Earlier this summer, Jim Shahin of the Washington Post told me he was coming to town to write about the South Carolina barbecue scene. We swapped a few emails, and I recommended a list of old school joints from all the way up in Greenville down through the Pee Dee that offered the full range of barbecue styles in the Palmetto State. And then he asked about where to go in Charleston — not necessarily the old-school spots, he said, but whatever best represents what’s going on in the scene today.
“Why don’t you meet me at Home Team,” I said. “You need to see this place.”
I was talking about the Home Team BBQ downtown on Williman Street, the latest outpost in Aaron Siegel’s budding local barbecue empire. It was the middle of a warm Saturday afternoon, and the place was packed. We squeezed into two newly vacated stools at the bar, ordered about half the menu, and shouted at each other over the din about the past and future of barbecue in the Palmetto State.
Shahin ended up shifting the focus of his piece away from South Carolina in general (which, to be honest, is way too expansive to be done justice in a single article.) Instead, he filed a story focused solely on the barbecue scene here in the Holy City.
“With apologies to Bruce Springsteen,” the piece began, “I’ve seen the future of barbecue, and it is Charleston, S.C.”
He might just be right.
A barbecue boom
A lot of little tremors preceded Charleston’s current barbecue boom.
Two years ago, Swig & Swine set up shop out in West Ashley next door to The Glass Onion, installing a big screened-in pit room that kicks out an impressive array of brisket, pulled pork, and chicken wings. In 2015, a trio of new joints opened on the Peninsula itself. The former Egan & Sons location was converted into Cumberland Street Smokehouse, Smoke BBQ opened its doors on King Street, and Social Wine Bar was retooled as Poogan’s Smokehouse, the hickory-smoked sister establishment to Poogan’s Porch.
But these were only foreshocks to the full-on quake that hit when John Lewis — pitmaster at the celebrated La Barbecue in Austin, Texas — announced that he was pulling up stakes and moving east to Charleston to open a brisket joint. And when he revealed the site of his new restaurant, it turned out to be just around the corner — literally — from where Aaron Siegel had just broken ground for the third outpost of Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ.
The new Home Team opened its doors to big crowds and glowing reviews back at the beginning of the year, and Lewis Barbecue followed with equal accolades this summer. The capper came last month when Rodney Scott announced that he was coming down to Charleston, too. Scott has achieved worldwide acclaim for the old-school Pee Dee-style whole hog barbecue that he and his family cook up in Hemingway, S.C. He’s now hard at work setting up shop in the former King Street location of Chick’s Fry House, a mere six blocks away from Lewis Barbecue and Home Team.
“We had the BAR meeting and that was approved,” Scott said last week when I caught him on his cell phone. He was driving back from Charleston to Hemingway, an hour and a half trip that he’s made more times than he cares to count in recent weeks. “The next step is to finish up the drawings and get permits straight and then execute.”
Scott is still hoping to be open by the holidays, and even in a year in which Charleston has seen an impressive parade of new restaurant openings, Scott’s Bar-B-Que may well be the most eagerly awaited yet.
The Barbecue District?
Once Scott’s is up and running, there will be a single square mile of land, located north of Highway 17 between Morrison Drive and King Street, that is home to three of the most noted barbecue cooks in the United States. Some have already taken to calling it “the meathacking district,” while Home Team has been pushing the hashtag #bbqdistrict.
Whatever you call the area, the trio landed there in part because of practical real estate concerns. “We need a good bit of space to do what we do,” Siegel says, “and there’s not a whole lot of space left [on the lower Peninsula] that’s not going to cost you 40 dollars per square foot.”
Since they don’t use gas-assist cookers, Siegel, Lewis, and Scott need large pit areas and lots of space to stack wood. But even in that up-and-coming area, they’ve still had to adjust their operations to accommodate the downtown market.
When the news of Lewis’s plans broke, some voiced skepticism that South Carolinians would embrace long-standing Texas barbecue traditions. We’re not just talking about eating brisket with one’s fingers but also what is literally a long-standing tradition in Austin: queuing up for hours at restaurants that open just before lunch and close as soon as they sell out of meat.
So how did the opening compare to Lewis’s expectations? “Overwhelmingly better,” Lewis says. “Better than I ever expected.”
From a menu perspective, he has stayed true to the central Texas-style — hand-slicing brisket, ribs, and house-made “hot guts” sausage to order, and serving them on brown butcher paper with sliced onions and pickles and sauce on the side. Lewis notes, however, that there is one big difference between what he’s doing in Charleston from the way it’s done back in Austin.
“There’s not a line,” Lewis says. “If there is, it’s 15 people. In four minutes there’s a piece of food in your mouth.”
Lewis put a lot of focus on streamlining and fine-tuning his Charleston operations. “It’s faster than a table service restaurant,” he says.
Also, he adds, “we don’t do the sell out thing.” That means that six days a week (any day but Monday), you can show up any time between 11 am and 10 o’clock at night and be sure of getting served.
Around the corner on Williman Street, Aaron Siegel changed up his offering somewhat, too, compared to what he’s been doing for almost a decade over in West Ashley — and in his case that move has been liberating.
“The center of the menu has always been barbecue,” Siegel says. “But since day one [at Williman Street] we tried to surround it with things that we felt were fun to do and let the smoker take us wherever it may.”
That smoker produces plenty of pan-Southern barbecue staples like pulled pork, brisket, and sausage, of course. But Taylor Garrigan, Siegel’s executive chef and operating partner, also draws upon his experience in fine dining kitchens like Magnolia’s and FIG to turn out an array of impressive plates, like crispy pork cakes served over a bed of colorful summer veggies or grilled pork belly with braised butter beans.
“We felt like downtown allowed us to kind of do what we want to do and not really worry about it,” Siegel says.
The cheffy sensibility at Home Team is rather different from the more old-school offering Rodney Scott is planning over on King Street. Though he aspires to keep things as close to what he does up in in Hemingway, Scott is having to make a few adjustments thanks to two key factors in his new location: neighbors and space.
In Hemingway, Scott has a large open area behind his pit house where his gigantic burn barrels reduce oak and pecan logs down to coals. Those barrels send cinders spiraling high into the air above, and they put off so much heat you can feel it from twenty feet away. That’s not going to fly in downtown Charleston.
“The burn barrel can’t be wide open like in Hemingway,” Scott says. “We’re going with pretty much a chimney style to keep as much heat from escaping as possible.”
As for the pits themselves, Scott says, the design is “still to be determined right now. We’re limited on space.” He’s hoping to use the same style pits as in Hemingway, but that requires eight-inch wide concrete blocks and the narrow width of his pit room may force him to use metal instead.
When it comes to the menu, he says, “It’s going to be pretty much the same as Hemingway.” And that means fiery vinegar-and-pepper-mopped pork pulled straight from the whole hog, with white bread, baked beans, and slaw on the side.
Scott is thinking about one addition. “I feel like I should add a few ribs,” he says, meaning cooking separate racks of ribs in addition to the whole hog. (The only ribs available in Hemingway are the ones pulled straight from the finished pig.) “A lot of people don’t know that real barbecue is pulled from the hog. That would make it a little easier for them.”
John Lewis is already starting to expand his repertoire, too, and it echoes the way he got into the barbecue business in the first place.
“I moved to Denver [for a few years] after being in Austin,” Lewis says. “And I couldn’t get the barbecue I wanted.” So, he learned to cook his own Texas-style barbecue, which led to stints first at Franklin Barbecue and then La Barbecue in Austin and now finally to Lewis Barbecue in Charleston.
“That’s happening with Mexican for me right now,” he says. Now that the El Paso-raised Lewis has come East, he’s found himself really missing the Tex-Mex food he took for granted back home. So, he launched TexMex Tuesday, when the regular barbecue menu is augmented by $5 platters of enchiladas or burritos stuffed with brisket and smothered in red or green chile sauce.
It’s an awful long way from traditional South Carolina barbecue, but it doesn’t feel at all out of place in today’s Charleston scene.
Rivalries in the making?
Barbecue has long been a competitive enterprise, with lots of intra-family feuds and endless arguments over who has the tastiest ribs and who stole who’s sauce recipe. One might think that three acclaimed pitmasters’ opening restaurants within a mile of each other might create a little rancor and one-upmanship, and Siegel admits that he was worried at first.
“We found out John was coming about two years ago, when we were in the final stage of closing our deal,” he says. “Obviously we weren’t too psyched about it — the last thing you need is another barbecue shop right next door.”
But the two met and talked, and those concerns quickly faded. Rather than just swiping customers from each other, Siegel says, they figured they could make the market larger for both restaurants. “We are going to try to make this [area] a place where people will come and eat barbecue,” Siegel says.
Lewis agrees. “We’ve been talking together since two years ago,” he says. “We thought it would just bring more people to the area.”
“We’re different, too,” Lewis adds. “They’re sort of chef-inspired. I do more barebones.”
And they both think the arrival of Rodney Scott will only help the process.
“I’m glad to have him,” Siegel says with a laugh. “So I can keep a close eye on him. And Rodney is a great guy, and I think we have to all sort of hope that we can keep on building this area and people will come see all three of us.”
In fact, Lewis thinks Rodney Scott’s arrival might be a tipping point. Though most of Lewis’s customers during the week are locals, the Barbecue District is already drawing visitors from outside of town. “Weekends there are a lot more tourists,” Lewis says. “On weekends probably fifty-fifty [tourists to locals].”
“It’s going to be the same thing that happened to Austin,” Lewis says. “Now Charleston is a barbecue destination. They’ll get off the plane or off the boat and go eat barbecue.”
Charleston’s old school
The Charleston area, of course, wasn’t exactly devoid of barbecue restaurants before this new crop of pitmasters showed up. For decades the Lowcountry was essentially an extension of the Midlands South Carolina barbecue region, with restaurants featuring pulled pork shoulder dressed in bright yellow mustard-based barbecue sauce and served with hash and rice on the side.
Much of that style can be traced back to a single man, Joe Bessinger, who sold barbecue at Joe’s Cafe up in Holly Hill. The patriarch never operated a restaurant in Charleston, but seven of his 10 children ended up in the barbecue business here at one point or another, and they brought their father’s Orangeburg-style yellow mustard sauce with them.
The family’s original Piggie Park drive-in — now long closed — was located on Rutledge Avenue near Hampton Park. As growth pushed outward from the peninsula into the newly-built suburbs, the Bessinger brothers followed — Melvin to Mt. Pleasant and James Island, Thomas out to Savannah Highway in West Ashley, Robert up to Ashley Phosphate in North Charleston. (And that doesn’t even count the many Bessinger restaurants that have since closed: Melvin’s alone used to have nine locations around the Lowcountry).
The Dukes, another famous South Carolina barbecue family, brought their Midlands style of cooking to the Lowcountry, too. They long maintained an outpost in North Charleston, though the barbecue itself was cooked at the family’s restaurant up in Orangeburg. That style can still be found at the Dukes out on James Island, where the buffet brims with hash and rice, yellow mustard sauce, and loaves of white bread.
Despite all the attention that the new restaurants are getting on the Peninsula, David Bessinger, Melvin Bessinger’s son and owner of the two remaining Melvin’s Barbecue restaurants, says that he welcomes the new arrivals.
“Barbecue is booming in Charleston,” he says. “I love it because it keeps you on your toes. The more competition the better it is for all of us.”
Bessinger isn’t resting on his laurels. Two years ago, he headed west to check out the operations at famous central Texas barbecue joints like Kreuz’s and Smitty’s in Lockhart and Killen’s in Pearland, and soon after he added brisket and beef ribs to the menu at Melvin’s.
An even bigger change was to return his restaurants to cooking on all-wood pits, something that his family did back in the old days but gave up several decades ago in favor of gas-assist cookers.
Last summer, Bessinger installed a Lang 108-inch offset cooker at both Melvin’s locations, and his team now cooks all of their brisket, turkey, and chickens on it. So far, they haven’t had the capacity to cook their pork on the wood-fired pits, but a big Oyler 700 from J&R Manufacturing in Texas is now on its way. Once it’s installed at the Mount Pleasant restaurant, 100 percent of the barbecue in that location will be cooked over wood.
“I’m cooking my ribs and my turkey and my chickens fresh per shift,” Bessinger says. “I’m trying to do it as fresh as I can for each shift.”
Bessinger admits he’s gone to check out the competition. “I was very impressed with Home Team’s outfit,” he says. “And John Lewis’ place, too — very nice. I thought it was very cute how he did that cow with ‘hail to the king'”— a reference to the giant mural of a crown-wearing cow adorning the wall on one of the outbuildings.
Lewis’s arrival has even benefited Melvin’s in a specific way, thanks to the volume of beef that the Texan’s brisket-centric operation uses. “We’ve now started to sell the CAB Prime Grade brisket,” David Bessinger says. “I’ve been trying to get that from Texas for a long time but couldn’t [until now]. I think that’s because of John Lewis.”
Bessinger is rightfully proud of his new salt-and-pepper brisket, but he doesn’t expect it to become his signature item, regardless of what Lewis’s mural may claim. “Pork is still king in South Carolina,” Bessinger says. “And I believe it’s always going to be that way, too.”
The brisket has been well received by Melvin’s customers, he says, but pork is still by far the bestseller. “Number two is hamburgers, actually,” he adds. “And the brisket is right behind that.”
Those loyal to the Bessinger family’s famous sweet yellow mustard sauce need not worry. “I’m not trying to cater to the North Carolina, to the Alabama, to the Texas as far as the sauce goes,” Bessinger says. “I’m sticking with what we are known for, and that’s the mustard.”
The future of Charleston barbecue
For a long time there were only two barbecue restaurants on the Charleston Peninsula—Sticky Fingers and Nick’s Bar-B-Q—and they were part of big regional chains. When Scott’s opens for business, there will be eleven in total, nine of them independents that have opened since 2010.
That’s a lot of barbecue restaurants, and it raises an interesting question. If Jim Shahin is right and the future of barbecue is Charleston, then what is the future of Charleston barbecue?
It seems certain that over time this influx of new restaurants will change the character of barbecue in the Holy City, and perhaps elsewhere in the state, too. As more people move to town with barbecue preferences shaped outside of South Carolina, the market is more and more receptive to once-foreign notions like beef brisket, dry-rub ribs, and white mayonnaise-based sauce.
“No one comes in and says this isn’t South Carolina barbecue,” Siegel says. “This town has come to be such a great food town and accepting of different styles.”
When Home Team opened its first location in West Ashley, Siegel notes, “we were doing Memphis style ribs and North Carolina-style pork butts and slaw, and then we started doing salt and pepper brisket.”
They did have to make one concession to local sensibilities, though. “I made a mustard sauce after two weeks of being bitched at,” Siegel says. “But I didn’t make a sweet mustard sauce!”
Then there’s the question of alcohol. For decades, sweet tea and lemonade have been the traditional beverages in South Carolina barbecue joints, and you could count on one hand the number of places that sold beer. Most of the new barbecue spots not only have local beers on tap but also full bars with craft cocktail programs.
There’s plenty of Red Rock strawberry soda at Scott’s Bar-B-Que up in Hemingway, but nothing alcoholic. That’s not likely to be the case at Scott’s new outpost in Charleston, for he’s planning on getting a beer license. “Beer and barbecue just go together in Charleston,” he says.
Some are still holding out on that point. When David Bessinger was pondering various changes to the format at Melvin’s, he decided to survey his customers. “I was thinking about selling beer,” he says, but the responses came back overwhelming in one direction. “They were like, ‘no.’ . . . People think of us as a family restaurant. They don’t want us to serve beer.”
Regardless of what people are drinking alongside it, one thing seems clear about Charleston barbecue in the future: it’s going to be cooked over wood.
“We have a desire to stick to traditional methods,” Siegel says. “There’s no barbecue without wood. That’s kind of a foregone conclusion.” They’ve been cooking on Lang offset pits for several years at the West Ashley location, and in the new downtown one they use a Lang for brisket and a big J&R Oyler for their pork shoulders.
Lewis is famous for the massive offset smokers he builds himself from old propane tanks, and regardless of whether Scott’s pits end up being made of metal or cinder block, he’s going to fire them with shovelfuls of glowing oak coals.
That suggests that all-wood cooking will just be table stakes in the future, and merely serving a competent platter of pulled pork, brisket, or ribs isn’t going to be enough.
“I think what you are going to see is more of the same thing you see in the mainstream restaurant business,” Siegel says. “People getting more and more creative.”
There’s creativity happening already. Wise Buck offers pit beef, a signature barbecue-ish specialty of owner Damon Wise’s native Baltimore, and the delicious smoked pork belly at Swig & Swine is well worth a drive out to West Ashley. Down on King Street, Smoke offers what it bills as “Charleston Style Elevated Barbecue,” which includes pastrami brisket and smoked chicken confit. Poogan’s Smokehouse augments its pulled pork and ribs with smoked tomato bisque and pork belly sliders with “redneck kimchee” on sweet Hawaiian rolls. With 48 hours notice, you and three friends can also dine on a whole suckling pig.
If John Lewis is right and tourists start booking trips to Charleston just to explore the rich variety of the city’s barbecue, let’s hope they include at least one of the Bessinger family’s restaurants on their tour. Bessingers BBQ on Savannah Highway is just a short detour for those heading out to tour the plantations along the Ashley River. Just over the Ravenel bridge in Mt. Pleasant, Melvin’s is a natural lunch stop on the way to Patriot’s Point or the beaches out on Sullivans and Isle of Palms.
As David Bessinger is quick to point out, “Melvin’s is the oldest continuously owned barbecue restaurant in South Carolina — continuously owned by the same family. And it’s home of the original Midlands style sauce.”
And, for the love of Pete, let’s not give up our hash and rice, for it’s as much a Lowcountry delicacy as hoppin’ john and shrimp and grits. The New Southern boom that thrust Charleston’s high-end restaurants onto the national stage was built upon an aesthetic that looked both inward and outward—exploring and celebrating the culinary heritage unique to our region while creatively enhancing it with inspiration and flourishes from all over.
That philosophy helped transform once-sleepy Charleston into an international foodie destination. It might just make us America’s top barbecue destination, too.