“No gross parts” is printed in parentheses next to hash and rice on the menu at City Limits Barbeque in West Columbia, South Carolina. Hash is like a cooked-down barbecue stew, and it’s a standard side dish in the state. It’s traditionally made with the parts of a whole hog—including the liver and the head—that aren’t chopped for sandwiches. At City Limits, owner and pitmaster Robbie Robinson doesn’t start with a whole hog, but he still wants his hash to taste like more than just stewed pulled pork.
He grinds pork shoulder (smoked in a Texas-built Klose smoker), house-cured bacon, and brisket together, and mixes the meats with his own South Carolina–style, mustard-based barbecue sauce. It’s likely the only hash in South Carolina with brisket in it. City Limits was the first Texas-style barbecue joint in central South Carolina, and Robinson is doing his best to honor the tradition he grew up with and the one he fell in love with.
When Lewis Barbecue first opened in Charleston in June 2016 (a second location in Greenville, South Carolina, opened last year), the pork-loving state was introduced to Central Texas–style smoked brisket and hot gut sausages. Around the same time, Robinson was serving his own briskets at pop-ups in his native Lexington, South Carolina. And Texas barbecue has continued to make inroads in the region with the more recent openings of Fork Grove Barbecue in Anderson, South Carolina, and Slow Fire BBQ just across the border in Savannah. Brisket is booming in the region.
But the day I visited City Limits Barbeque, which opens only on Saturdays, it had no brisket. Robinson had warned on Instagram that it was too hot to smoke brisket, and I joked he might want to reconsider displaying the Texas flag hanging on the restaurant’s balcony. “But I’ve got sausage,” he told me, while apologizing. He figured it was the only day since he opened that he decided against smoking brisket. It allowed me to really examine the unique ways in which Robinson, who spent several years living in Houston, is bridging barbecue divides.
One of his newer additions is pork spare ribs, a cut familiar to any Texas barbecue fan. Except these don’t look anything like the glistening, heavily rubbed Texas ribs. The ribs at City Limits are pale, and not exactly alluring. They’re seasoned only with salt, and cooked over coals shoveled onto sheet trays that line the bottom of a converted offset smoker. They take just three hours to cook, and rest for an hour after being wrapped in foil. “They do not look appetizing,” Robinson admitted, and said he tried different seasonings and mop sauces to improve the color, but the best flavor was just salt. Based on the visual, I expected a boring bite, but they were spectacular. “Over the years, nothing has struck a chord quite like those ribs,” Robinson said.
Getting back to Texas favorites, Robinson smokes neatly sliced cubes of pork belly for red-tinged burnt ends on his thousand-gallon offset from Austin Smoke Works. The glaze is sweet, but the ends are not wet with sauce, and they strike a great flavor balance. Robinson didn’t know much about smoked sausage, so he took a course at Texas A&M. It seems to have worked, and he produced a snappy and juicy Hill Country link heavy in garlic, as well as a truly spicy hot link. Both were beef-and-pork mixtures, and both would stand out in Texas.
The chopped pork at City Limits is a Carolina classic, though. Robinson chops shoulders and bellies cooked over coals along with pork cracklins and a South Carolina–style vinegar-pepper sauce. You can get it as a sandwich on a brioche bun, but I preferred it on a half slice of white bread with some creamy slaw. All the sides are scratch-made. “Nothing is from a can unless it’s Rotel,” Robinson said. The esquites start with fresh sweet corn roasted over the fire, as do the kernels in the corn pudding. Robinson developed a pimiento cheese recipe that is creamy and sharp. He just added a sweet jalapeño version as well. And the peach cobbler made with locally raised peaches, the only dessert on the menu, was one of the best I’ve ever eaten. It was a remarkable meal, especially for being cooked offsite.
Robinson didn’t even show up to the restaurant with the barbecue until just before the 11 a.m. opening time. It’s all cooked at his former food truck. His teenage son, Henry, acted as host to the gathering crowd outside the door, pointing out the cooler of free Shiner and the posted menu. Once the door opens, you need to come to the register ready to order from his wife, Blair. Robinson’s friend Ben Blackmon does the meat slicing, while his brother Mark Gravedoni and friend Jake Shillato organize the orders into bags or onto trays. It’s quite a production for this once-a-week service. Robinson hopes he’ll get the health department approvals soon to work in the kitchen of the restaurant he’s called home since May. With or without a kitchen, I’m sure he won’t be leaving brisket off the menu again anytime soon.
Two hours north of West Columbia, in Anderson, Dylan and Tiffani Cooke opened Fork Grove Barbecue, a Texas-style barbecue joint, without ever visiting Texas. They got close enough with a trip to Lewis Barbecue several years ago. “It was a real eye-opener about how good barbecue could be,” Dylan Cooke said. He didn’t realize how much that meal would influence his future until his budding music career in Nashville was cut short by Covid. He moved back home, got a job in a plastic-extrusion plant, and started cooking barbecue on a Big Green Egg Tiffani had bought him for Christmas in 2019. A good brisket became his goal, and the Franklin Barbecue cookbook was his guide. Cooke thought his food was good enough to sell, and when he got forty orders from a single Facebook post offering barbecue plates, his path became clearer.
Things moved quickly for Cooke. He and his dad built a smoker using an old air compressor. It was so big, they thought they’d never fill it up. “This is the biggest grill we’ve ever seen,” Cooke remembers thinking when they completed it. But six months later, near the end of 2020, they built a thousand-gallon smoker to meet demand. They were selling all this food as an underground operation, so Cooke was surprised when the Euphoria Food Festival, the largest food fest in the region, asked if he could participate in 2022. He served pork belly brisket with Texas caviar. “That was a turning point,” he said. “I figured I had to do something.”
Cooke grew up eating chopped pork sandwiches, chicken, spare ribs, beans, and slaw at local Sadler’s Creek BBQ, owned by family friends, and he worked there during high school. It had closed down, and was sitting empty when the couple were looking for a permanent restaurant space. They snatched it up, and were bullish as opening day approached. Cooke pulled the trigger on an order for four massive offset smokers from Pig Iron Patina in Montgomery, Texas. They arrived on site this April before the pit room was completed. “We cooked out in the yard until the smokehouse was ready,” Cooke said. They served Saturday takeout until their grand opening at the end of May, when they offered indoor dining three days a week.
Pulling into the long driveway on the outskirts of the small town of Anderson felt like my visit to Jon G’s BBQ in Peachland, North Carolina, a couple years ago. Fork Grove was like this little Texas-style oasis in a foreign barbecue land, and the Cookes count Jon G’s as an influence. The menu looked straight out of Texas, and they even had turkey sausage on special, which felt like an homage to the recently closed Inman’s Ranch House Bar-B-Q, famous for its turkey sausage, in Marble Falls. Cooke said it was actually the idea of his pit guy Troy Kozlowski who asked if he could grind together some pork, turkey, and cheese. A new sausage special comes every Saturday, and features creations like chicken-bacon-and-ranch sausage made with Cool Ranch Doritos or the pizza link, which Cooke said, “tasted like Domino’s.”
The rest didn’t stray from the Texas classics. The bark of thick-sliced fatty brisket was coated with black pepper. The glaze was a little heavy on the ribs, but I was happy to see spares rather than baby backs. Juicy turkey breast and pork belly burnt ends are nearly ubiquitous in Texas these days, and Cooke did a fine job with both. I really loved their finely diced slaw, the gooey mac and cheese, and the street corn salad, all made from Tiffani’s recipes. I wondered if the locals, especially those used to eating at Sadler’s, were perplexed by this menu. “Some local folks come up and expect a pork sandwich and some hushpuppies,” Cooke said, but quickly added, “nobody turns around and leaves.” As for a timeline on the couple’s first Texas barbecue crawl, Cooke said, “I can’t wait to spend some time there, but we ain’t made it happen yet.”
Down in Savannah, chef Terren Williams opened Slow Fire Barbecue after plenty of years spent in Texas. The Savannah native worked as a chef for Hyatt Regency Hotels starting in 2011. When he made the move to Dallas, Williams said, “I didn’t know what Texas brisket was.” The modern barbecue scene in Dallas was just getting off the ground then, but he remembers eating at Rudy’s Bar-B-Que and enjoying the brisket. “I had some okay barbecue, and even that was better than what I grew up on,” Williams said of his experience. Then his friends planned a stop at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart during a long road trip. “Immediately, it clicked,” he said, and he remembers that meal in 2014 as his “aha moment” for what barbecue could be. He later became quite attached to Hurtado Barbecue in Arlington, and hopes to return to try a few others in the Dallas–Fort Worth area.
Williams moved back to Savannah to continue his work for the hotel chain, but soon took on the position of chef de cuisine at the Grey Market (which closed last month). It was the sister business to the Grey restaurant from James Beard Award–winning chef Mashama Bailey. Williams was let go from the job in 2021 because of Covid-related cuts. “I just gave so much to that place,” he said. The end of his time there left him burnt out on the restaurant industry, but he didn’t stray far.
Williams worked as a delivery driver for DoorDash while doing some Texas barbecue research, including dining at Lewis Barbecue in Charleston. “That’s the bar over here on the East Coast,” he said. Williams then bought a five-hundred-gallon smoker from Primitive Pits, honed his smoking skills, and planned some pop-ups starting last year. Until then, Williams had spent his entire career working under another chef, so being able to call his own shots brought freedom and pressure.
His first big event was a flop. Organizers for a Mother’s Day market told them to expect a massive amount of people. Williams cooked enough for hundreds, but only served fifty. It almost broke the new business, but he and his wife, Kelly, scraped up enough meat to serve at food truck park Starland Yard. It went so well, Williams now serves at Starland Yard multiple times a week from the newly branded Slow Fire Barbecue bus.
Williams calls his style of cooking Texas barbecue with a Low Country flair. That’s best evidenced in his Low Country sausage, named for the region along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. When I first saw a slice, I thought I spotted a familiar chunk of white cheese, but it was actually shrimp. Williams folded the shrimp into the pork sausage, and added shrimp-boil seasonings. I loved it. The sides show a chef’s touch, with the drizzle of chile crisp over the slaw and creamy mac and cheese topped with crushed Ritz crackers and chili cheese Fritos warmed in brown butter. Savannah street corn is a take on esquites that blends mayo and cotija cheese with pureed preserved lemons, parsley, and harissa seasoning. The dressing is light and lets the charred corn flavor come through.
The meats are all high quality, like Compart Duroc for the pork ribs, pulled pork, and the pork belly brisket. The latter is just a pork belly that’s been seasoned, smoked, and sliced like a brisket, and it was was perfectly smoked. The brisket and beef ribs are from Meyer Natural beef. Williams uses the foil-boat method on the briskets, so the bark on the fat cap has a distinct crunch.
The beef rib was also admirably cooked, and while Williams said the reception of his style of barbecue has been overwhelmingly welcomed in the area, he admitted, “People still don’t quite understand beef ribs here.” Then he told me about a photo he posted of his barbecue on social media. Someone commented and asked, “Can you deliver this to Texas?” Williams says he knows it’s cheesy, but he responded: “No. I deliver Texas to Savannah.”