For a long time, I've had my eye on an empty green cinderblock building on Hwy. 17 N., just past the Park West and Charleston National subdivisions at the northern reaches of Mt. Pleasant. "What a great spot for a barbecue restaurant," I thought whenever I drove past. It just looked the part: an unassuming building with a low-sloped roof and a generous gravel parking lot, close enough to the north Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods to pick up local traffic and a perfect location for snaring southbound tourists before they got to the Towne Centre corridor of chain restaurants.
I wasn't the only one. Two Mt. Pleasant restaurant veterans — Will Whitsett, formerly of Morgan Creek Grill, and Tim Runyan, who owned Bert's Bar on Sullivan's Island for two decades — gave the green building a makeover and opened it for business back in January as Oink!, Charleston's newest barbecue restaurant.
Inside, everything is clean and up-to-date, with creamsicle orange walls and white track lights. There's a full bar and a wide screen porch on the side of the building for outside dining.
Oink! has a full menu of salads, sandwiches, and burgers, plus fried seafood plates, featuring local flounder, shrimp, and oysters. The core offering, though, is smoked ribs, pork, and chicken. The style leans heavily toward eastern North Carolina, something uncommon on the local barbecue scene.
The side dishes include barbecue potatoes, an item not seen often in these parts. Big chunks of boiled white potatoes are served in a thin, reddish sauce that adds a pleasant zip. The hushpuppies look the part, too: long and thin and fried to a dark golden brown. They have a crispy crunch outside, but the insides are almost completely flavorless, as are the squares of cornbread that are served with the barbecue plates and presumably share the same batter. The coleslaw doesn't really hit, either, with finely chopped cabbage that is loaded down with too much celery seed.
I was quite pleased, however, with the collards. They aren't technically a part of the eastern North Carolina canon, but Oink! does a good version: dark and tender and served in a thin sauce brimming with smoky pork and the zip of hot peppers.
There are plenty of other items that you would never find in a barbecue joint up in Goldsboro or Rocky Mount. Perhaps they're designed to broaden the appeal to a market that didn't grow up eating chopped pork on paper plates, but in my mind they just don't work.
The Redneck Crostini ($6.25), for example, is the kind of "innovation" that makes one want to cry, "Please stop trying so hard!" It's high concept: slices of cornbread baked with butter and garlic and topped with Clemson Blue cheese, cracklings, and diced tomatoes. The four small cornbread squares are about half an inch thick and are toasted until crisp all the way through. That treatment works fine with white Italian bread, but cornbread isn't all that good when toasted. Clemson Blue cheese is delightfully tasty as cold, solid crumbles, but it isn't nearly as appealing when melted and runny, and rather than adding a nice contrast of texture, the cracklings seem like gritty little interruptions. I could sign up for redneck (say, cornbread with cracklings) or crostini (the Italian kind), but not both together.
And that's a shame, for when Oink! focuses on their core business, they pull off some pretty good barbecue. Adam's Ribs ($14 half rack, $20 full rack) are meaty St. Louis cuts that are slow-smoked in a Southern Pride combo oak-and-gas rig until they're fall-off-the-bone tender. The ribs are only lightly seasoned. Rich and smoky, the meat is just about perfect. Unfortunately, they come brushed with a sugary brown barbecue sauce that's superfluous, since the ribs have plenty of flavor on their own. But, you can always order the sauce on the side.
For a close approximation of the eastern North Carolina style, the Pretty Pig plate ($10.50) is a little pricey but still fits the bill. It has a generous portion of finely-chopped pork with just a touch of spicy vinegar sauce, and it includes slaw, cornbread, and a choice of two sides.
For evaluation purposes, I subjected the chopped pork to the tried-and-true Refrigerator Test: take a reasonable portion of leftover meat home in a styrofoam container and put it in your refrigerator. If you reheat it for lunch or dinner a day or two later, it has failed the test. If, on the other hand, every time you open the refrigerator you peek into the box and grab a nibble or three just to tide you over and by midmorning the next day there's nothing left, you've had some good barbecue. Oink's chopped pork passed with flying colors.
The sandwich didn't fare as well.
I imagine that whoever created Oink!'s menu considered various types of buns for the sandwich and decided to go with a fluffy Kaiser roll because it's bigger and more flavorful and just plain classier than a flat Sunbeam hamburger bun.
But class isn't what a barbecue sandwich needs. It needs the perfect balance of smoky meat, tangy sauce, soft bread, along with a little crunch from either the slaw or pickles or both. And, the bun should be toasted or heated on a griddle so that it's warm and crispy around the edges and blends meltingly into the meat. A thick, untoasted Kaiser roll just gets in the way with too much bread.
Oink! is located in that interesting part of the county where rusty mobile homes and sag-roofed houses sit just around the corner from newly-built mini-mansions on deepwater lots, and the restaurant seems to reflect that clash of cultures. In striving to find a balance between high and low, it stumbles in the middle.
The clean, upscale interior seems aimed at the family market. The Redneck Crostini, the spinach salad ($7), and fried seafood combos ($14.50 for two items, $16 for three) may help broaden the appeal, but they distract the focus from the core barbecue offering. On multiple visits I was treated to waiter service that made me long for the days when you ordered barbecue at a counter and carried it to the table yourself. And, with $2 soft drinks and children's meals at $6.50 a pop, one suspects that Oink! may well price itself out of the very market it is aiming for.
We're left with a restaurant that can't quite decide if it's a nice, family sit-down place or an eastern North Carolina-style barbecue joint. And, in trying to serve both masters, it ends up failing both. One hopes that with time they may pare back some of the extravagances and focus on the fundamentals of barbecue — and, for Pete's sake, knock a few bucks off the kids' meals.