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August 2015

15 Minutes with John Lewis
WRITTEN BY: Allston McCrady

He’s been called “the only skinny cook you can trust.” We enjoyed a fireside chat with the man behind Austin’s legendary La Barbecue, who is opening Lewis Barbecue downtown this fall

CM: We hear you don’t get much sleep.
I’m up at 3 a.m. to tend the fire pits. And I’m not a coffee drinker. I never acquired that taste. So I just battle through.

CM: You are a barbecue guru of sorts in Texas. What drew you to Charleston?
I was looking to open my own joint outside of Austin, which is oversaturated with barbecue. There’s a rich tradition of barbecue in South Carolina, so I knew it would work here, and I’ll be doing a type of barbecue you don’t see so much. Also, Charleston feels a lot like Austin did 10 years ago. It’s about to explode. Now’s the time to get in.

CM: Why Nassau Street for your new restaurant?
Parking. If I had to say anything I dislike about Charleston, it’s lack of parking. The Nassau Street location is in an up-and-coming part of town. To open the same restaurant in Austin right now would cost three times the rent. And I’ll have great neighbors. The burger at Edmund’s Oast is one of my favorites in town, and Martha Lou’s is just two blocks away. I love that place.

CM: You’ve been tending fire at Revelry Brewing each weekend all summer long. How do you beat the heat?
Austin gets hotter, actually, but Charleston is more humid. I just get used to it. I stay hydrated. When the new restaurant opens, we’ll have a walk-in, so I can run in there every once in a while.

CM: Any favorite local brews?
I really like Revelry’s Lean or Fat beer. It’s an English pale ale, a great summertime beer. They named it that after a question I ask people when they’re ordering brisket: “Do you want it lean or fat?”

CM: Tell us about your custom pits.
I learned how to wield a blowtorch out of necessity. The pit that I wanted didn’t exist, so I had to make it myself from scratch. The main cook chamber is an old propane tank. I have four of those sitting in an Austin barn right now, waiting for the move. When the slab for the smokehouse gets poured, we’ll put them on it with cranes. The pits that I build have a really good airflow, which keeps the fire burning very clean.

CM: Describe the perfect brisket.
Incredibly juicy and incredibly tender at the same time, with pretty robust seasoning on the outside (I mix up an all-purpose rub, mostly salt and pepper). It should also have a little fat on top that’s pretty well rendered down and almost caramelized. You should taste just a tiny touch of smoke, but it shouldn’t be overpowering or bitter.

CM: Will you customize your sauces?
: I’ll have different types on the side, like a vinegar sauce and a middle-of-the-road Texas-style sauce—not too sweet or too thick or too thin or too vinegary or too “ketchupy.” But the goal is to make barbecue that doesn’t need sauce.

CM: What’ve you been eating in town?
Being around meat all day long, barbecue is the last thing I ever want. I love the ramen noodle bowl at Two Boroughs Larder. We have a couple famous places in Austin where people line up for noodle bowls, and Two Boroughs blows them away. I love their breakfast sandwich, too.

CM: What’s in that?

CM: Favorite way to unwind?
Taking evening walks along the shore of the Ashley River close to my apartment. After a long day serving barbecue in the hot sun, it’s refreshing to take in some sea air.

CM: What can we expect on the menu at Lewis Barbecue?
We’ll have a variety of different meats—brisket, Texas hot guts, and pork—and five sides, plus multiple registers and cutting stations so that people won’t have to wait in line.

CM: Define “Texas hot guts.”
It’s a spicy sausage, tons of flavor, really juicy. My goal is when you snap through the casing, you get a burst of spicy goodness.