The 4th Annual Free Range and order/fire Pig Pickin’ featuring Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ

Each year for the past four, order/fire, a Charlotte-based culinary web series, and Free Range Brewing have collaborated on an annual pig pickin’ and viewing of the latest episode of the web series. You may recall two years ago they featured Sam Jones from Skylight Inn/Sam Jones BBQ. While I missed last year’s edition, this year they featured Lewis Donald from Sweet Lew’s BBQ, with all proceeds going towards a great cause, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, a non-profit that provides workforce training and job placement assistance in the food service industry for adults who face barriers to successful employment. Definitely a great cause, and one in-line with some of the values of Sweet Lew’s (more on that in a bit).

The location is the same, but the surroundings are completely different, with apartments now surrounding the Free Range Brewing building whereas it was an empty lot just two years ago. Because of the potential for inclement weather Saturday night, Lewis and order/fire host Marc Jacksina opted to utilize the covered Sweet Lew’s smokehouse for the majority of smoking before relocating to the brewery Sunday morning.

As I arrived shortly after doors opened, Lewis and his two sons were beginning to pull from the pig and before long the sound of chopping filled the back patio. Speaking of the pig, Beeler’s Pure Pork (who supplies pork shoulders for Sweet Lew’s BBQ) had graciously donated a 95 lb pig for the event, which allowed more of the funds to go to the Community Culinary School of Charlotte. Duke’s Bread donated the rolls, again allowing more of the funds to go to CCSC.

Lunch was served before the first showing, and with a suggested donation of $10 per plate everyone got a full plate of chopped pork and a roll, with sides of slaw, mac and cheese, and baked beans and a cookie. In a nice bit of synergy, the sides were actually prepared by the CCSC. Lewis was also walking around handing out slices of brisket as long as it lasted. With bellies full, it was time for the first screening of the episode.

Free Range Brewing co-owner Jeff Alexander, order/fire host Chef Marc Jacksina, director Peter Taylor, and Lewis Donald took the stage for some quick words before the episode airing. In speaking with Lewis over the past few months, I’ve gotten a good sense of his vision for Sweet Lew’s BBQ – to be a community restaurant that is fully integrated with the Belmont neighborhood – but this episode really fleshed it out so much more through the conversation between Lewis and Marc. It’s hard to believe its only been about 5 months now, but Lewis clearly loves being in the Belmont neighborhood and was putting in work to build ties with neighbors starting with the construction of the restaurant last fall. And he’s got more great ideas for the coming months, from his continued practice of hiring teens from the neighborhood to a back-to-school carnival with free haircuts for kids next August. My social work wife was just eating up the backstory and vision, and for good reason because it’s something you don’t always see from a restaurant.

But the conversation also revealed more of Lewis as a person, from his background growing up in Cleveland, OH to his path in the food industry over the past 20 years, with stops in California, Hawaii, West Virginia, and ultimately Charlotte. Lewis has just about seen it all in the types of roles he’s had, from fast food, country clubs, fine dining, and corporate positions. Lewis is a guy who self-admittedly doesn’t talk a lot, but I was glad Marc was able to get quite a bit out of him in their discussion. Great stuff, and I’ll be sure to post the episode once its available online because it’s one you don’t want to miss.

Finally, a note on Free Range Brewing. I love what they have continued to do since they began operation. They actively promote a family-friendly atmosphere in which they want the NoDa community to gather. In addition to the annual pig pickin’, they host the other viewings of order/fire episodes as well as partner with local farmers and artists. If you live in Charlotte and haven’t been yet, I urge you to check them out well before next year’s pig pickin’.

Pitmasters of Charlotte: Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ

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!

Thanks to Lewis for his time. For more about Sweet Lew’s BBQ, check out their website, Instagram, Facebook page, or Lewis’ Instagram.

If you know of a pitmaster who we should feature next, let us know!

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

Linkdown: 12/5/18

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!

Here’s more on what you can expect at Sweet Lew’s from Charlotte Five and Charlotte Agenda

Kathleen Purvis’ 10 food gifts locally made in Charlotte includes Ogre Sauce barbecue sauce

Ogre Sauce gets a shoutout on Mantry’s 6 best barbecue sauces list 

Tonight at 9pm ET on the Cooking Channel:

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.

Dave Grohl once again confirms that eastern NC style barbecue is his favorite

Sam Jones BBQ and The Redneck BBQ Lab get reviewed by the News and Observer

Speaking of Sam Jones BBQ, restaurant #2 is coming to Raleigh

Richmond’s best barbecue spots according to Richmond Magazine

Jamestown, NC is getting their own yuppie-cue barbecue restaurant in an old filling station next year in Black Powder Smokehouse

Congrats to Charlotte on turning 250 earlier this week!

Preview: Sweet Lew’s BBQ

Note: This post was updated after initial posting

After working at various chef positions at resorts, country clubs, and, most recently, for the upscale grocer Reid’s Fine Foods, Lewis Donald will be bringing a community barbecue restaurant to the Belmont neighborhood later this fall in the form of Sweet Lew’s BBQ.

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Lewis may be originally from Cleveland, Ohio but has been inspired by southern barbecue at places such as Lewis Barbecue in Charleston and Lexington Barbecue (he recently met Rick Monk, who he hopes will visit Sweet Lew’s once it opens). The plan for Sweet Lew’s is to have pork, chicken, and ribs on the regular menu with daily specials like brisket on Saturdays, smoked turkey on Tuesdays, and hash on Wednesdays.

Speaking of meats, Sweet Lew’s will use high quality meats sourced from ethical farms across the US; his pork will come from Beeler’s Pure Pork in Iowa, the briskets will come from Creekstone Farms in Kansas, and chicken from Springer Mountain Farms in Georgia. Lewis will also keep it simple when it comes to rubs, for instance using only salt and pepper on his pork butts. All of the smoking will be done on a Myron Mixon H2O Water Smoker that will use wood such as pecan and hickory as its primary fuel source; there will be no gas or electricity assistance in the smoking of these meats.

The sandwich I tasted a few weeks back was NC barbecue at its simplest perfection. Hand-pulled pork shoulders mixed with Lewis’s vinegar-pepper sauce, topped with a vinegar slaw, and placed onto a simple white hamburger bun. Sure, I had the benefit of having it prepared freshly off the smoker in front of me, but the process is simple enough that I am expecting the same quality once the restaurant opens.

The house made pickles were a nice compliment to the sandwich (I kept them on the side as opposed to topping the sandwich), but I can’t wait to try the boiled peanuts that will be a standard side. If you’ve read anything about Sweet Lew’s up to this point you’re likely aware of them but this is a menu item that makes it stand out from other barbecue restaurants in town.

Lewis has already embraced the Belmont community through catering neighborhood events and he has plans to partner with local businesses such as the Salvation Army, with whom he shares the back boundary of his property. He wants Sweet Lew’s to have a family and community feel to the restaurant, and Lewis has promised a higher level of service to patrons of the restaurant.

I predict Charlotte barbecue fans are going to go crazy for Sweet Lew’s BBQ. It fills a niche in Charlotte that we just haven’t had – a joint that plans to sell its freshly smoked meat until its sold out, then close for the day. I enjoyed meeting and speaking with Lewis and love the concept; late October can’t get here earlier enough.

In the meantime, if you want to try Sweet Lew’s BBQ before the opening in late October, look out for his pop ups around Charlotte including a stop at Birdsong Brewing on 9/22 from 5-9pm.

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Linkdown: 9/5/18

– Treehouse Whiskey & Fork has always had barbecue on the menu, but they are rebranding as Treehouse Bourbon & BBQ

– Charlotte Agenda has a rundown of the upcoming restaurant openings, including Sweet Lew’s BBQ and Noble Smoke

– Eat at The Smoke Pit while in Cabarrus County, just north of Charlotte

– The story behind Dreamland

– This weekend is the Fiddle ‘n Pig Shindig at the Anne Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mill, SC, which will include bluegrass music, a beer garden, and of course, barbecue

– The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has the best barbecue joints in Seattle

– Texas barbecue in Pittsburgh (via Brooklyn)

– Three C’s Barbecue has opened in Pink Hill, NC in the eastern part of the state

– Very much looking forward to this: James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller has a black barbecue book coming out in 2020/2021

Linkdown: 2/14/18

– The upcoming Randy’s Barbecue in Statesville will utilize a type of three-dimensional sign that was just approved by the city’s zoning ordinance in December

– The Michelin Guide to the 4 best barbecue restaurants in NYC includes Arrogant Swine’s eastern NC whole hog

– Tuffy Stone’s barbecue book gets a good review

– The more you know:

– A few photos from the late 50’s at the former Harrill’s Bar-B-Q in Charlotte

– A review of Prissy Polly’s in Kernersville

– Deets on a barbecue panel at SXSW 2018 in a few weeks

– The Whole Hog Barbecue Summit is Feb 24 in Kinston

– Can you find real barbecue in New Hampshire? Now that’s a question.

– Smaller menu, location in Plaza Midwood or Belmont or NoDa, and Cheerwine on the menu? WELL I’M INTERESTED: