It's an unfortunate fact that the Lowcountry does not have a strong barbecue tradition. By "tradition," I mean a local style of cooking that extends back to at least the 19th century and was handed down through family ties and informal apprenticeships. Barbecue is a relatively recent arrival in Charleston, coming to town back in the 1950s when the Bessinger brothers brought German-influenced pork shoulders and mustard-based sauce down from Orangeburg County. Other restaurants followed, but only a small few — like Momma Brown's and J.B.'s Smokeshack — have stuck around long enough to become old favorites.
There's a silver lining to not having a strong barbecue heritage: you aren't bound by local conventions. Witness the success of Sticky Fingers and their Memphis-style ribs and the Alabama import Jim 'n Nicks Bar-B-Q. And now three new barbecue joints have appeared on the scene, bringing with them a range of styles borrowed from other states and fine-tuned on the booming competition barbecue circuit. All in all, this is a very good thing for those who love hickory-smoked meat.
Entrées: Moderate ($5-$18)
Lunch and Dinner (Mon.-Sat.)
440 W. Coleman Blvd.
Of the three newcomers, Ray's BBQ has the best atmosphere. It's in an old gas station on Coleman Boulevard, the former home of the Red Pepper Squirrel. You can eat inside at the high tables with black and silver stools or at picnic tables out on the patio. On a pleasant afternoon, they'll crank up the big bay door and open the whole dining area to the outside air.
If you look around Ray's, you'll notice more than a few pieces of Georgia Bulldogs paraphernalia, a clue to the barbecue's pedigree. Ray Waldrup is originally from Columbus, Ga., and has been cooking with his family on the regional competition circuit since he was in his 20s. Waldrup was formerly in the retail furniture business in Mt. Pleasant, but the recent housing downturn led him to rethink his prospects, and he decided to make a living out of what he loves best: cooking barbecue. So maybe the sub-prime mortgage crisis isn't all bad.
Ray denies an allegiance to any one regional style, but there's a definite Georgia influence at work, from the thick red Brunswick stew to the thin, mild Georgia mustard sauce, which is quite unlike the thick, sweet stuff South Carolinians are accustomed to. To please all comers, four other house-made sauces are available: Memphis Hickory, North Carolina Vinegar, Louisiana Hot, and, yes, a South Carolina Sweet Mustard. The focus, though, is on the meat, which is cooked in a combo electric-wood smoker that allows Ray to control the temperature and cook low and slow for up to 16 hours while adding flavor from real burning wood. The pork shoulder and whole chickens are chopped with a cleaver on a wooden board right there at the front counter as you order, a nice touch that keeps the meat juicy and tender.
For the full offering, try the pork, chicken, and rib combo plate ($14 with two sides, $16 with three) — though you may have to settle for a little extra pork and chicken (the ribs were sold out both times I dropped in). The chicken is good and juicy, and the pork has a nice dark pink smoke ring, though the flavor is a lot milder than you would expect from the ring. The pork is most at home on a sandwich ($4 for small, $5 for large: get the large), which is served up the right way on a flat, unseeded, griddle-toasted bun. There's a range of sides, some of which (like the thick, rich Brunswick stew) come off quite nicely and others (like the dull, celery-seed-heavy vinegar slaw) don't quite make it. You can't go wrong, though, with a brown paper bag full of thick, seasoned fries. As a capper, the banana pudding ($3) is a superior example of the genre, rich and creamy with just the right balance of banana to vanilla wafer to puddin'.
Ray's is open from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. or whenever they run out of barbecue, which has been happening a lot. Never fear, though: Ray has an extra cooker on order and will be doubling his capacity soon.
Entrées: Moderate ($7-$22)
Lunch (Mon.-Sat.), Dinner (Wed.-Sat.)
1757 Clements Ferry Road
It's a long haul out to Moneyhun's Oink in Cainhoy, but it's worth the drive. The restaurant is just a storefront in one of those new prefab steel strip malls, but don't let that fool you. Of the three new joints, they serve up the smokiest, most flavorful meat, as the big mound of hickory logs on the grass behind the restaurant attests. Owner Richard Moneyhun uses them to fire a big Southern Pride combo gas-and-wood rotisserie smoker and produce barbecue with roots in the Sunshine State. He learned the art from his father in Jacksonville and from working at several Florida joints, including a Sonny's outlet and Walt's Barbecue in Palatka. He took a detour for more than a decade as a businessman in Charleston's construction trade, but has now returned to his barbecue roots and opened his own place.
The Big Squeal sandwich ($7) puts sliced pork between two pieces of garlic bread along with a scoop of sweet onion slaw. The meat shows a reassuring red smoke ring, and the onion slaw is a revelation — tangy and sweet with a little mayo for creaminess and vinegar for zip and not a strip of cabbage in sight. The baby back ribs ($14 for a half rack, $22 for a whole) are cooked with no sauce, just a spicy rub which creates a great crusty exterior. While the sliced pork's smoke flavor is fairly mild, the ribs are a different story. Their intense smokiness kicks you at the first bite, as strong as that from any side-burning smoker. Also on the menu are the larger St. Louis Cut Ribs ($12 for a half rack, $20 whole); sliced, chopped, or pulled pork ($8); and chicken ($7 for a quarter bird, $10 for a half).
Funny as it may sound, the star attraction at Moneyhun's is the side of BBQ beans ($3). Made fresh from a rotating selection of beans, they are slow-cooked in classic Southern fashion and make liberal use of the leftover scraps from the previous day's hand-chopped meat. On a recent visit, the selection of the day was "Hoppin' John beans," featuring the better half of the classic rice-and-bean dish: red field peas, cooked up tender in a delicious gravy with big chunks of barbecued pork. Other regulars are pintos and giant limas.
Oh, and the sweet tea is so sweet it will knock you down.
Moneyhun's meat is served dry, though there's a stack of "mop sauces" in little plastic cups for you to try. The base mop is a thin, cider vinegar concoction vaguely reminiscent of the North Carolina style. To this they add the sweet onion slaw to make a "creamy mop" and honey and brown sugar to make "sweet sauce." In the end these are all too syrupy and sweet for my taste. It doesn't really matter, though, for the ribs are so smoky they don't need any help, and those BBQ beans alone are worth the long drive out Clements Ferry.
The Barbeque Joint
Entrées: Inexpensive ($7-$8.50)
Lunch (Mon.-Sat.) and Dinner (Mon.-Fri.)
1083-A E. Montague Ave.
The Barbeque Joint has joined EVO Pizzeria, Madra Rua Irish Pub, Sesame Burgers and Beer, and Johnny's Olde Village Grill and Spirits on the blossoming restaurant row on East Montague just off Park Circle in North Charleston. That's some pretty stiff competition for your dining dollar.
The Barbeque Joint goes after it with a theme of simplicity, starting with its matter-of-fact name. The goldenrod walls are accented by sheets of corrugated steel, and six wooden picnic tables serve for seating. You pick one of two options from the big chalkboard, a sandwich ($7, including one side and tea) or a platter ($8.50, with two sides and tea), and then your meat — pulled chicken, pulled pork, or both. The regular side-dish line-up has collards, mac and cheese, red rice, potato salad, and coleslaw along with a veg of the day, which on my last trip was a version of Hoppin' John with rice, black-eyes, and tomato.
The best thing the Barbeque Joint has going for it are its sauces. The "red" is almost pure ketchup and quite forgettable, but the "gold" is a classic Midlands-style mustard-base that holds up well. The "vin" is best of all — a thin, vinegar base with lots of spices and red pepper flakes in the Eastern North Carolina or Pee Dee style; it's far and away the tastiest sauce at any of the new barbecue spots.
The meat, unfortunately, needs lots of sauce support. It's hard at first to tell which is the chicken and which the pork on the combo plate. (For the record, the chicken is the more finely shredded while the pork has the longer strands. I think.) Both are extremely salty to the point that it overpowers the smoke, and they leave behind a deep pool of orange grease in the bottom of the waxed paper-lined basket. A better option is a pulled pork sandwich. Doctored up with enough of the tasty vin sauce, it made for a passable meal.