Lewis Barbecue is a Texas transplant, which means they cook beef and sausages rather than pigs. I normally wouldn’t bother with a beef barbecue place in South Carolina. There’s pork country and there’s beef country, and usually, the beef in pork country is even worse than the pork in beef country. But Southern Living put Lewis Barbecue, plunked down though it is in pork-centric South Carolina, among their 2018 Top 10 barbecue places in the South. Also, I felt that I’d been neglecting the sensibilities of my friend, Doug Jacobson, the Kansas City Barbecue Maven, by focusing so much on pork rather than beef. Doug regularly sacrifices himself sampling DC area barbecue with me, and he really deserves consideration. And not least, Lewis is on the Campaign for Real Barbecue list of South Carolina places that cook exclusively with wood.
Lewis Barbecue leaves no question that it is all about beef.
Actually, that’s nudging up to creepy. You kind of expect a bovine David Koresh to emerge from the bushes. But I believe in religious tolerance, and John Lewis certainly has the sort of pedigree that entitles him do whatever he wants. Lewis helped Aaron Franklin get Franklin Barbecue (also known as Franklin of the Three Hour Lines) started in Austin in 2010, and then partnered with LeAnn Mueller (yes, those Muellers) in 2012 to start La Barbecue, another Texas Monthly Top 50 place. Lewis set up shop in Charleston in 2015, and his place seems to have been printing money ever since.
The set-up in Lewis can be a little confusing. If you park in the lot and dutifully follow the signs that tell you to “Enter Here,” you’ll wind up entering the rear of the building. Once inside, even the most observant person might overlook further, much less obvious directional signs; thus the possibility that someone new to Lewis, and I’m not naming any names, especially my own, will enter at the rear, amble up to the bar right there in front of him, and order a very local Coast Hop Art IPA. What you are supposed to do is ignore the bar and walk down an empty corridor to the front of the building. Who was the genius who thought of that?
Once up front, you get in line for a “cutter” to whom you place your meat order: x weight of brisket and y sausages, for example. At Lewis, each piece is cut fresh by hand from the brisket, as it really, really should be, and then weighed. The hand-cutting of a slice of brisket necessarily is imprecise, so you may well be offered slightly more or less than you requested. Or you may kvetch and make hungry people behind you wait while you quibble with the cutter. Either way, you pay by weight based on the amount you actually receive. Meat in hand, or on your tray, you scoot over and choose your sides. That accomplished, you move to a table and choose among the sauces. Or you get some of each. Finally, you go to the bar, get (or resume) a well-deserved drink, and find a place to sit down and enjoy your order. There are seats in the food service area, which includes one side of the bar, in a dining area with tables, and in the bar area.*
I hadn’t eaten since lunch at Rodney Scott’s, so I asked for a third of a pound of moist (fatty) brisket and a sausage. The cutter sliced a piece of the brisket, weighed it, and asked if four-tenths was okay. Sure. Far be it from me to delay the line. I slid over and got some green chili corn pudding and some collards. They also gave me abundant raw onions, some pickled onions, house-made pickles, and white bread, but I actually had to pay for the jalapeño pepper. I’ve never seen that in any barbecue place in Texas: there, you get as many as you want.
But let’s get down to business.
The brisket was very, very good. It was moist and tender, with a rich beef flavor tinged with oak. It may be the best brisket I’ve had since Snow’s, although I can’t say I’ve had good brisket anywhere except the late lamented South Fork and my cousin Murray Johnston’s. But this was very good. There was, as you can see, roughly .06667 of a pound, give or take, of unrendered fat in the center that I didn’t eat, but the meat tasted so good that I didn’t begrudge a little fat. This is real Texas barbecue. It was especially good with a bit of the raw onion, pickle, and jalapeño. Delicious.
The sausage also was good quality. Lewis makes their own sausages, and they do it well. The green chili corn pudding was quite good, but the collards were flat bad. Someone clearly had infested it with sugar, which is a terrible thing to do to an innocent vegetable, especially one crying out desperately for some pork seasoning, only to have its heart-rending pleas spurned. I had to add lashings of the green chili barbecue sauce to make the collards edible, or at least palatable. And did you notice that they gave me the heel of the loaf of bread? I guarantee their Mommas didn’t teach them to serve the heel to company.)
Lewis has three sauces, Original, Green Chile, and Tangy.
The meat didn’t really need any sauce, but I gave each a try in the interest of science. The green chili sauce was a bad fit for the meat, but it helped with the otherwise execrable collards, and it works well with the sausage. All three sauces were well seasoned and went well with the white bread. The house-made pickles were a pleasant surprise. They had enough vinegar to act as a counterpoint to the meat, and are a good contrast to the usually insipid flavor of house made pickles. Pickles, raw onions, and jalapeños, that’s what brisket wants.
Lewis is a big place, with lots of outdoor seating, complete with outdoor heaters, which I imagine extend the outdoor season a lot in Charleston. I was there during a cold snap, so everyone was indoors.
And they are prepared to cook a whole lot of meat. There were three of these babies in the cookhouse.
Lewis has a nice atmosphere once you figure out the routine. They play Texas-style country music, which I always enjoy. I kept waiting in vain to hear Don Walser, the Pavarotti of the Plains, and to that end invested in a Yazoo Hop Perfect IPA, which turned out to be imperfect. It couldn’t hold a light to the Coast Hop Art IPA. Lewis has ample parking, although that is likely to change as the area gentrifies. (They’re just a few blocks away from Rodney Scott’s.)
Setting aside the vagaries of their misanthropic collards, the heel of bread, and their charging for a jalapeño, Lewis is a very good place. It was barking nonsense for Southern Living to put it among the top 10 in the South, but it’s very good, and it’s good for people in pork country to have a good-quality brisket alternative. Man does not live by pork alone, and woman even less so. Lewis cooks the meat with wood, smoke, and skill, and that’s exactly what you want in a barbecue place. If you’re closer to Charleston than Texas or Kansas City and you want some brisket, go straight to Lewis Barbecue. You’ll be happy you did.
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*This process seems to be an attempt to replicate an old Texas layout — first stop is a separate, smoke-filled room in which the meat is cooked, ordered, and cut. You then leave that room and go to another to get everything else, pay, and eat. It works a lot better when the dining/paying space is wide open, and not, like Lewis, a rabbit warren of separate spaces.