Texas has lost one if its best pitmasters. John Lewis has taken his talents to South Carolina, and he doesn’t plan to come back to Texas anytime soon. “I live here, and I’m staying here,” he told me during my recent trip to Charleston to visit his brand-new, week-old establishment, Lewis Barbecue. I had to see how pork-loving Southerners would embrace brisket and hot guts.
I nearly clipped Lewis with my rental car as I drove into his new parking lot. He directed traffic to the few open spaces. The smell of hot asphalt mixed with oak smoke. Like a beef billboard, an enormous black steer head was painted on an adjacent building. It donned a gold crown and was flanked by the command “All Hail the King.” The imagery was anything but subtle. This is a place for brisket worship in the middle of pork country.
South Carolina barbecue has a long and proud history. “The birthplace of barbecue,” is how a representative put it announcing the state’s delegates at this week’s Republican National Convention. This is a controversial statement (mainly because it’s not true), but it’s safe to say they’ve been cooking barbecue longer than Texans. The state’s most famous city, Charleston, isn’t necessarily the epicenter of South Carolina-style barbecue, but it was the state’s allegiance to cooking meat over fire that drew Lewis here.
Like most pitmasters, Lewis doesn’t have much rhetoric to offer in the pork-versus-beef barbecue debate, and he didn’t move to the land of pork as a statement of any sort of meat-specific allegiance. He just wanted to find a scene less saturated with barbecue than Austin, and “a place where there was a barbecue tradition . . . where people were raised on it.” He doesn’t mind convincing customers of smoked brisket’s virtues or explaining what a hot gut sausage is, but an audience that already craved barbecue was necessary.
There are some obvious differences between serving barbecue in Austin versus South Carolina. As Lewis Barbecue’s general manager, Ben Garbee, said of S.C., “The first question [from customers] is ‘what king of sauce do you have?’” In a state where barbecue is defined by sauce preference (vinegar/pepper versus mustard) that’s not a surprise. Instead of taking sides, Lewis developed his own unique barbecue sauce recipe, what “may be the world’s first green barbecue sauce,” according to Lewis. He roasts green chiles, a nod to El Paso, his hometown, and blends the peppers into a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce base. It pairs beautifully with the smoked turkey and pulled pork.
Lewis is tight-lipped on the rest of the ingredients for now, but they won’t be secret for long; plans to bottle the barbecue sauce are in the works. The ingredient list will be on printed on the back for all to see. Which is why I found Lewis’s inclination to be so guarded about his recipe to be slightly amusing. As much as television shows like to play up the drama of secret recipes in barbecue and “shigging,” that’s not what I generally find on the barbecue trail. As I wrote last year, most pitmasters are eager to share their techniques. But Lewis offers his own explanation for being proprietary about things. “It’s stuff that took me a long time to figure out,” he told me. He didn’t come by his knowledge easily, so he doesn’t want to give it up to others easily. “It’s my livelihood,” he added. (For the record, Lewis does use the pickle juice and mustard slather that he posted in his TMBBQ interview.)
Perhaps his secrecy is also born of a competitive nature. And speaking of competition, one of Lewis Barbecue’s neighbors on the block is Home Team Barbecue, the third location of a well-established local barbecue house where smoked brisket is also a focus. Back in 2014, owner Aaron Seigel was asked by the local paper how he felt sharing the block with the new kid in town. “In my business, especially the barbecue business, we support each other,” Siegel said. “To not be supportive is like shooting yourself in the foot.” It was an early welcome to Lewis.
Lewis stoked a different kind of fire before he opened his doors. He posted a now-deleted Instagram post where he promised to put South Carolina “back on the map” with the opening of Lewis Barbecue. Many in South Carolina reminded him that they were well established on the barbecue map. He understands the reception, and now regrets the post. “I was trying to stir things up a little bit here,” he confessed, but knows now it was a poor choice of words. He insists he meant that Texas has gotten their fair share of recent barbecue recognition, and he wanted to pivot some of that attention to another state. All seems to be smoothed over now. Siegel posted a recent photo of Lewis’s hot guts and joked about “sleeping with the enemy.” He also urged everyone to “let the smoke rise.”
Lewis says the friendly competition “keeps me trying to up my own game” and evolving those closely-guarded techniques. “I feel like maybe I do a bunch of tiny tweaks that other places might not,” he noted. He went “off the record” often during our discussion of his barbecue methods. I half expect the inevitable Lewis Barbecue cookbook to be heavily redacted when published.
Whatever it is he’s doing (and we may never know), it’s working. On my visit at 1:00 on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the full menu was available for order. Lewis is aiming to serve barbecue for lunch and dinner, a slight departure from some places that close “when the ‘cue runs out.” To that end, he’s doing everything he can to keep the lines down and the “Sold Out” sign put away. Dual meat cutting stations and cash registers keep customers flowing. A wall of Alto-Shaam warmers behind the cutters hold fresh barbecue just an arm’s length away. Pork is pulled and sauced regularly, and held on the line in front of every cutter. I’d suggest asking for some without the sauce mixed in. That green sauce seems made for the pork, and I prefer it to the default red vinegar sauce.
Lewis is just as particular about his pulled pork is he is about brisket. Lean or fatty brisket is a common choice at Texas barbecue joints, but Lewis notes the pork butt has just as much variation in quality from end to end. “Instead of lean or fat, we should ask them ‘How do you like it? Moist or stringy and dry?’ The middle of the pork butt always sucks. The money muscle is awesome. The stuff around the bone is awesome, but that middle part…” Just make sure to ask for plenty of bark.
One cutter built my “El Sancho” sandwich with chopped brisket and Lewis’s signature hot gut sausage. He gently mopped up some of the board juices with the bun, then capped the completed sandwich with a pat of his glove that left a shine from the brisket fat. It was a nice touch. I ordered the rest of the menu, asking for some fatty and some lean brisket. I won’t get into the details of what was then a week-old restaurant, but the barbecue was as superb as I’d expected from Lewis.
He had a bit more freedom with the sides too. “I haven’t ever had an oven before,” he explained when I asked where the green chile corn pudding came from. It’s incredible. Don’t miss the pecan pie ice cream either. It’s got a brown butter flavor that comes from a technique…nevermind. It’s a secret.
One thing you won’t find every day at Lewis Barbecue is the beef rib that helped make La Barbecue famous. He only does it on Saturdays “because I’m not forced to do them by the public,” he added with a grin. It’s a menu item with a pretty poor profit margin. The brisket has been a big seller (they smoked 70 their first Saturday), which isn’t a surprise, but the hot guts have proven just as popular. Lewis built a dedicated cabinet smoker for the hot guts, and it has been working overtime. He shared a funny anecdote from an elderly couple who tried them for the first time. They said the flavor of the hot guts were great, but the casing was too hard to peel off. Evidently, they don’t eat sausages quite the same in Charleston as they do in Austin.
Even if Lewis appreciates competition, Austin has become super-saturated, even by his own standards. “I don’t know who in their right mind would open a barbecue joint in Austin,” Lewis told me. “A lot of stress has been taken off my shoulders since leaving Texas.” For one, it’s the first time his name has been on the sign. He helped guide La Barbecue to national acclaim, but it wasn’t his. He also knows he could never be the king of Austin barbecue while the internationally-famous Franklin Barbecue, where Lewis began his barbecue career, is slinging briskets.
Still, it was a shock to the barbecue world when he announced that he’d set his sights on Charleston. The headline in October 2014 read: John ‘Badass Brisket Boy’ Lewis is opening a Charleston restaurant. This was before the barbecue boom had reached most every major American city. It’s been a long road from that first headline. Garbee, the GM, joked that, “On Eater we’ve been the most anticipated restaurant eight seasons in a row.” By the time they opened the doors three weeks ago, it didn’t seem as strange that Texas barbecue had been exported to the Holy City as it sounded in 2014. In fact, a barbecue aesthetic popularized in Austin is now common in from New York to Seattle. “Sometimes I don’t even know if it’s Texas barbecue that I’m making anymore,” admitted Lewis.
With hot guts, brisket, and beef ribs on the menu, along with a few steer heads (remember “all hail the king”), it’s pretty obvious to me this barbecue came from Texas, not to mention the Texan pitmaster. However, the menu at Lewis Barbecue has much more in common with places like Green Street Smoked Meats in Chicago or Maple Block Meat Co. in Culver City than it does with Kreuz Market in Lockhart. I’m not comparing the quality of Lewis’s barbecue to the others, but the similarities are there. Big city barbecue is now typified by the use of high quality meat, inventive sides dishes and desserts, butcher paper-lined metal trays as plates, and the inclusion of a cocktail program. Lewis barbecue has all of those. Roderick Weaver came over from Sean Brock’s Husk to run the bar, and the pitmaster who is second-in-command is Philip Powers, most recently at Brooklyn’s Delaney Barbecue. This is barbecue born in Austin, but with influence from the rest of the country.
With the big, beautiful new building, Lewis is a long way from the barbecue trailer in Austin. He likes the additional elbow room. “It’s getting so much easier to produce consistent stuff here just because we have the space to do it and the right equipment.” It also comes with higher expectations and greater responsibilities. Lewis embraces it, even if it means he needs to canvas the dining room with a fly swatter every so often.
Of the expectations, he simply says “I’m just happy with the restaurant staying full,” and so far he hasn’t had a problem with that. I also had to ask if he thought his barbecue was better in Charleston then it was Austin. With a grin and carefully chosen words, he said “every single cook, you get better.”
464 N Nassau St.
Charleston, SC 29403