Chalk it up as a good thing when an industrial eyesore — in this case, a car wash on the Savannah Highway strip — transforms into a restaurant. Double the points if it’s not another chain but an eatery purporting holy ambitions: the marriage of craft beer and hardwood smoked barbecue.
When I first saw the sign for Swig & Swine while walking out of the venerable Glass Onion, two thoughts trotted across my mind in quick succession: “Excellent!” followed swiftly by, “Don’t tease me now.”
To wit, they’d better be serious about both beer and ‘cue. No gimmicks, please.
As it turns out, the folks at Swig & Swine are serious indeed.
A custom built smoker loaded with hickory, oak, and pecan wood juts into the small parking lot. Pitmaster and co-owner Anthony DiBernardo stokes the flames. Tall, goateed, and focused through black-rimmed glasses, he might give you a nod as you head past the outdoor tables made from repurposed industrial cable spools to the front door.
The door swings open, and boom, the sweet smell of smoked meat smacks you on the back like a friend mischievously encouraging you to cut class to indulge in something salacious.
Let’s be honest, beer and barbecue are a guilty pleasure. It is every true Southerner’s god-given birthright to inject their veins with lipids whenever the mood strikes us.
Inside, sleek, handcrafted wood booths and bold, red walls set the mood, accentuated with black-and-white diagrams of hog and bovine butchery (both artistic and educational). Guitar chords flood the airways, alternating between ’70s metal and Delta blues. Clusters of mason jars lit with bare bulbs form hipster chandeliers. The bar area swarms with activity, even at lunchtime.
At Swig & Swine, the waitress swoops in promptly with a genuine “Hey y’all” — casual relief from the obligatory “Hello, my name is Tina and I am pleased to be your server tonight.” She hands us the swig list, featuring page after page of craft brews from near and far, an array of wines, whiskeys, bourbons, hard ciders, creative cocktails, and even moonshine. They peddle a sizable selection of bottles and draft with a firm nod to regional selections like Mississippi’s Lazy Magnolia Pecan ($5.50), North Carolina’s Duck Rabbit Milk Stout ($5), and our own Holy City Pluff Mud Porter ($6). When the owner overhears us puzzling over honeysuckle moonshine, he appears with a free sample to help us make up our mind. We ultimately pick the porter because anything with pluff mud in the name is a must.
They also mix craft cocktails like the Snake Bite ($13), a potent blend of whiskey, absinthe, and orange bitters, cooled with a jumbo ice cube and adorned with a twist of lemon. The Big Bubba ($8), a mixture of local bourbon and ginger beer, pineapple, a dash of soda, fresh basil leaves, and crushed ice, embraces the sweeter side (perhaps they should name it Big Sista); ditto for the Roseberry Julep ($11), which blends whiskey with a Midnight Moon North Carolina blueberry moonshine and a sprig of rosemary.
Despite the nice libations, we came for the meat, and the cut-to-order selections arrive heaped on white butcher paper nestled in a no-frill metal tray. It’s caveman time. You have permission to rip things apart with your bare hands and embrace the inner carnivore.
Four bottles of house-made barbecue sauce provision each table like mortar rounds ready for action. You will need them. Labeled “mustard,” “vinegar,” “white,” and “sweet red,” each harkens to specific Southern regional tastes: tangy mustard with German roots from the Midlands; tomato-based Pee Dee-style vinegar sauce straddling the South Carolina/North Carolina eastern border; mayo-based white sauce, a nod to Big Bob Gibson in Alabama; sweet red tomato-molasses sauce reminiscent of a Kansas City masterpiece.
Clearly the place aims to represent an amalgam of styles. Some they master quite well. Others could use a trip back to the cook shed.
The Family Platter ($38) offers a gargantuan display of seven meats (pulled pork, beef brisket, smoked turkey, smoked pork belly, homemade sausage, ribs, and wings) and a choice of three sides, more than enough food for at least four people. Pink threads meander through the pulled pork, indicative of the telltale smoke ring achieved through low heat and slow cooking. Soft, juicy, smoky, and rich, the meat shines when doused with the vinegar sauce and sandwiched in-between some squishy white bread with a little raw onion. The thin casing of Swig & Swine’s smoked sausage pops crisply between our teeth, dollops of mustard sauce cutting the deliciously juicy onslaught.
Some of the other offerings need a bit of help. The collards reveal awkward leaves large enough to fully unfurl. My companion stuffed them with hash and rice, rolling up impromptu Southern dolmades as we grinned across the table. The “smoked” turkey can appear bland, but benefits from a slathering of the horseradish-laced white sauce. The chicken wings and spare ribs suffer from heavy saucing (thick and cloyingly sweet), but they play well off the creamy, fresh sides of crunchy coleslaw or thick-slice potato salad with a zesty kick of sour cream. The baked mac and cheese with scalloped pasta shells, topped with a sprinkling of crispy bread crumbs, is sure to be a hit with children.
The brisket, though, needs help — tough and chewy, not even a heavy squirt of sweet red sauce or a mouthful of baked beans could salvage a single cottony bite. It exemplifies my biggest beef (pun noted) with Swig & Swine. With the exception of the excellent pulled pork, meats tend toward the dry side, some blatantly so, like the hunk of unappetizing pork belly that I laid to the side. They often require the crutch of sauce, the vinegar kick of pickled veggies, or the sweet moisture of smoky baked beans. In short, the barbecue relies on sidekicks; it can’t yet stand alone. Great barbecue delivers a gluttonous combo of juicy meat, buttery fat, and finger-licking goodness. Swig & Swine is not there yet.
Unfortunately, the desserts don’t rescue the meal. I looked forward to their banana pudding, only to be rudely disappointed. The custard was thick and grainy, the meringue rubbery, the bananas a sickening, putrid brown. The peach cobbler was bready and uninteresting (at the height of peach season, no less), and the chocolate pecan pie had a gooey, corn syrup-like consistency with an overcooked crust.
Perhaps Swig & Swine is not fully swiggy just yet, but it has potential. The lunch and dinner crowds indicate a steady following, and I overheard staff talking about the imminent expansion to the lot next door when Hibachi Grill’s lease expires — they could certainly use the parking.
Swig & Swine offers friendly and attentive staff, prompt service, sleek hipster decor, overflowing taps, a long liquor list (23-year-old Pappy anyone?), and a proud pitmaster DiBernardo, dedicated to his wares. With more experimentation and practice at the pit, the place could be smokin’.
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