(Note: Posse members Mike and Libby Gagne recently visited John Lewis’ new barbecue joint. This is Mike’s report from that visit.)
Charleston, South Carolina has long been a culinary destination showcasing some of the most American of cuisines.
Lewis Barbecue, the eponymous BBQ haven for Texas pit master John Lewis opened just a few months back and has caught the attention of many along the eastern seaboard.
Given the Posse’s past with John and the mark he left at places like Franklin, John Mueller BBQ, and La Barbecue, being only an hour away from our beach vacation spot seemed too apropos and we had no problem convincing the rest of our party that a lunch excursion to Charleston was in order.
It was immediately apparent that John Lewis has arrived.
Situated in East Central Charleston, Lewis finds itself the newest and most modern construction in its area but it’s clear this mixed commercial/industrial neighborhood is growing rapidly.
In many ways it feels much like East Austin not but 10 years ago. Lots of old, historic buildings; a good deal of industrial zoning, and a few run down lots sprinkled in with new developments.
The restaurant venue was clearly new and intentional in design with a striking modern feel that had more than enough rustic elements to continually remind you this is a real BBQ, not someplace for show.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the attention to detail on everything from the custom made pits, the oak filled wood cage, the picnic table area laid out neatly under a sprawling oak, the full cocktail bar with beers on tap, and the dual meat-cutting lines – something that really helped the line move quickly.
Subtle and not so subtle tips of the hat to Lewis’ Texas roots were all through the restaurant. Horseshoe stamps and lassos adorned the wall and directly above the line hung a horned steer. The horchata and Texas beers at the bar reminded me of East Austin bars.
But the coup de grace was the the massive “All Hail The King” beef mural outside the restaurant on the adjacent building. It shined like a BBQ beacon to those parked through the neighborhood and looking for the restaurant. There were even directions painted on the sidewalks and road around the neighborhood.
We arrived to a moderate 5 minute wait in line — on a Saturday! — and wore our favorite BBQ shirts, me with La BBQ and my daughter in her Franklin BBQ tee. We were greeted by two friendly employees who quickly recognized the Franklin shirt and began chatting us up.
We made sure we got a little bit of everything. The Texas brisket, hot guts and beef rib, some Carolina pulled pork, and some thin sliced turkey along with a smattering of sides.
The brisket was just as we remembered from the La Barbecue’s heyday: moist and smoky, perfectly tender and full of flavor. Libby and our daughter, Ella, were partial to the beef rib, which is always a favorite.
The pulled pork was juicy and filled with flavor, and not the over-dried stuff we can sometimes see in Texas. The turkey, the often forgotten smoked meat that John tended to perfection at Franklin, was as good as we’d remembered (and the first thing we’d run out of). The hot gut had an excellent snap, and more spice than we’d remembered.
We were lucky to visit Lewis BBQ on a Saturday, the only day of the week they serve beef ribs. While certainly not the lowest cost alternative (a single rib cost over $50), it was well worth it!
The bone effortlessly slipped out of the meat, which was smoky and crusty on the outside and absolutely tender and delicious on the inside.
Our baby, Jake, loved gnawing on the massive bone. In fact, he had the beef rib bone in one hand and a pork rib bone in the other, a true Posse member in the making.
We weren’t the only ones who drove a ways for good food. Another guest recognized our shirts and was wearing a Franklin hat of his own. He was from Dallas and had convinced his family, who lived in the Charlotte area, to drive nearly seven hours round trip for a taste.
His family didn’t even come inside. They waited in the minivan while he ordered take out, and their plan was to take it to a nearby park and stretch their legs while eating.
Behind the restaurant is a separate building where the BBQ magic is created. John wasn’t there during our visit, but according to the manager, John and his dad built four huge smokers out of propane tanks, and they are happy to take customers back there for a tour.
When we went to check it out, the pit master (an apprentice of John’s) was smoking a couple dozen briskets, and estimated there was room for nearly 40 on each smoker. So this place has room to scale up. The halved horseshoes welded to the handles and the custom Lewis branding iron highlighted the Lewis craftsmanship — it starts with the metalwork and ends with the food.
Contrary to the good-old-days, when visitors had to get there bright and early for a chance to sample the delicious meats before they sold out, lunch is no longer the busiest time of day. In the short time the restaurant had been open, the line now has a tendency to extend out the door at dinner time.
Despite being open only a few weeks at the time of our visit, the restaurant had already become a destination.
Lewis Barbecue, 464 N Nassau St, Charleston, SC, (843) 805-9500, www.lewisbarbecue.com.
|Former La Barbecue pitmaster John Lewis and his new brisket pit in 2013. (Photo ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse)|