What happens when you take a formally trained cook who apprenticed in one of Charleston's most respected fine-dining kitchens and turn him loose with his own wood-burning barbecue pit?
You get the Palmetto Chef.
That's Kyle Hinton, a Summerville native who studied at the Culinary Institute of Charleston and earned his stripes in the kitchen at downtown's Tristan Restaurant. In 2008, he branched out on his own to open a catering business, and now he's transformed the Palmetto Chef into a full-service barbecue restaurant.
Outside, it's 100 percent old-school barbecue joint: a little red wood-sided building with a slightly rusted tin roof, plus a screened-in pit room around back. Inside, however, it's all bistro décor. The two-tone walls are avocado on the bottom and cream on the top with dark brown molding. The drop ceiling tiles are painted black, the dark brown chairs have that tic-tac-toe grid pattern on their backs, and there's real flatware and white china on the tables.
That odd combination could either be a complete train wreck or brilliantly delicious. Fortunately for the city of Summerville, it's the latter.
The same in-house aesthetic that you find at our best downtown restaurants is at work at the Palmetto Chef. Hinton makes his own pickles, hand cuts his own french fries, and whips up all the barbecue sauces, too. If you peek around the back of the little red building, you'll find a sight that warms a barbecue lover's heart: a big mound of split logs outside the screened-in pit room. Hinton cooks over real wood on a big, long black barrel smoker, using a variety that includes cherry and apple.
The result is some excellent 'cue. The offering runs the gamut, including plates of pulled pork ($9 per plate), chicken ($10), and pork ribs ($14 for a half-rack). The sandwich baskets include pulled pork ($7), pulled turkey ($8), and beef brisket, too ($8.50).
The pulled pork is tasty stuff: tender, slightly smoky, and shredded into long, fine strands. The ribs make a good first impression with a sugary dry rub, though I found the meat itself to be a little flat in flavor and not nearly smoky enough. The barbecue chicken, on the other hand, is rich and smoke-tinged, and it goes perfectly with the housemade yellow mustard sauce.
The barbecue plates come with a choice of two side items, and there's a good line-up to choose from: everything from mac and cheese to squash chips. The fried pickle chips, made with the housemade pickles, are excellent. The collards are tangy, vinegary, and delicious. The hash is very smooth, but it has a big body to it and a mysterious spice blend.
One should be a little conflicted ordering a burger at a barbecue joint because, let's face it, good burgers can be found all over the place while good barbecue is a rare treat. But the truth of the matter is that barbecue joints often make really, really good hamburgers. And it only makes sense. Anyone who has mastered wood-fire cooking and can slow cook pork shoulders until they're tender, juicy, and delicious should have no problem grilling up a hamburger patty. The Palmetto Chef certainly can, and he doesn't cut any corners, using fresh-ground beef and creating big, juicy hand-pattied burgers served on a big kaiser roll.
With the Palmetto Burger ($9), you can get the best of the barbecue and burger worlds. A masterpiece of carnivorous dining, it's a cheeseburger with a big mound of pulled pork piled on top. The combination puts a bacon cheeseburger to shame, a thick, chewy, meaty concoction that has both the subtle smoky flavor of slow-cooked barbecue and the visceral crispy beef sear of a hot-grilled burger patty.
The Palmetto Burger is pretty edgy, but Hinton one-ups himself with his pulled pork hushpuppies ($8), a brand new barbecue innovation (or, at least, one that I've never heard the likes of before). Barbecue and hushpuppies are a great combination, as proven by countless North Carolina barbecue joints. Hinton combines the two into a single concoction: a racketball-sized orb of pulled pork that's breaded with a cornmeal batter and deep fried. They're served six to an order, accompanied by a triple-compartment dish of your choice of three barbecue sauces.
My wife's reaction upon taking her first bite pretty much sums it up: "Oh my God, those are good." We immediately began conspiring on how we might stage a cocktail party, invite a score of guests, and somehow transport a few dozen orders of the hushpuppies in at the last minute to surprise and delight the crowd. They seem, after all, like the perfect party food. And they're pretty darn good as a restaurant appetizer, too.
If you're feeling in an upscale mood and barbecue just won't do, the regular menu includes a filet mignon (6 oz. for $16 and 10 oz. for $20), complete with a balsamic reduction, sauteed Brussel sprouts, and garlic mashed potatoes. And there are regular nightly specials like smoked prime rib with roasted fingerling potatoes and roasted pork tenderloin with a blackberry reduction.
These entrees are, I suppose, a boon to Summerville residents, who have few fine dining options nearby. For me, though, the real gourmet creations are the meats that have been slow-smoked over real wood, the handmade sauces and pickles, and the unexpected novelties like the barbecue hushpuppies and the Palmetto Burger.