Back toward the end of the summer, I started hearing rumors that Market Street Saloon was serving barbecue. And not oven-roasted pork slathered in bottled sauce but the genuine slow-smoked, pit-cooked variety.
It seemed unlikely. The original downtown location, which is right in the heart of things on, yes, Market Street, is a full-on party bar. The all-female and decidedly not-overdressed bartenders are prone to hopping up and dancing on the wide bar and, as the crowds pack in and things get loud, female patrons are invited to join them up there, too, helpfully assisted by some rather imposing-looking bouncers. It's the perfect place for a bachelor or bachelorette party you'll be relieved not to remember later, but not exactly where one would think to go for a plate of ribs.
But there's a wrinkle. The Market Street Saloon opened its second location out in North Charleston last year, and this June they introduced a new barbecue menu. Barbecue is no stranger to the building: It's the former home of Sticky Fingers on the perimeter road that circles Northwoods Mall. The pit room is off to the side of the big brick building, complete with those big silver smoke diffuser things that indicate modern-day, DHEC-approved cookers. And there's definitely some hardwood chips smoldering in there. You can smell them as soon as you step out of your car.
Just don't expect a typical barbecue restaurant. It's very much a bar atmosphere. The music is a mixture of classic rock, new country, and even a little hip-hop thrown in now and again. You can sit at the bar, at the row of low tables that flanks it, or out on the broad deck that surrounds half the building. There are plenty of big screen TVs showing ball games, too.
But, to the pertinent question: Is the barbecue any good?
On their website and marketing materials, the Market Street Saloon boldly claims to serve "the world's best barbecue." This should only be expected. In the world of barbecue, if you find a pitmaster who doesn't claim to serve the world's best barbecue, you can be pretty certain that it's going to be flat-out awful.
I would hardly characterize Market Street Saloon's as the world's best, but in my book it's pretty solid "competition 'cue," which means it's cooked on high-tech equipment by a pitmaster with an eye for the little details. The meat tends to be fairly flavorful and has a great juicy texture, and it also tends to be a bit non-regional, or at least acts as an amalgamation of several regional varieties.
The sauce selection reflects this. The Saloon offers four varieties, which they line up for you in plastic squeeze bottles in a tempting pre-'cue ceremony. The website notes that each of them "represents a taste reflective of championship barbecue from [its respective] region of the country." There's an Eastern North Carolina-style spicy vinegar sauce, a sweet tomato-based Memphis style, a thicker and spicier Kansas City style, and — in keeping with the local tradition — a yellow mustard-based sauce, too. All four are housemade and, I have to say, all four are quite good. The spices in each really come out strongly to the forefront, and you can tell someone has taken their time fine-tuning the recipes.
The pork dinner ($10) loads up a massive pound of real pulled pork, the kind that results in big chunks and long, ropy shreds. The meat is tender and has a decent tinge of smoke to it, though there isn't a lot of "outside brown" or crispy bits to make it interesting. I settled eventually on the Kansas City-style red sauce, with its strong kick of hot pepper and spices and a pleasingly-grainy texture reminiscent of the spicy stuff you get at legendary KC joints like Gates'. For big shreds of pulled pork you need a stiff, bold sauce like that. The vinegar and mustard styles, for some reason, seem more suited to the more finely chopped barbecue that's normally served in the Carolinas.
You can get barbecued chicken in two varieties, as half of a chicken or pulled off the bone like the pork. I prefer the half bird, since it's served with the skin on, and the spice from the rub gives it a lot of flavor. But, I have to give the pulled chicken its due. My first impression was that it was a little too boring, especially next to the pulled pork, and considerable experimentation with all four sauces failed to improve it. The real problem, I soon realized, is that the big chunks of white meat up at the top of the bowl are just too dry and mild. By the time I got to the bottom of the bowl, where the small shreds lay soaking in their own juices, it was perfectly smoky and flavorful and didn't need any sauce at all.
You can add a little side bowl of pulled chicken to the pork plate, and vice versa, for an extra two bucks, or "cowboy up" (no, I don't know what that means) and get all three on a combo platter ($19). With each of the dinners you get your choice of two sides from a slate of traditional offerings like coleslaw, mac n' cheese, green beans, and mashed potatoes and gravy. The french fries are just regular old fries, but the baked beans are superb. I normally shy away from beans at barbecue joints because they tend to be gunked up with brown sugar and molasses in a concoction approaching a dessert. The Market Street Saloon gets the balance right, though, with a little bit of spice and just a slight touch of sweetness that still lets you taste the beans.
Apart from the barbecue, the rest of the menu is your standard barroom cuisine. Appetizers include fried mozzarella ($6), chili-cheese fries ($8), and chicken tenders ($7), and there's a slate of burgers, wraps, and a one-pound "cowboy steak" ribeye ($17). One of the advantages of having a barbecue pit in the back, though, is that you can doctor up ordinary bar fare by adding pulled pork or chicken to a plate of nachos ($8) or quesadillas ($8). If you've never had your chicken wings smoked on a barbecue pit ($6 for 6, $15 for 20) instead of deep fried and coated in hot sauce, you have no idea what you're missing.
And, yes, the North Charleston outpost maintains the original downtown location's tradition of female bartenders dancing up on the bar. On a Friday night when the bar is packed and you've got a six pack of Bud on board, this is the kind of thing that may make for a hoot-hollering good ole time. But on a weeknight when there's only a dozen souls in the joint and you've got a big platter of pork in front of you, it's a bit unnerving, and you find yourself thinking, "Careful, dear, mind you don't put your cowboy boot in my beans."
All told, I'm not sure the 'cue is superlative enough to justify a trip out to North Charleston just to eat pulled pork or ribs. But, if you're going to watch a ball game or have a night on the town with the boys, why not do it in a place where you can get a big platter of hickory-smoked wings or a massive mound of good pulled pork? And if a boot-scootin', hair-flipping line dance just happens to break out on the bar in front of you ... well, what's a guy to do?