Sweet Lew’s BBQ – Charlotte, NC

Name: Sweet Lew’s BBQ
Date: 12/5/18
Address: 923 Belmont Ave, Charlotte, NC 28205
Order: NC smoked pork shoulder plate with red slaw, collards, and cornbread plus ¼ lb of brisket (link to menu)
Price: $$ (out of $$$)

Monk: With Jim Noble’s forthcoming barbecue venture Noble Smoke delayed until next Spring, the title of “most anticipated Charlotte barbecue opening for 2019” fell to Sweet Lew’s BBQ by default (though not without merit). I got a chance to sample some of Sweet Lew’s chopped pork a few months back and while they had hoped to open in October, construction delays and permitting being what it is they weren’t able to open until the first week in December. I showed up eagerly on opening day right before 12 noon,

Sweet Lew’s is located in the Belmont neighborhood in a converted service station with a brand new pit room built out back. There Lewis Donald, co-owner (along with Laura Furman Grice) and pitmaster, smokes the meat on a Myron Mixon smoker. As you walk in through the front door, guests are greeted by the welcome sound of chopping by Lewis himself. At Sweet Lew’s, the meat is sliced or chopped to order and the sides are served cafeteria-style similar to how a lot of Texas places do it (as did Midwood Smokeshack, RIP). They’ve got a small dining room and a patio that will come into play more when the weather warms back up in the Spring.

The coarsely chopped pork is described as Lexington-style pork on the menu and while it is very good, I don’t find that label to be completely accurate. The pork butts (sourced from Beeler’s Pure Pork in Iowa) are rubbed with salt and pepper and smoked over wood before being finished with a vinegar sauce. Mix it with some red slaw and Texas Pete and you’ve got a pretty good version of classic NC barbecue, just no quite true Lexington-style.

I was lucky enough to get a fresh brisket pulled out just before my order. Sweet Lew’s sources their briskets from Creekstone Farms in Kansas and are smoking them Central Texas style. There’s a lot of flavor in the bark of the lean slices, but I got a little bit of a sodium overload by the end of the meal. Still, this is one of the better briskets in Charlotte for sure.

To be a true Lexington red slaw, I found that it needs a little more ketchup for the sweetness to balance the vinegar tang. Each combo plate comes with a slide of cornbread and while I would have preferred hush puppies, I’ll take it. The collards were pretty standard but next time I’ll probably order the Virginia boiled peanuts instead. I’m excited for the daily specials, which start this week and consists of Turkey Tuesday, Hash Wednesday, Sausage Saturday, and Fried Chicken Sunday.

Sweet Lew’s BBQ has hit the ground running and sold out of meats on the couple of days, a feature they had been touting since the venture was announced that would set them apart from other Charlotte spots. I’m sure the smoking will ramp up in the comings weeks to meet demand but its comforting to know that the meat will always be fresh and not reheated from the previous day. For this among many other reasons, we should all be very excited that Sweet Lew’s has raised the stakes in the Charlotte barbecue scene and should only continue to get better.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 4 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Brisket – 4 hogs
Sides – 3.5 hogs
Overall – 4 hogs

Sweet Old Bill’s Burgers, Que & Brew – High Point, NC

Name: Sweet Old Bill’s Burgers, Que & Brew
Date: 11/21/18
Address: 1232 North Main Street, High Point, North Carolina
Order: Three meat combo (pork, brisket, ribs) with hush puppies, corn pudding, and slaw
Price: $$ (out of $$$)

Monk: Well, what do you know? The Barbecue Bros’ hometown of High Point has grown to the where someone has opened up a yuppie cue spot (next to a brewery no less). High Point’s always had standard issue barbecue joints like Kepley’s, Carter Brothers, or Henry James but a full bar barbecue joint that serves not only pulled pork but brisket, ribs, chicken and more? Now that’s something new for the Home Furnishings Capital of the World.

Speedy: While this is exciting, I take great offense at calling Kepley’s a “standard issue barbecue joint.” Where’s the respect, Monk?

Monk: All respect given, Speedy. That was not a comment on the quality of the food – I only meant that none of those I mentioned above go the “International House of Barbecue” route and also don’t serve beer or alcohol like Sweet Old Bill’s.

SOB’s opened in early November on North Main Street and shares a wall with the well-received Brown Truck Brewery. At the back of the Sweet Old Bill’s side of the building is a wood-assisted gasser just off the kitchen. Inside, a large bar area occupies approximately half of the interior with a decor that I would probably best described as “industrial chic” with my limited interior decorator vocabulary.

The three meat combo plate was decently priced at $18 and I chose pork, brisket, and ribs. Not ordered but also available was chicken and turkey. The pork had hints of smoke but benefited from being eaten with the slaw and table vinegar sauce, a small batch sauce I didn’t recognize or snap a photo of. I will note that a red slaw was advertised on the menu but what came out was a mayo-based white slaw. I still ate it, but was really hoping to try their version of a Lexington red slaw. Regardless, not a bad start to the meal.

The brisket at SOB’s comes pre-sauced but underneath that sauce were lean slices with a decent pepper bark. This was definitely not a Central Texas style brisket, but for High Point it was not bad. Not great, mind you, but not awful.

Speedy: For NC brisket, “not awful” is high praise…  

Monk: The dry-rubbed ribs were well seasoned and not overcooked, giving a good tug with each chew. Of the three meats I ordered, the ribs were probably my favorite, and thankfully they weren’t drowning in sauce like the brisket.

I already mentioned the slaw but when it came to the rest of the sides the scratch-made hush puppies were more on the savory end of the spectrum but were nicely fried orbs of cornmeal goodness. The highlight of sides was definitely the corn pudding, which had some sweetness and also appeared to be scratch made.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that they had a nice selection of craft beers, many of which were local to NC. I ordered a Brown Truck porter, which was made not 10 feet on the other side of the wall from where we were sitting – pretty cool and not too many other barbecue restaurants could claim that I’d bet.

Overall, I was pretty pleased with my meal at Sweet Old Bill’s. Being a new restaurant, they could have easily cut corners in a few areas but thankfully did not. The meats are not all quite there but I appreciated the attention paid to the side dishes. Keep in mind that they were only a few weeks old for this meal so with time I think they will eventually get to a good spot. They are certainly off to a nice start.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3 hogs
Pork – 3 hogs
Ribs – 3.5 hogs
Brisket – 3 hogs
Sides – 3 hogs
Overall – 3 hogs

Friday Find: Matthew Odam joins the House of Carbs podcast

Matthew Odam, food critic for the Austin Statesman, joins House to talk all things Austin food including his latest best Austin restaurants list, tacos, and of course barbecue. The barbecue starts at around the 29:00 mark and includes talk of the inventive stuff LeRoy & Lewis are doing at their trailer, the barbecue/Mexican hybrid at Valentina’s, and of course, Franklin Barbecue.

Linkdown: 11/14/18

– Bill Addison’s fifth annual list for Eater is now out and includes 2 barbecue restaurants: 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio and Franklin Barbecue in Austin; Franklin is one of only five restaurants (barbecue or otherwise) that have made his list all five years

– Whole hog barbecue is making its way to Texas

Carolina-style whole-hog barbecue is also making inroads in the self-proclaimed capital of Texas barbecue, Austin. Chef Evan LeRoy of LeRoy & Lewis Barbecue uses a trailer-mounted, whole-hog pit to offer pulled pork on his regular menu.

In perhaps the most ambitious implementation of Carolina-style whole-hog barbecue in Texas, chef Ted Prater of Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden in Austin is building a self-contained smokehouse with custom-built pits dedicated to cooking whole hogs. It’ll be ready in December.

– The owners behind Sauceman’s in Charlotte have sold the lot their restaurant sits on and are looking to relocate in Southend

– A short photo post on B’s Barbecue in Greenville

– From this month’s Garden and Gun, former Charlotte Magazine editor Michael Graff recalls the ribs he grew up on in Charles County, Maryland

– Dr. Howard Conyers spoke at his undergrad alma mater, NC A&T, yesterday on how science influenced his love of barbecue

– The more you know

– Damon Stainbrook, a former French Laundry sous chef, has opened his second Pig in a Pickle barbecue restaurant location in the SF area and is smoking onsite over California white oak

– I continue to love how Dave Grohl’s fallback profession is seemingly “Carolina pitmaster”

– Update: no longer a fallback profession:

Review: The Sqweelin’ Pig – Black Mountain, NC

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Name
: The Sqweelin’ Pig
Date: 11/3/18
Address: 3206 US Hwy 70 W, Black Mountain, North Carolina 28711
Order: Three meat combo dinner with pork, ribs, brisket, hush puppies, green beans, mac and cheese
Price: ~$21

Monk: As I’ve encountered in travels in the mountains of Western NC, barbecue is very hit or miss once you go west of, say, Hickory or Shelby. For every Buxton Hall or even Luella’s, there are those places that may smoke over wood but aren’t all that good or those that don’t even bother with wood. It’s all a game of barbecue roulette, essentially.

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The Sqweelin’ Pig started as a food truck that smoked solely over wood when now pitmaster Buddy Clemons lost his construction job in 2012 and decided to make a late career change to barbecue. It seems as though its working out pretty well for him and his wife (who then quit her own job to help him) as this Black Mountain location that opened earlier this year is the third location after Weaversville and Barnardsville northwest of Black Mountain. Here, a trailer is positioned just outside of the main restaurant with the woodpile stacked against the building.

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The wood smoke did come through once the three meat combo platter of pork, ribs, and brisket was delivered to the table. For the most part, the wood smoke alone didn’t make for great barbecue. The pork and ribs were passable (the pork being a bit better when adding one of their sauces, including an interesting blackberry vinegar sauce) but the brisket was what you expect at most places in the mountains of NC – thin, dried out, and with a consistency more like roast beef than Texas brisket. I’d be curious if they are reheating yesterday’s brisket.

The sides are scratch made but weren’t particularly noteworthy. I will note that all beer bottles, including several local beers, were all $2.50. My wife and I each opted for beers from High Wire out of Asheville while my father-in-law went for Coors Light. Again, each of those beers were $2.50 so not bad at all.

Unfortunately, The Sqweelin’ Pig fell into the “smoke over wood but aren’t all that good” category of western NC mountain barbecue places. I’d recommend sticking with the pork if you make it, but I’d also mention that Buxton Hall is only about 30 minutes west of Black Mountain…

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3 hogs
Brisket – 2 hogs
Ribs – 3 hogs
Pork – 3 hogs
Sides – 2.5 hogs
Overall – 3 hogs

 

Friday Find: Midwood Smokehouse Pitmasters Matthew Berry and Michael Wagner join the Cheers Charlotte podcast

Berry and Wagner join around the 41:50 mark to discuss Midwood Smokehouse’s approach to Texas barbecue and the difference between Texas barbecue scene versus North Carolina. Michael even drops some knowledge on where the central Texas salt and pepper originally came from before Matt drops some knowledge of his own about the history of brisket as a smoked cut of meat. The total discussion lasts about 12 minutes.

Link to the episode on the Cheers Charlotte website

Linkdown: 8/29/18

– Brett Martin (for GQ) on how Houston got cool

– According to this article (which is about a new Jim Noble fried chicken concept), Noble Smoke is now being targeted to open in March 2019

– You can now vote for the best barbecue joints by state in Southern Living’s “South’s Best 2019” poll

– Texas Monthly on the Barbecue Nation exhibit in Atlanta

– According to this list, The Pit is one of Raleigh’s best soul food restaurants

– Yea…I’m gonna need to try this out soon on my own Weber

– A comparison of the two out-of-state whole hog joints coming to Birmingham in the coming months – Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint and Rodney Scott’s BBQ

– Your move, Texas Pete:

Lewis Barbecue – Charleston, SC (Speedy’s take)

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Name
: Lewis Barbecue
Date: 8/1/18
Address: 464 N Nassau St, Charleston, SC 29403
Order: 1 pound brisket, 2 hot gut links, 6 bones pork ribs, corn pudding, collards (link to menu)

Speedy: Later in the day after my trip to Rodney Scott’s BBQ (and after visiting a brewery of course), some of my fam and I decided to visit another new-ish Charleston joint I was pumped about – Lewis Barbecue. After superb visits to both Franklin Barbecue and La Barbecue (where John Lewis did stints), my expectations were super high. Finding a true Texas joint in South Carolina is definitely a treat.

The atmosphere at Lewis Barbecue is awesome. There’s an order counter, a bar, a fair amount of indoor seating and ample outdoor seating. Upon arriving, you order and just like in Texas, the meat is cut and weighed right in front of you. Even though we were still full from our earlier lunch, for our second lunch we made sure to order the brisket, pork ribs, and hot guts.

Monk: I was quite jealous when I heard Speedy and crew were doing Rodney Scott’s and then Lewis back-to-back. You may notice that most of my comments below are just agreeing with how good the food is at Lewis, and I hope I get a chance to get back there again soon (Labor Day weekend, perhaps?).

Rudy: I’m jealous too that you were able to visit Lewis Barbecue.  When he was the pitmaster at La Barbecue, that was the best brisket and maybe best ribs I’ve had, so I’ve missed him in Austin and have been wanting to try his place in Charleston.

Monk: Just throwing this out there…Barbecue Bros company retreat in Charleston next year?

Speedy: I’ll start with the brisket, as that’s the flagship meat. In short, it’s the best brisket I’ve had outside of Texas. We got a mix of fatty and lean, and both cuts were smoked to perfection, seasoned perfectly. I liked the fatty better than the lean, as I felt the lean was a bit dry. Unfortunately, this brisket did not enter into the holy quadrumvirate with Franklin, La Barbecue, Killen’s, and Pecan Lodge, but it’s certainly in the next tier down. A must order.

Rudy: Like I said before, his brisket in Texas is the best I’ve ever had (although Franklin and Pecan Lodge are very very close) so I am not surprised that it was great, but am surprised that it did not break into that group.

Speedy: I was a little surprised too, Rudy. It was still darn good and very close, but maybe it was just a slightly sub-par day or that I usually don’t order lean at all, but it just lacked that extra something special.

Monk: While I have a few more Texas joints (notably, Louie Mueller) under my belt from my trip earlier this year, Lewis Barbecue is still the best brisket I’ve personally had at a restaurant. Note that I have yet to visit any of the spots mentioned in Speedy’s quadrumvirate. Also, based on the lack of spell check squigglies, “quadrumvirate” is apparently a real word and not something made up by Speedy.

Speedy: The hot guts took things to the next level. I like smoked sausage, but have always considered it a second tier barbecue meat. Well, John Lewis is challenging that. The sausage had a perfect snap and great flavor, with just  a bit of a kick. I’m not sure the sausage could have been better.

Monk: I didn’t know that you were biased against sausage, Speedy. Six-plus years into this barbecue blog and you still manage to surprise me.

In any case, I too loved the hot guts.

Rudy: I’ve had the hot guts two times and really didn’t like it all that much.  I think they are all beef and I am not a huge fan of that because I think it can sometimes dry out or crumble.  It could have also been because I had heard so much about them and went in with huge expectations. But most people rave about it and you guys are no different.

Speedy: The ribs were also enjoyable – served with just a light glaze, these spare ribs were big and meaty, rich and tender. There was a hint of sweetness associated with the glaze, and you could clearly taste the smoke, but I would have liked a little more rub under the glaze to add a little spice and seasoning. Still quite good, but if you’re going to skip a meat at Lewis, this is the one.

The sides at Lewis Barbecue are worth more than a casual mention – they are really really good. Particularly the corn pudding was amazing, so don’t skip it.

Monk: The corn pudding was both mine and Mrs. Monk’s favorite side from Lewis as well. Jon G’s Barbecue has their own version of a corn pudding inspired by Lewis and it’s nearly as good. The takeaway here is that more joints should add corn pudding to menus.

Speedy: The meal at Lewis Barbecue was really great. Eating it in the same day as Rodney Scott’s was a real treat (as well as a challenge in terms of stomach room). Both joints are must-visit if you’re in the Charleston area and offer great insights into different styles of ‘cue.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 4 hogs
Brisket – 4.5 hogs
Ribs – 4 hogs
Hot guts – 5 hogs
Sides – 4.5 hogs
Overall – 4.5 hogs

Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint – Nashville, TN

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Name
: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint (Downtown location)
Date: 7/21/18
Address: 410 4th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37201
Order: Big Poppa Sampler (Full Rack Ribs, 12oz Pork, 12oz Brisket, ½ Chicken, mac and cheese, green beans, fries) with 6 Memphis dry rub wings, 2 orders of hush puppies, and 2 cornbread hoe cakes (link to menu)
Price: $141 (for 6)

Speedy: With Monk coming to town, I had to take him to my favorite ‘cue in town – Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint. I had reviewed the OG location of Martin’s many years ago, but since then, three other Tennessee locations (as well as two Kentucky ones) have opened. While I greatly enjoy the food, I took Monk (and crew) to the downtown location, which is one of my favorite places in Nashville – barbecue or otherwise.

Monk: The downtown location of Martin’s is amazing – flat out. As soon as we stepped up into the upstairs beer garden, I knew it was going to get 5 hogs for atmosphere and ambiance. The upstairs was an airy, open air space with plenty of natural lighting and big ass fans to keep the air circulating. Besides the smokeroom off to the side, it had a small stage, two small bars flanking either side of the room, several long beer garden-style tables, ping pong, shufflepuck, and dartboards. If we ever hit it big from barbecue blogging, I will be taking photos of this space to an architect to replicate at the loft I would buy once I’m flush with all that theoretical barbecue blogging cashish.

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Speedy: With six of us in tow, we ordered the Big Poppa Platter, which consists of a full rack of ribs, 12 oz pork, 12 oz brisket, ½ chicken, and 3 pints of sides. We tacked on a few extra sides and a half dozen wings and we were good to go.

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I’ll start with the ribs. We ordered spare ribs instead of baby backs since they are bigger and we had six hungry men. The rack of ribs was massive – plenty for us all to eat. We ordered dry ribs, and they showed up heavily seasoned as a full slab. The ribs were tender, cooked perfectly, and delicious. I do wish we had ordered baby back ribs, as the quality of the meat is better. On the spare ribs, there was a big more tendon than I like, but that’s a nit-picky complaint. Overall, I could have used a little more spice in the rub, but the ribs are very, very solid.

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Monk: Martin’s is one of the few restaurants in Tennessee (or anywhere else, for that matter) that is still doing whole hog barbecue. With the purchasing power of a growing regional chain, I imagine they are able to make the economics work, but regardless I applaud them for continuing the whole hog tradition. As for the pork itself, our portion was a mixture of pork that was overall lighter than the darker meat of the shoulders predominantly used in the NC piedmont (though shoulders are also available on the menu). I’m not quite sure what the nuances are between western TN whole hog and what you’ll find in eastern NC or the Pee Dee region of SC (a topic which I’ll gladly earmark for more research later), but I quite enjoyed what Martin’s served.

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Speedy: The brisket is about as good as you can find in Tennessee. It had good bark and was cooked pretty well (maybe ever so slightly overcooked), but it is not on the same level as some of the Texas joints. Martin’s brisket does have nice tug and flavor, and has good bark, but it just doesn’t quite have the peppery goodness needed to reach the upper brisket tier. However, if I’m hankerin’ for a good brisket in Tennessee, Martin’s is the best choice there is. As a side note, while not sampled on this visit, Martin’s does offer a cheeseburger topped with brisket that simply is not to be missed. Beef on beef – brilliant!

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Monk: We don’t normally order chicken but seeing as how it came with the Big Poppa, we embraced it. Smoked chicken is not my jam but it definitely worked when dipped in the Alabama white sauce that came with the tray.

Speedy: The wings were good – using the same dry rub as the ribs (other flavors are available, but we went with the dry rub). They were smoked well, but could have stood to be a little meatier. Like everything at Martin’s, the wings were very good. Smoked wings can be a little difficult to find, so I appreciate a place that does them right, and Martin’s is that.

Monk: There were literally no complaints about any of the sides we got. Some of our group raved about the mac and cheese, others loved the green beans, and I thought the hush puppies were solidly above average. But I was most intrigued by the cornbread hoe cakes, an item I’ve not ever seen on a barbecue menu before. In western NC, our cornmeal comes in the form of hush puppies whereas in the east you’ll see cornsticks or more traditional cornbread. The hoecakes were savory and not overly sweet  but I would definitely get them again – I know Speedy gets them most times he visits. Oh, and they have Cheerwine and Sun Drop in glass bottles! So awesome.

With Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in Downtown Nashville, all of the meats are consistently above average, the sides were great, and the space was awesome. One more thought on the space – after we finished our meal, our group stuck around for another hour or so, grabbing another pitcher while playing darts. I would have gladly stuck around for several more hours, but alas we were headed to Third Man Records before throwing axes in East Nashville (side note – Speedy showed the guys a great time that weekend in Nashville). I can see why Martin’s is Speedy’s favorite joint in the city and I would gladly go back for another meal at this or any of the other locations.

Ratings:
Atmosphere/Ambiance – 5 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Brisket – 4 hogs
Ribs – 4 hogs
Chicken – 3.5 hogs
Wings – 4.5 hogs
Sides – 4.5 hogs
Overall – 4.5 hogs