I recently found myself a victim in the most unfortunate of circumstances with a dear friend of mine. He made the egregious error of saying, "Let's barbecue some steaks tonight." I clutched my metaphorical pearls in horror. One does not simply "barbecue" last minute. Moreover, a "barbecue" does not involve seasoning some ribeyes and chucking them over an open flame. I needed to stop this before an argument ensued and ended our friendships.
As a disclaimer, I was not born into barbecue. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey where barbecue was a catch-all term that encompassed everything from grilled chicken breasts with KC Masterpiece (the horror) to tough baby back ribs that were similarly slathered with store-bought sauce. Speaking from both sides, I can tell you that a great number of Northerners have never tried authentic, Southern "low and slow" barbecue. For those unfortunate Yankees, it's nearly impossible to explain the precise art and finesse that goes into a beautifully smoked piece of meat or the hours of preparation it necessitates without experiencing it firsthand.
In that vein, I can think of no better local place to try coastal South Carolina barbecue than Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ, a concept born in Charleston 10 years ago by pitmaster/owner Aaron Siegel.
Already a mini-empire in the Lowcountry with locations in West Ashley and on Sullivan's Island, Siegal decided to stake his claim downtown in a sleek indoor-outdoor space just north of the Crosstown. Borrowing ideas from his two other restaurants has given the downtown Home Team the most fully realized concept of the three, featuring a gorgeous outdoor area similar to his West Ashley establishment with the full-service of Sullivan's. The common denominator among all three is what Home Team is best known for: its food, glorious food.
For the most part, the food downtown is almost as consistent as all previous trips to the two other Home Teams. But while the menu here is not vastly different from the original restaurants, it does feature some previously unseen creations such as the crispy pork cake ($9.95), baked queso ($8.50), tots ($4.50), and cold smoked cobia aratre ($8.95).
I tried three of the four and the queso is handily the best. Featuring spicy chorizo, corn, poblano peppers, and jalapeños, the Southwest-inspired cheese dip is so satisfying that one small dish of it is simply not enough. It's rich but not overly so, featuring mild melty cojita cheese that prevents the queso from veering into a gluey mess. The crispy pork cake however is very creative but not quite as fine-dining as it's aiming to be. It's the victim of too many flavors with everything from peaches to mint to parmesan. If they toned it down, reduced the salt, and subtracted the mint and lemon, the pork cake could find the flavor profile they're looking for. The tots though were delicious. But let's be honest, tater tots with practically any dipping sauce are almost universally beloved. It's a smart and inexpensive new feature to this menu that I feel will only benefit Home Team.
On the entree side of things, one dish that is always reliably satisfying are the smoked chicken wings ($7.25/half-dozen, $13.50/a dozen). Deliciously juicy with the perfect amount of rub on the exterior, Home Team makes some of the best wings I have ever had. When paired with their signature Alabama white sauce, it's difficult to not describe the poultry as superlative.
Taking into account that Home Team is in fact famous for its barbecue, I wanted to try as many meats as I could without looking like I ordered half the menu. I soon realized that this is legitimately impossible given that the logo has a smiling pig practically daring you to not over order. I gave in on account of my poor mental fortitude and the smarmy swine's smile.
To start, I ordered a three-meat combo platter ($19.50) complete with sliced brisket, pulled chicken, and sausage. While fully anticipating the brisket to be my favorite of the three, I was surprised to find it just a hair too dry and tough, though still possessing a rich and smoky flavor. When topped with Home Team's mustard sauce, a staple in South Carolinian barbecue, it brought just enough necessary texture to the beef. The chicken was smoked perfectly and so moist that it didn't need any sauce to help it. The bird was juicy and rich with just the right amount of salt and heat. But the sausage was easily my favorite of the three. My expectations were admittedly low, but this meat ended up being so tasty that it was the only item that was completely gone from the plate when we left. A perfectly snappy skin gave way to ground pork with plenty of sage and pepper, slow smoked to crispy and juicy perfection. I wasn't expecting to leave raving about the smoked sausage, but I cannot deny the power of a delicious piece of smoked pork.
I tackled menu staples too, of course. A rack of St. Louis ribs ($15.95 for a half, $23.95 for a full) and Fiery Ron's burger ($12.50) came next. While I've heard praise for both for years, my review was mixed. The ribs, though very tender with a gorgeous dark bark on the outside, were overwhelmingly smoky and intense — so intense, in fact, that it was borderline palate-killing. Fiery Ron's burger fared much better. The last thing that I would expect from a barbecue joint is that the 10 oz. beefy behemoth topped with smoked bacon and American cheese would steal the spotlight from the ribs. But that burger is so good it can't help itself. This dish embodies what is so great about the Home Team brand: take an uncomplicated concept, master it, and be consistent.
Unfortunately, my strongest criticism with the youngest Home Team is that in its attempt to be the most creative of the three restaurants — something chef Taylor Garrigan told City Paper when it opened — they may have lost sight of what keeps fans returning. Take for example Home Team's macaroni and cheese ($3.25). Easily one of their most popular sides at Sullivan's and West Ashley, the mac downtown was notably less creamy and unmemorable during my visits. The same was true of the barbecue burrito ($10.50). Normally a standout — the oddball combo of creamed corn, mashed potatoes, and 'cue has been a fan-favorite since opening — but here was dry and needed more sauce. With the three Home Team's sharing presumably the same recipes, it seems odd that the dishes tasted so discordant.
That said, while it's still impossible to explain the concept of barbecue to an outsider, including my friend, a step in the right direction would be to steer a non-Southerner up Morrison Drive for some wings, smoked chicken, and of course pulled pork. Home Team BBQ does a great job of representing the authenticity of the South Carolina barbecue culture in a fun, approachable atmosphere with a diverse menu and mostly delicious food. Once they take some necessary steps to refine their signature recipes, the future of this beloved local brand seems undeniably positive.