With his brick-and-mortar Charleston restaurant just hitting its one year mark, acclaimed barbecue pitmaster John Lewis is looking to grow. The former force behind Austin’s La Barbecue, Lewis brought his Texas-style meats to South Carolina with the opening of Lewis Barbecue, Eater Charleston’s 2016 Restaurant of the Year. And now, Lewis has introduced another staple of his Texan upbringing to the southern city with Juan Luis, a Tex-Mex stall now open in Workshop, an upscale food hall.
Juan Luis, a play on the chef’s name, isn’t strictly Tex-Mex, Lewis says. Rather, it serves the kind of “border food” he grew up eating at Mexican restaurants in El Paso. The chef describes it as rich with “lots of lard,” but without the queso that’s a signature of other Tex-Mex cuisine. And opening in Workshop, where “all [he] had to do was come in and make food,” meant that Lewis had time to get his particular brand of Tex-Mex right.
“I got to spend the time I would have spent building [a restaurant] just researching and practice testing stuff,” he says. “Barbecue I had been doing professionally for six years day after day before [opening Lewis Barbecue], and the Tex-Mex thing, I had never done that in a restaurant before, only at home, so it was nice having time to figure out how to do it on a large scale.”
Lewis spent time cooking at Mexican restaurants during the lead up to Juan Luis’s May opening, and was particularly focused on perfecting his technique for nixtamalizing corn for masa (a process in which dry corn is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution). “We messed with that for a few months, just tweaking that to end up with the end product that we wanted out of it,” he says. “That’s what makes cooking fun, when you find something that you don’t know how to do already and then [you figure] it out on your own.”
Setting up shop at Workshop has also allowed Lewis to see how the people of Charleston take to Juan Luis before opening up a standalone restaurant, which, he says, has always been the plan. He explains: “It’s nice doing it in the fancy food hall because with not much investment, you can get something going and see if the market’s going to be receptive to it.” Juan Luis’s chef de cuisine Ray England is also taking advantage of the opportunity to try things out in a food hall space. On Sundays when Juan Luis is closed, he’ll be taking over the stall with Lewis Barbecue chef de cuisine Philip Powers to explore their own projects. The first pop-up will be a Jewish-style deli.
When Lewis opened his barbecue restaurant, he was slightly worried about how it would catch on. “In Texas, people will order a gross amount of meat. It’s kind of disgusting how much people order,” Lewis says. “I was like, I hope people will still be just as gross as they are in Texas — and they are. I guess we’re all Americans.” Now, at Juan Luis, Charleston diners are ordering just as much Mexican food, and so far, he says, “people are digging it.”
Despite this, a standalone Juan Luis isn’t happening anytime soon. “It takes a long time to get a restaurant going [in] this city, so it’ll take a couple of years probably,” Lewis says. “It’s a very tiny little peninsula and finding room to put anything is tricky.” But Charleston diners, at least, seem to have room in their stomachs for more Texas cooking.