For most South Carolinians, barbecue means one thing and one thing only: pork cooked low and slow over wood coals. They quibble over doctrinal details, like whether it should be made from whole hog or just the shoulders and whether it's best dressed in a fiery vinegar-and-pepper sauce or the vivid yellow mustard-based kind. But, there’s one point on which they’re all in agreement: that barbecue sure as heck isn't made from beef.
John Lewis believes the state may be ready for a change. He’s the pitmaster at La Barbecue, the acclaimed Austin, TX, restaurant, and he's in the process of opening an outpost in downtown Charleston, S.C., bringing his signature Texas-style slow-smoked beef to the Palmetto State.
Lewis first visited Charleston last summer for the Charleston Brown Water Society’s SC-TX BBQ Invitational, where he cooked brisket, beef ribs, and sausage alongside famed whole hog cook Rodney Scott of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C. Lewis was impressed by the beauty of the city as well as the response from the crowd.
“I’ve been looking for another city to go open a barbecue place,” he says. He considered Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, but decided the soil wasn’t fertile enough there. “South Carolina is deeply rooted in the barbecue tradition,” Lewis says. “People here [in Charleston] have been very receptive to what I make.”
Lewis has found a location at the corner of Nassau and Isabella Streets in the so-called NoMo (North Morrison Drive) neighborhood, which is fast becoming a hotspot for new restaurants. He’ll be bringing in not one but four massive offset smokers fashioned from 1,000-gallon propane tanks, each with a firebox on one side and a chimney on the other that pulls the flavorful post-oak smoke across the meat as it cooks. He hopes to be open by summer.
Lewis has no plans to alter his style to accommodate local tastes. “I’m not trying to do Carolina barbecue,” he says. “I just do Texas barbecue.” That means beef brisket, pork spareribs, and hot gut sausage made from scratch. “We’ll be serving on butcher paper,” Lewis ads. “You’ll order at the counter.”
Will barbecue fans in the Carolinas embrace such a different mode of barbecue? This past weekend, Lewis was back in Charleston cooking at Coast Brewing’s Brew & ‘Cue event, where he dished up pound after pound of brisket and hot guts alongside local pitmaster Aaron Siegel of Home Team BBQ, who contributed pork ribs and smoked chicken wings. The line of hungry diners stretched out the front gate of the brewery yard and halfway down the street, a strong indicator that, in Charleston, at least, South Carolinians may well be ready to supplement their beloved pulled pork with a little slow-smoked brisket.