The secret's in the smoke At Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ, where Aaron Siegel aims to be the best in the Southeast
Charleston's year-round tourist season kicks off (or wraps up) this week with the Southeastern Wildlife Expo (SEWE), and what better way to celebrate our diversity than to finally resolve this North-South conflict once and for all? No, not the Civil War. I'm talking about something far more important: Carolina barbecue, in which the debate clearly begins and ends with the sauce. For purists, any at all constitutes sacrilege, but for those of us who wish to partake, the careful selection and liberal application of various sauces is a basic tenet of a tasty ritual.
So, which bottle should you grab, the red or the yellow? To answer this question, we must first understand the origins of our barbecue. Conventional wisdom tells us that the famous mustard-based 'cue originated right here in South Carolina, but it was our little sister to the north that first brought us vinegar sauce. (Since everybody and their mother has a tomato version, we'll call that one a draw). Of course folks have been barbecuing in Charleston since roughly the time of Christ, and which sauce came from where is hardly the issue anymore. What everybody really wants to know is: Which one is the best?
And the answer to that is ... drum roll please ... it depends on who you ask.
Yeah, it's a cop-out, but the truth is that Charlestonians are in the deliciously unique position of living at a confluence of southern barbecue cultures.
While most local restaurants observe the same basic preparation for their pulled pork, i.e. hickory smoking, each one employs their own secret nuances which turn entire pigs into scrumptious sandwiches. My suggestion? Check out some of these barbecue joints and decide for yourself which meat and sauce combo you like best. Personally, I've never been able to make up my mind; I'd rather just have one of everything. But what do I know? I'm from Virginia.
Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ
1205 Ashley River Road
(843) 225- RIBS (7427)
Sauces: Mustard, Tomato, Vinegar, Mayo
Combo Plate: $8.95
By the Pound: $9.95
Though still just a rookie on the Charleston scene, guests agree that Home Team belongs in the barbecue big leagues. That's largely thanks to the experience that chef and co-owner Aaron Siegel brings to the kitchen. Formerly of Blossom Café, Siegel is a southern boy from Atlanta with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. You better believe he knows good meat when he hickory smokes it. In addition to certifiable culinary expertise, Home Team carries an added distinction as the only place in Charleston to find white, mayo-based Alabama-style sauce. And they're not afraid to set the bar high: "We don't just want to be the best in the city, we want to be the best in the entire southeast," says pitmaster Madison Ruckel. Combined with an excellent live music scene and whiskey bar, this former gas station will still fill your tank.
1471 Ben Sawyer Blvd.
Sauce: Mustard, Vinegar
Combo Plate: $6.50
By the Pound $7.95
Maybe it's the cinderblock building or the cafeteria-style buffet service, but Momma Brown's just feels authentic. If they can sell it like this, you know it must be good. Once you start eating though, you'll forget the lack of atmosphere and fall in love with a Carolina tradition. When asked about what sets Momma Brown's apart from other barbecue joints and why hungry people just keep coming back, Freddy the pit cook hesitates, "I don't know. I just guess it's the food, I bet." It would seem so. The pork is cooked overnight in a gas-powered smoker 'til it's fall-apart tender, and no Memphis-style sauce here, just straight up Carolina vinegar and mustard bases. Have a couple hushpuppies — they're worth the deep-fried guilt — but beware of the dreaded siesta. If you come by for a lunch buffet, you just might be tempted not to go back in the office for the rest of the afternoon.
3406 Maybank Hwy.
Sauce: Mustard, Tomato, Vinegar
Combo Plate: $7.95
By the Pound: $8.99
JB will stack his award-winning meat against anyone. "We'll stand alone without sauce as the best in the city," he says. That's the kind of confidence that comes from consistency, and they've got the side items to back it up. While their hickory smoked pork is delicious, JB's brisket is a local legend. Slow-cooked for over 15 hours at very low temps then sliced, it retains a moist pink center. Possibly the only barbecue shack in the history of the world to make MUSC's heart-healthy dining guide, JB's never cooks their veggies in grease or fatback, yet they mysteriously remain delicious. Fridays and Saturdays are all-you-can-eat fried catfish nights, and if you can spare the gas, JB's Goose Creek location even serves up brisket reubens along with other deli sandwiches, in addition to standard barbecue fare.
235 Meeting St.
(843) 853-RIBS (7427)
Sauce: Mustard, Tomato, Vinegar
Combo Plate: $8.99
By the Pound: $7.99
Come see how a few Tennessee transplants have turned good barbecue and great service into a burgeoning hog empire. Sticky Fingers' signature house sauce is of the tomato-based variety, but they are from Memphis. No need to bring your own bottle — a unique mustard-style is offered at all South Carolina locations. Their lightly salted pork shoulders are hickory smoked with no other seasonings, and according to Allison Harris in the downtown restaurant, they recommend that guests let the kitchen sauce the meat before it comes to the table. "Then you can add any of our other kinds if you want," she says. That's a whole lot of flavor. Maybe it's just me, but I believe the only pork that should come out of the kitchen with sauce on it is the kind which still has the rib in it. No problem there, Sticky Fingers' ribs (wet or dry) are one of their most popular menu items.
Jim n' Nick's
288 King St.
Sauce: Tomato, Vinegar
Combo Plate: $13
By the Pound $12
It's tough to be a messy restaurant in a high-end shopping district and still keep your rep. Even tougher to call yourself a barbecue joint in South Carolina, yet not even offer Carolina mustard sauce. Somehow, Jim n' Nick manage to do both. They start by sticking with the basics: unseasoned pork, hickory smoke, and over 10 hours of cooking time. Then they hit you with their cheese biscuits. It's a little surprising that Jim n' Nick's signature dish comes to the table even before you order, but those amazing little muffins must be laced with something, cause they're the main thing diners remember. Even with an impressive coleslaw recipe that calls for the cabbage to be first soaked in sugar and vinegar and then mixed with mayo and seasonings, it may be hard to get past the biscuits. For your downtown barbecue fix, Jim n' Nick's will do nicely, but bring a major credit card. At $13 a plate this is the most expensive 'cue shack in Charleston.
Shane's Rib Shack
1909 Hwy. 17 N.
Sauce: Tomato, Vinegar
Combo Plate: $7.99
By the Pound: $9.99
If you're in the mood for a rub, head to Shane's for their secret blend of spices which go all over each porker before the hickory smoking begins. The smoker's always running too. According to Adam the general manager, "Our employees spend all day cutting fresh butt." It smells a lot better than it sounds. When it comes to ribs, practice makes perfect, and Shane's uses a combination of smoke and steam cooking to achieve that elusive fall-off-the-bone deliciousness. Unafraid to thumb their nose at all mustard-based traditions, Shane's combines a sweet Memphis tomato sauce with a spicy vinegar base and comes up with what they call "Georgia style" barbecue. They are so sure you're gonna love the flavor that they go ahead and chop it in with the pork right out of the smoker. Judging by the popularity of the place, you probably will.
538 Folly Road.
Sauce: Mustard, Tomato
Combo Plate: $9.49
By the Pound: $9.95
Ah, Melvin's. Owned by David Bessinger, a member of South Carolina's first family of barbecue; the name is synonymous with hickory-smoked tradition. Their mustard sauce is their golden standard, their burgers have been acclaimed by Emeril himself, and the onion rings are so big, no man has ever finished one. Unfortunately for pit enthusiasts, the smoke jockeys at Melvin's keep their secrets pretty close. Nobody I spoke with was allowed to talk about their cooking methods, and after being shunted from the counter to the corporate office to the voicemail of Dave himself, I was forced to conclude that perhaps a little success goes a long way. The point of great barbecue is to provide everybody with a lip-smacking, shirt-staining, belly-busting good time. If you can't even talk about it, where's the fun in that?