the Triangle.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the top prize in the Silver Spoon competition at Fall for Greenville this year went to Papi’s Tacos for their taco al pastor, generously laced with pineapple and herbs. The runner-up (which, truth be told, came out slightly higher on my scoresheet) was Persis Biryani Indian Grill and their splendid dosa filled with savory potatoes with little pools of coconut and tomato chutney on the side.

American street food: the potato-filled dosa from Persis Biryani Indian Grill in Greenville, South Carolina
American street food: the potato-filled dosa from Persis Biryani Indian Grill in Greenville, South Carolina (Robert F. Moss)

In South India, such dosas are typically served for breakfast. Going forward, though, I’m just going to think of them as American festival food.

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About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.