It was like that scene out of When Harry Met Sally. Only louder. And much, much greasier.
Oh. My. God."
But this was no cheeky reenactment, just the throes of pure, smoked meat ecstasy.
If you had asked me a few weeks ago what the best barbecue I ever had was, I'd have said Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. For reasons I do not know and would never question, acclaimed pit master John Lewis — a two and a half-year veteran of Franklin Barbecue and later credited with building Austin's La Barbecue into a nationally respected spot — decided to trade in Bat City for the Holy City.
Pork-loving, Carolina mustard sauce-loyalists may not be entirely accustomed to what Lewis Barbecue has got in those smokers, but give the beef a chance, and it's hard to imagine you'll experience anything less than loud, vocal satisfaction.
Let's start with the familiar.
The chunks of pulled pork ($18/lb.) boast a visible smoke line, and the kiss of char flavor hits first. Served with sliced white bread or on a fresh roll and some not-to-be missed pickled onions, the meat is rich and tender. The oil-logged paper wrapping quickly exposes the other white meat as oh, so fatty, but before your bread succumbs entirely — or perhaps to urge it along — try some sauce.
Granted, this is not what most people think of with respect to "barbecue sauce," and, well, arguably it's not. You have your option of red or green, both of which look more like something you'd find on a salsa bar. Fittingly, the green is earthy and mellow; rich with mild chile and vinegar flavors. It's complex and a little sweet, packing a light heat at the finish. The red is tangy and assertive, with a sharp apple cider vinegar tang, but not the usual sugary finish associated with vinegar-based barbecue.
Neither to your liking? I could be mistaken, but I saw absolutely no signage prohibiting eaters from smuggling in their own. On the other hand, you may find sauce is an afterthought once you get your lips around this meat.
The pork spare ribs ($18/lb.) are typically rich and tender. Smoke is once again an initial element of the flavor profile, but it works as an accent more than a "this tastes like smoke" assault. A thin layer of sweet sauce melted along the edge keeps things from getting too savory. Prices shake out to about $5 a rib, and honestly, you could do a lot — insert imagery of any fast food "value meal" known to man — worse for $5.
Pork ribs aren't the only hand-held option available. The beef short rib ($22/lb.) is a unique menu item, as a single rib can be as large as two hulking and pricey pounds post-cooked weight. Hogging valuable real estate in the smoker, this delicious hunk of burning love is available only on Saturdays, but it's worth the effort to get your paws on one. Unlike brisket, where there are distinct lean and fatty sides, the marbling in a beef short rib runs evenly throughout the meat, ensuring each bite is decadently balanced. Still, finding the right temperature in the smoker requires considerable skill. Lewis' efforts result in crispy, charred edges coated with a flavorful rub with a bit of crunch. There's a little hint of sweet and a touch of heat, but one thing is sure: This cow died for a worthy cause. All hail the king, indeed.
The red-skin potatoes, however? Although I wouldn't go so far as to say they died in vain, when compared with the marvels coming out of the smoker, the sides are remarkably unremarkable. Served in large, firm chunks and tossed with green onion and a horseradish-laden creamy sauce, the buttermilk potato salad ($2.50/$8 pint/$12 quart) earns a resounding meh.
The creamy lemon slaw ($2.50/$8 pint/$12 quart) doesn't fare much better. Somewhat wet, with pungent cabbage barely tempered by the hint of lemon and a light creamy dressing heavy on the celery seed, it's a forgettable effort.
But perhaps it's only fair? If everything coming out of Lewis Barbecue's kitchen were perfection, Charleston — or at least me personally — would be facing an obesity epidemic of epic scale.
Thankfully, the cowboy pinto beans ($2.50/$8 pint/$12 quart) pose no such threat. Featuring the look and taste of what I imagine baked beans cooked with a jar of salsa might turn out like, they're fine, but nothing memorable.
The sweet corn tamale-esque chile cornbread pudding ($3.50) was preceded by much fanfare. The eggy quality is a refreshing change, but the large chunks of salty cheese I could do without. However, as things go, this is by far the best side of the bunch.
But who needs sides when you have turkey ($18/lb.) like this? Incredibly moist and kissed with smoke flavor, a half-pound gets you four thick slices of peppered breast meat. If the juice level in this bird doesn't convince you the man is a master, there's probably no persuading you.
Set in an open, warehouse-like space with white walls and high ceilings with exposed ductwork, you place your order at the front counter and find your own seat. There's also a bar with a focus on Mexican beer and cocktails.
Although the lines bordered on outrageous when the joint first opened, things have calmed down a bit. Regardless, service is reliably patient and helpful no matter the circumstances, and the available menu items — many of which come and go throughout the day — can be found written on brown craft paper tacked to the wall.
The "hot guts" sausage link ($5) may find you having an unplanned "where does meat come from?" conversation with your offspring, but the finished product is admirable nonetheless. Spicy and smoky with visible hot pepper flakes and the deep red of paprika, it's as hearty and satisfying a hot link as you'd find anywhere.
Still, for my $21 a pound, nothing comes close to the prime beef brisket. Tender, succulent, and decadent, it inspires Gollum-like hoarding urges. Oh, for the days of the Atkins Diet craze, when eating like this daily could be considered anything other than a gluttonous cry for help. However, consumed in moderation, there's nothing wrong with a little greasy public ecstasy among barbecue enthusiasts.
I'll see — or hear— you there.