Summerville has a new barbecue restaurant, an occasion which, to my mind at least, is of sufficient significance for town leaders to organize a parade, pass out a gold key to the city, and command similar forms of civic celebration. I'm not aware that Mayor Meyers has actually issued any such proclamations, but maybe he just hasn't gotten the word yet.
To make it more notable, it's not just a new barbecue restaurant that's opened, but a pretty good one, too.
Central BBQ is in a small cinderblock building on Central Avenue just outside of downtown. It has a lot of little touches that harken back to an earlier era. The walls are white with bright red trim, and there are just a handful of round tables with red and white checkered tablecloths. A cooler holds RC Cola and Sundrop in glass bottles, they take only cash, and they're only open until they run out of meat, which could be mid-afternoon or 8 p.m.
You order at a small counter where you can see the barbecue options waiting on the steam table: pulled pork, chicken, and ribs along with a small but tempting set of side items. The prices are refreshingly old-school, too. The small pork barbecue plate ($5.50) comes with one side and the large ($7.50) with two, and there's a two-meat combo platter for $10. A barbecue sandwich is just $3.50, or $5 with a side.
Central BBQ's chopped pork has a mellow smoky flavor and wonderful chunks of outside brown meat mingled in. There's just one problem. Despite an early report in the City Paper that the proprietor doesn't believe in pre-saucing meat, our chopped pork came out with quite a generous load of something red and spicy already mixed in. For those who aren't big spice fans or are locally-minded and would prefer to use the golden mustard-based sauce, naked pork would be much preferred. There's more than enough smoky flavor.
I have no complaints at all about the barbecue chicken, though. Its skin is coated with a red, spicy glaze, but that's just on the outside. Inside the meat is tender, juicy, and properly smoky, with a nice pink cast to the meat. It's about as good a barbecued chicken as you can find in these parts.
Central scores high marks on their side items, too. Coleslaw is a barbecue essential, and Central's version has crispy, finely-chopped cabbage with a creamy blend of mayo and vinegar — just the right balance for topping a barbecue sandwich. The mac and cheese has big noodles and lots of gooey cheddar, and the barbecue beans — with small brown beans in a smoky, sweet sauce — are superlative as well.
The only dud is the hash and rice. While it has the fine, smoothly blended consistency of your classic South Carolina hash, the flavor of the hash is quite bland and the rice blander still. The hash is missing the necessary spiciness and livery bite, and as you eat it, you soon note a new flavor blend coming through. It, indeed, tastes much more like Brunswick stew than anything that would pass for hash around here.
The sauces give another clue to the barbecue's pedigree. Central BBQ has the obligatory mustard-based sauce for Lowcountry barbecue loyalists, and it's a pretty good version, though a bit thinner and spicier than typical local stuff. There's a touch of the exotic, too: a "Trinidad and Caribbean" concoction that has a tangy, sweet-and-sour flavor — quite heretical but still tasty. The real tell, though, are the two vinegar-based sauces, one mild and one hot, which are as good a version of a Piedmont North Carolina sauce as you'll find this side of Lexington.
Owner Jay Lancaster is a recent immigrant from the N.C. coast, where he ran a steak and seafood restaurant for several years. He was raised in Piedmont, N.C., and that region's distinctive style can be seen lurking in the background at Central BBQ.
Lancaster cooks on an Old Hickory smoker, which uses gas for heat and real wood logs (one stick at a time) for smoke. He uses oak (you can see a reasonably-sized pile of it out back), and smokes Boston butts overnight and chicken and ribs during the day. It's not quite the same as cooking over all-wood coals, but take a visit to the screened-in pit room in the back. The Old Hickory kicks out enough rich, pungent oakwood smoke to make you hungry all over again, even after you've polished off a big combo platter and helped your kids clean their plates, too.
With Lancaster's current capacity, he can turn out enough barbecue for 200 people a day, and there's a spare chimney already rigged up and waiting in case he needs to add capacity. If folks in Summerville are as enamored by Central's barbecued chicken as I am, Lancaster might be ordering that second Old Hickory smoker really soon.
Welcome to the neighborhood.