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Charleston Barbecue, Generation Next: Learn about the evolution of Holy City ’cue and get a taste of what local pitmasters are serving up next

Charleston Barbecue, Generation Next: Learn about the evolution of Holy City ’cue and get a taste of what local pitmasters are serving up next
August 2023

Explore history ranging from the last century’s mustard-sauce migration to the modern craft ‘cue boom

From the post-World War II mustard-sauce migration of mid-state stalwarts (Bessinger’s and Dukes) to the 21st-century craft ’cue boom, Holy City barbecue has always been characterized by the influx of styles from somewhere else, traditions that merge and meld into something new. Meet the pitmasters who are defining what’s next.

John Lewis has a confession to make. 

“Just for the record,” he says. “I can’t stand brisket. Even when I was a kid, I didn’t like it. I would always get sausage and pork spare ribs.”

That’s quite a revelation coming from the pitmaster Eater credits with sparking “brisket mania” in Charleston when he opened Lewis Barbecue in 2016. Back when he was getting started on the barbecue scene in Austin, Texas, Lewis explains, brisket “was the thing to have to figure out how to master, because people loved it in Central Texas.” 

Last year, though, Lewis opened his second Charleston restaurant, Rancho Lewis, and turned his attention farther west, to his hometown of El Paso. “When people think about barbecue in El Paso,” he says, “they’re thinking about smoked beef back ribs with barbecue sauce on them like a glaze.” 

Lewis is not the only pit-master in Charleston who’s looking more and more to his own roots and family traditions. A new generation of cooks and entrepreneurs are emerging in the city, and they’re reimagining Charleston barbecue in the process.

You Are Who You Are 

When Hector Garate of Palmira Barbecue started cooking barbecue, he looked first to Central Texas for inspiration. “I got an offset smoker,” he recalls, “a little Oklahoma Joe’s, and I started cooking in my backyard. I started learning brisket, the Texas style. I put a lot of time and energy into it, and then I met Marvin Ross.” >>READ MORE ABOUT HECTOR GARATE & PALMIRA BARBECUE

Palmira Barbecue
2366 Ashley River Rd.

A King Approaches

The idea of community was also front and center for restaurateurs Shuai and Corrie Wang as they mapped out their next venture. Named King BBQ, it will be opening soon on Carver Avenue in North Charleston, just down the road from their popular eatery, Jackrabbit Filly.

At King BBQ, the Wangs plan to offer quick-service items like noodle and rice bowls for those who need to grab a meal to-go, but the real goal, Shuai says, is to “have an environment where, if you want to hang out, you can actually just hang out—watch the game, have some really great ‘trashy fancy’ cocktails, and, down the line, listen to live music.” >>READ MORE ABOUT SHUAI & CORRIE WANG & KING BBQ

King BBQ
2029 Carver Ave.

On the Border

Barbecue fans attending the King BBQ pop-ups last fall at Edmund’s Oast Brewery could stroll across the open patio and sample another fresh arrival on Charleston’s barbecue scene: the mesquite-cooked beef back ribs at Rancho Lewis.  

The restaurant opened in May 2022 in the former Workshop space at Pacific Box and Crate, and it’s not a barbecue joint, per se. “It’s the food of El Paso,” John Lewis explains, “whether it’s a Mexican restaurant or this and that—that’s how the restaurants are there. It’s a mix of everything that happens there.”  >>READ MORE ABOUT JOHN LEWIS' RESTAURANT RANCHO LEWIS

Rancho Lewis
1503 King St.

What is Charleston barbecue?

All this cross-regional variety in the new wave of local restaurants raises an interesting question: is there such a thing as Charleston-style barbecue?

“That’s a complex question,” Hector Garate says. “There are so many influences in Charleston alone. You’ve got vinegar, you’ve got mustard, and there’s so much outside barbecue from other places that has influenced it, too.” Garate suggests a perhaps better question: “What is Charleston barbecue becoming?”

John Lewis sees it being on a very similar trajectory as the barbecue scene in Austin. When he was cooking at Franklin BBQ and then La Barbecue, he recalls, “it was a base of this one thing—a real small menu, three sides and four meats, and that was kind of it. Now, everyone knows how to make that, so everyone’s getting more creative with it and trying to do something different, because it gets really boring after a while, and it can be boring for the consumer, too. And that creativity is happening in Charleston now, too.”

Lewis points to Garate as an example: “He’s taking some of the bases of the stuff I’ve been doing and the stuff Rodney’s been doing and then twisting it a little bit, which makes it extremely interesting.”

Corrie Wang says that when it comes to ingredients or cooking styles, there is no one thing she thinks of as Charleston-style barbecue. But, she adds, “I feel like, community-wise, there is.”

Shuai Wang agrees: “Everyone just does a little bit of everything now,” he says. For him, the Charleston style is all about the laid-back vibe and hang-out atmosphere, with full bars, outdoor patios, and big screen TVs. “That environment is more what Charleston barbecue is to me than the food almost.”

(Left to right) Joseph “Big Joe” Bessinger started serving mustard-based ’cue in Holly Hill in 1939, his sons opened multiple Piggie Park Drive-Ins in Charleston; A picnic tableful at Martin’s on James Island; & Robert’s Bar B Que on Ashley Phosphate Road.

The Mustard-Sauce Migration - The evolution of Charleston barbecue Part 1

Before World War II, Charlestonians could eat barbecue sandwiches at downtown lunch counters like Pete’s Sandwich Shop and OK Barbecue or at a few informal barbecue stands along Savannah Highway and what was then called the North Charleston Highway (today’s Rivers Avenue.) But Charleston really didn’t have a barbecue identity of its own.  >>READ MORE

The Craft Barbecue Boom - The evolution of Charleston barbecue Part 2

During the first two decades of the 21st century, a new style of barbecue restaurant flourished in Charleston. The spark began in 2006, when Aaron Siegel and Taylor Garrigan—veterans of downtown fine dining kitchens—opened Home Team BBQ on Highway 61 in West Ashley. Another fine dining vet, Anthony DiBernardo opened the first Swig & Swine on Savannah Highway in 2013. >>READ MORE

Exporting Charleston Style

Local pitmasters expand their operations in South Carolina—and beyond. >>READ MORE