At Lewis Barbecue, I gaze down at my lunch of blackened brisket spread over grease-stained butcher paper, and my brain says: Austin. But the milky coastal sky, along with the humidity and the salt hanging in the air, remind me where I actually am: Charleston. Any sense of geography blurs as I rip into the clods of meat like a starved lion.
Soon I’m at Rodney Scott’s BBQ a half-mile away, hovering over a pile of pork and huffing the traces of smoke it’s absorbed. The strands were pulled and chopped from an entire pig cooked in a silvery blue haze over the pits of the restaurant’s cookhouse next door.
This technique harkens to a tradition cultivated much closer to the Holy City than Texas, if not perhaps at its strictest origin point. Rice and seafood dominate Lowcountry culinary culture in South Carolina (whose relationship with barbecue is loving, if fraught), while whole-hog smoking has long been the purview of the state’s midland and northeastern Pee Dee areas.
With the arrival in the last year of two titan pitmasters, Charleston is suddenly one of the most important barbecue junctions in America. They bring their distinct backgrounds and expertise. Beef is John Lewis’s métier; Rodney Scott is the boss of hog. Lewis is a native of El Paso, Texas. Scott grew up in Hemingway, South Carolina. Lewis is white; Scott is black. Lewis learned his craft in Austin under Aaron Franklin and then became the headliner at La Barbecue, a serious contender against Franklin BBQ. Scott began working the pits when he was 11 at his family’s restaurant in Hemingway.
They opened their first solo ventures eight months apart (Lewis last June; Scott this past February), in a town with one of the brightest global spotlights on its restaurant scene. Their close timing was a coincidence, but their choice in high-profile location certainly was not.
Beyond the critical considerations of Lewis’s and Scott’s individual efforts, a question smoldered as I toggled between their eponymous dining rooms: How much does regional genesis and style even matter any more when it comes to consuming barbecue in the United States?
The topic has been mulled over plenty. Dedicated barbecue writers like Daniel Vaughn, Jim Shahin, Robert Moss, and J.C. Reid routinely tackle the big barbecue questions in a moment of renaissance and evolution: Its shift from rural pilgrimage sites to urban phenomena (in states with and without deep barbecue traditions); the refocusing on quality, locally raised meats; and the embrace of experimentation. Smoked lamb may steal the limelight in pork country, and seasonal berries might replace vinegar and tomatoes as a base for sauce. These are lawless times for barbecue in America.
In Charleston barbecue restaurants established well before Lewis and Scott arrived, you can find Texas-style brisket, smoked chicken wings slaked with Alabama white sauce, and ribs slathered in sweet-tinged tomato sauce a la Memphis and Kansas City. But this pair brings mastery and prestige of Olympian stature. As a longtime barbecue fanatic, I still hold dear the pilgrimages to swaths of the South and to Texas where pitmasters practice methods perfected by generations of cooks in their specific locations. That said, if two of barbecue’s greatest practitioners set up shop in one of the country’s most beautiful and well-fed cities, I’m not protesting too loudly.
Assessing both of these places isn’t a “versus” situation for me: If you enjoy barbecue, you don’t decide between visiting one or the other. You go to both.
“Here’s a taste for you,” says the staffer behind the counter, after I’ve ordered a heaping tray’s worth of barbecue and sides. He holds out a sliver of brisket for me to take from his gloved hand. Behind him menu items have been scrawled on butcher paper and hung like flyers on the subway tile that lines the wall. While he goes to work sawing slices, I savor my sample and remember the first time I tasted John Lewis’s handiwork in Austin three years ago. Tall and slim, Lewis had leaned out of the trailer window of La Barbecue and also offered me a bite of brisket; it’s a gesture extended by many of Texas heavyweights who slice orders in front of the customers.
His Charleston feats match my memory. Here in South Carolina is the near-custardy texture I recalled, the fat rendered so thoroughly into the meat that the sum registers as almost alien to the taste buds: No beef can possibly be this rich. Here, too, is the craggy exterior, peppery but with a pheromone of vinegar, and the crimson smoke ring like a devil’s vanishing halo. The brisket is straight legit.
I hoist my tray, flow with the rowdy crowd drifting toward the restaurant’s outdoor seating, and then look up amazed. A large oak tree stretches across the yard. Its crooked, sprawling limbs hang with chandeliers made from kindling twisted into orbs. If you’d plunked me down blindfolded, removed the mask, and asked me where I was, I would have looked out at this scene — the grand oak, the orderly stacks of wood piled against a fence, the picnic tables full of souls gorging on beef barbecue — and said with confidence, “Texas.”
This, then, is Lewis’s remarkable accomplishment. He brought the Lone Star State with him to Carolina. His operation doesn’t come off as a re-creation, but as a relocation. And that simply does not happen with the cuisines of Texas. It’s like there’s a gastronomic force field around the state’s borders; the food fails to translate once state lines are crossed. I’ve encountered approximations — worthy enough versions that approach the specific glory of a deluxe Tex-Mex platter, or fajitas or, yes, brisket — but they always fall short of legitimacy. Lewis broke the spell; his brisket technique made the journey.
There are other barbecued meats to try beyond brisket: pulled pork, sliced turkey, pork spare ribs, and “hot guts,” the Central Texas moniker for beef sausage that pops with each bite. This kind of variety is common in modern Texas barbecue restaurants. None disappoint, but honestly? Save your appetite for the brisket and a sausage link. And for the mighty beef rib that makes an appearance only on Saturdays. Lewis nails the correct contrasts: the crusty surface that gives way to meat that is gratifyingly taut in some corners, and nearly molten in others. Ask for complimentary pickles to help slash through the richness.
Among typical sides, the superior option strays from Lone Star convention: It’s a green chile-corn pudding, gently spicy and wonderfully wobbly but not too eggy. The pudding is a worthy concession to Southern predilections. All strangers in strange lands eventually wind up adopting a local proclivity or two.
RODNEY SCOTT’S BBQ
The menu posted above the counter at Rodney Scott’s BBQ lays out a familiar rundown of dishes served in barbecue restaurants across America: spare ribs, chicken, fries, baked beans, mac and cheese, hush puppies, greens, potato salad. Fillets of farm-raised catfish fried in cornmeal batter, presented either on a hamburger bun or plain with two sides, slip a seafood option into the mix. The smoked ribeye sandwich with globs of melted white cheddar shouts out to Philadelphia, where Scott was born.
These items pad the dining experience, like catchy filler tunes whose true purpose is to frame an album’s one clear hit. This restaurant really exists as an anthem to whole-hog barbecue. After a pig has smoldered for 12 or so hours and been soaked in peppery vinegar sauce, Scott and his crew will pull meat from different parts of the animal, toss in some crackly bits of amber skin, and chop it all together. Woodsy smoke, chile heat, and acidic twang dovetail in each porky bite.
I’ve savored Scott’s virtuosity before, in Hemingway and also in Atlanta in 2014 during his “Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Exile Tour,” a jaunt organized to help him raise funds after a pit caught fire in Hemingway and burned down the previous Thanksgiving. (The Scott family rebuilt.) In Charleston, I order small portions of most of the menu, but all my energies are focused on the pulled pig. And it’s … fine. The signature union of flavors all present themselves, but I can’t ignore that the meat is dry and lacking the shards of skin that bring such satisfying contrast.
As I’m leaving, I poke my head into the pit building right next door — a behind-the-scenes glimpse that Scott or an employee will often accommodate. Smoke permeates the room but doesn’t obscure the sight of the split, splayed hogs in all their anatomical glory. I watch a staffer pluck meat from one cooked beast and then carry a pan of it to the restaurant kitchen. On impulse I race back to the counter and ask for a whole hog sandwich. I point to the pan I can glimpse through the window into the kitchen. “From that batch, please,” I say.
Here is the pork in its full magnificence, fresh and saucy and vital. And oddly, I return the next day around the same time for lunch and somehow the meat is even better, almost creamy in its lushness and shot through with the varnished skin I longed for in my first go-round.
So I can’t vouch for consistency at Scott’s, but I still urge barbecue lovers to go — because when the meat is on, it’s transcendent, and also because the restaurant has a uniquely wonderful spirit. All barbecue is communal, but I’d argue that whole-hog barbecue, by its nature, engenders the strongest sense of community. Maybe it’s the realness of its appearance. Maybe it’s that whole-hog smoking takes a village, or at least two strong bodies to flip the pig at its crucial stage of cooking. In any case, Rodney Scott and his easygoing warmth magnetize people. The throng he draws is the most diverse I’ve seen in a Charleston restaurant — an ebb and flow of blacks and whites, families and solo diners, old and young. Barbecue meals can go quickly, but here I linger over a bowl of excellent banana pudding, watching the rhythm of the crowds and feeling all sorts of promise around the future of urban barbecue.
Lewis Barbecue: 464 North Nassau Street, Charleston, SC, (843) 805-9500, lewisbarbecue.com Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Rodney Scott BBQ: 1011 King Street, Charleston, SC, (843) 990-9535, rodneyscottsbbq.com Open daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
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