Is Carolina Barbecue Going Texas-Style?
"Oh my goodness," I said when the counter man called our number at Melvin's Barbecue in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. "They've gone Texas."
There was sliced brisket on my tray, but I expected that, since I had seen that Melvin's had recently added salt and pepper brisket to its menu and had stopped by specifically to give it a try. What I didn't expect was that it would be served on a rectangular aluminum tray lined with brown butcher paper, complete with sliced onions and pickles and a whole jalapeño on the side—just like they do at countless brisket joints down in Austin and Dallas.
These days, such Lone Star trappings are becoming more common in barbecue joints all over the South—even in the Carolinas. All sorts of new faces are opening restaurants these days, and many of them grew up somewhere else and may have come to barbecue from the competition circuit or from fine dining kitchens, so they don't feel hemmed in by local traditions.
But Melvin's isn't some aspiring young nouveau ‘cue joint. Its founder, Melvin Bessinger, was one of the six Bessinger brothers who came down to Charleston from Orangeburg County just after World War II and went into the restaurant business, bringing with them the distinctive Midlands South Carolina-style barbecue—including hash and rice and their father's signature yellow mustard based sauce. That Bessinger style has defined South Carolina barbecue for more than half a century, and its primary meat has always been pork.
"We served a top round beef back in the '70s and '80s," says Melvin Bessinger's son David, who runs the operation today. "And we always heard about brisket out in Texas. That wouldn't go over in the South so we never bothered."
But times are changing, and we have television, BBQ cookbooks, and a mobile population to thank for it.
"Here lately in the last 5 years [brisket] started creeping up," Bessinger says. "I didn't know anything about it. So I had to do a lot of smoking and burning and did a lot of reading up on it."
Before launching beef in his restaurant, Bessinger took a trip out to Texas, visiting classic brisket joints like Kreuz's and Smitty's in Lockhart and spending time with Ronnie Killen at Killen's Barbecue in Pearland, talking beef and pork techniques.
The brisket evangelists have made a lot of noise about how hard it is to master cooking that particular cut, calling it "the Mount Everest of Barbecue" and all sorts of other silly things. But, Bessinger says, "It's not hard to learn."
He admits he did burn up a brisket or two at first, but quickly got the hang of it. The key thing he picked up from his trip to Texas was the wrapping technique. "I had the butcher paper all along but we weren't wrapping it properly," he says. After watching how Killen does it he realized, "It's like wrapping a birthday present. There's nothing to it."
"I use packer brisket and it's got the point and the flat to it," Bessinger says. "We smoke it for about 15 hours on just oak wood." He's also added gigantic beef ribs to the menu, and the Texas influence has gone beyond just the meat.
"I came up with those aluminum trays about a year ago," Bessinger says, "even before I went to Texas. I started looking at magazines and reading and just kind of came across Killen's Barbecue on the internet. I really liked the butcher paper."
Bessinger was also quite taken by the cafeteria-style service at the Texas joints, where customers wait in line and watch as their barbecue is carved fresh in front of them. He's toyed with the idea of switching over to that style instead of his current fast-food counter service approach. "I love that idea," he says. "But you have to wait a long time. I just don't know if my customers would be willing to do that."
So far, Bessinger reports, the new Texas touches have been well received. "My [longtime] customers were like, 'what is this?' But I stuck with the plan and I think they've gotten used to it." Besides, he notes, "There are so many transplants that are coming into South Carolina."
As for sales, "Pork is still number 1," he says. "But number 2 is the brisket."
Plenty of other changes are underway at this South Carolina barbecue institution. One of them, which Bessinger expects to roll out in a few weeks, is so exciting that I'm going to hold it close to the vest until it's fully implemented. Another big one, though, is a change in the raw material of the barbecue.
"We're getting away from commodity meat," Bessinger says. "We've gone to all natural products. Compart Duroc pig—I'm the only restaurant in Charleston that can carry that—Meyers all-natural brisket and beef ribs, all natural chickens & turkeys."
"It's definitely a lot more expensive," he says, but it's worth it. "We are dealing with animals that aren't going to be stressed out. They're being treated fairly . . . And I really do think it tastes better."
Ultimately, Bessinger sees it as getting back to the kind of pork his grandfather, Joe Bessinger, was cooking up in Orangeburg County in the 1930s, back before science and commodity agriculture bred all the flavor out of pork trying to create "the other white meat."
"Our barbecue sauce is all natural," he is quick to add. "And has been gluten free since 1933!"
Salt ‘n pepper brisket on butcher paper-lined trays with onions and pickles: that's something I never thought I would find in an iconic South Carolina joint. As much as it pains the traditionalist in me to say it, though, it's pretty darn good brisket: a nice bark, sliced properly with a good grain and the right tender-but-taut texture. And it goes quite splendidly with that bright yellow "Golden Secret" mustard-based sauce and a side of hash and rice.