While there is certainly good barbecue to be found in Charlotte, I wouldn’t quite say that it’s a barbecue city…yet. However, there are pitmasters out there doing great work, and I hope to spotlight that a little more in this series of posts called “Pitmasters of Charlotte.”
Our second profile (thus making it an actual series, woo hoo!) is Lewis Donald, who along with Laura Furman Grice opened up Sweet Lew’s BBQ in early December. Monk previewed them back in September as well as reviewed the restaurant, and is a big big fan.
How long have you lived in Charlotte and how did you get here? I’ve been here 10 years. I came here to take a job at Charlotte Country Club, after I graduated the apprenticeship program at the Greenbrier in West Virginia.
How did you become a Pitmaster? I don’t really use that term, not for myself. Those that came before me, those that learned the art through family generations, those that defined what we know as bbq today…they’re the pitmasters.
What is your favorite meat to smoke? What type of wood do you prefer? I like the staples, skin-on-shoulder, ribs, chicken, and brisket. It takes being able to cook all of them to offer a good bbq experience to family, friends, and customers. I prefer [smoking over] hickory and pecan.
What are your barbecue influences? Simplicity, scratch cooking, consistency
What is your favorite barbecue joint or style? I like them all, true bbq spot and styles. But I’m not a big sauce guy.
What is your earliest memory of barbecue? Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, it was a gas grill with burgers and dogs. In 2003 is when I was introduced to bbq.
What is the best thing about Charlotte barbecue? I think it’s great that it’s served in restaurants.
What is a weakness or opportunity of Charlotte barbecue? There’s not much of it, so there’s room to grow it!
In 1971, when Keith was 19, he quit his butchering job at the A&P, sold his landscaping equipment, and borrowed $3,000 to open a restaurant. He gave it the same name as the one his father owned in Chatham County, where Keith worked the barbecue pit from the age of 10. Ever since, he’s gotten to his Allen & Son at 2:30 a.m. five days a week — splitting every piece of hickory, roasting every shoulder, chopping and seasoning every serving. “Nobody’s hands but mine touch my barbecue,” he likes to boast, “until the customer’s do.”
A recipe for collard chowder from Matthew Register of Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland; his cookbook comes out in May but is available for preorder now
The latest from J.C. Reid explores the barbecue explosion in Houston from a geographic standpoint:
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.
The “Milestone” Edition: In this week’s linkdown, we have links on a new barbecue restaurant opening, a big expansion of an existing one, plus Chef Vivian Howard’s favorite eastern NC barbecue restaurants and a milestone birthday for the city of Charlotte.
Congrats to Sweet Lew’s BBQ on finally opening today!
Chef Vivian Howard, a NC State grad who just finished her acclaimed PBS show “A Chef’s Life”, grew up in eastern NC and lives there now. You can bet she definitely knows her stuff when it comes to eastern NC barbecue.
– 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
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.
– I continue to love how Dave Grohl’s fallback profession is seemingly “Carolina pitmaster”
I’m not gonna lie. I totally geeked out and told Dave Grohl how much Nevermind meant to me when we met. Then we ate amazing pork and he was the best and I calmed down and we talked North Carolina smoke https://t.co/rQNdGGtXfQ
One day about six months ago, when the sixth and final season of “House of Cards” was filming on a set outside of Baltimore, two fictional men discussed a plate of real pork ribs. “They’re from a place called Federalist Pig,” one character says to another, adding, “I’ve been told it’s the next best thing to Freddy’s.”