Food & Wine // 5 min Read

Meat John Lewis

Written by Courtney Hampson

Mar 1, 2016

People don’t wait in line to eat at a restaurant in Charleston. They don’t have to; there are plenty of dining options around the city. If your favorite is booked, you go to your number two. But this morning they did. Wait, that is.

The line started at about 9 a.m. when the first car pulled up to scout out the situation. “Ma’am, do you know what time people start lining up?” asked the young, tank-top-clad gentleman who had four friends crammed into his economy-size car. “I guess about now,” I replied with a smirk. “You’re first.” The temperature was already well into the 90s, and the pitmaster, standing next to a 27-hour-old fire, was willing cloud cover to commence.

I actually had arrived the day before, when the fire was just three hours young and Lewis BBQ’s general manager, Ben Garbee, was getting things stoked with some Texas Post Oak, aiming to keep the temps in the smoker around 225-250 degrees for the “first bit.” The door of the smoker – a reclaimed and renovated 1,000-gallon propane tank – opened and closed, the stoker and fire dancing together and finding their rhythm.

The brisket was already on, well on its way to reaching brisket-bark perfection. Ribs, pork butt, and hot gut sausages will come later.

“We serve two sauces, sweet or tangy,” says Garbee. “Although our BBQ doesn’t need sauce. Or forks.”

Tomorrow, when they open for business, they’ll also have a bacon buttermilk potato salad, coleslaw, pickles, and pickled onions.

Yes, I am drooling.

I stopped back again around 4 p.m. to sit down with pitmaster John Lewis and to check in on the day’s progress. We bellied up to the bar at Revelry Brewing, and sipped away the summer heat with the help of a Lean or Fat English Summer Ale, a collaboration between the brewers and the pitmaster.

Lewis has been dubbed a trailblazer in the neo-traditional style of central Texas BBQ. A master of his craft, he even welds his own custom-designed smokers. (Yes, that converted propane tank that his dad salvaged somewhere in Texas was pieced back to whole, by hand, in such a way that Lewis’ BBQ is all the better for it.) Austin Smoke Works, a side venture with Lewis’ father, produces custom-fabricated, steel offset wood-fired smokers, hand-built on a cattle ranch in the heart of central Texas BBQ country. And you, too, can order one, unless you plan on using it in Texas or South Carolina. <smirk>

Lewis grew up in El Paso, Texas. His dad traveled a lot for work and, when his mom was diagnosed with cancer, the younger Lewis started cooking for the family. At 18 he moved to Austin to start his culinary career, dabbling in pastry and bread-baking. “I like to eat and figure out how to make the dish myself,” Lewis said of the start of his career.

Around this time, John’s parents gave him a New Braunfels smoker for his birthday, and he started experimenting in Austin’s longstanding tradition of the backyard barbecue. Soon after this, he began getting creative with his smokers and his meats, taking liberties with the design and construction of the smokers to try to yield a better result.

After a stint in Denver honing his craft in the competition BBQ circuit, John returned to Austin in 2010 to help his friend, Aaron Franklin, as he opened Franklin Barbecue. While in Austin, John pioneered the flavor profile that helped put Austin BBQ on the map. Then John partnered with LeAnn Mueller to open the much-beloved La Barbecue in Austin in 2012, and quickly became the rising star of Austin’s BBQ scene.

But, despite his glowing star, he’s a tough interview. Humble. Shy. Protective of his “secret sauce,” which isn’t a sauce at all, it’s a rub. Mostly salt and pepper and a couple other things in “little bits.” And “little bit” is just about as much as he is willing to share. About everything. When asked what makes the hot guts sausage hot, Lewis replied, “Lots of things.”

With a Texan born-and-bred, you’d expect a big ego. After all, isn’t everything in Texas bigger? But there is no ego with John, just a love for good food, people and place. And, it is a place that moved him across the country from Austin to Charleston after participating in several Holy City-based events. He decided to make the move, leaving La Barbecue and launching Lewis BBQ, the bricks-and-mortar of which will open in the fall. Until then, it is a pop-up restaurant on Saturdays along the curb at Revelry Brewery. And the brewery is all too happy to oblige. After all, what is better than beer and BBQ?

Well, according to Lewis, “Nothing doesn’t go with BBQ.” Ah, a purist of sorts. But why his BBQ, why now, why Charleston? “I want to do a few things and do them really well. I do BBQ really well.”

And while one would argue that he is the best in the Texas BBQ brisket biz, how will he stack up against South Carolina’s beloved pulled pork? Turns out, last week, in this very line, the murmurs began, quietly at first, but eventually moved through the crowd. Brisket is where it’s at.

At 11 a.m. on Saturday, Revelry’s beer began to flow, and the convivial conversation began.

If you build it, they will come.

And they came, in droves. To a street corner that one may consider on the outskirts of town, just under the bridge, where Revelry Brewing Co. has emerged, ever eager to host a pop-up BBQ stop on Saturday mornings.

By mid-morning, Lewis was pulling briskets off the smoker, cradling them as if they were babies. It was going to be 97 degrees, and it felt like hotter than that already. It was muggy and moist. Cloud cover was a blessing we experienced sparingly. Of course, on the BBQ rig, it was easily 120 degrees. Yet no one was complaining.

Lewis was pacing in his cut-off Wrangler polyester pants that he’d shorn into shorts. “They’re polyester; they don’t stain,” he told me.

At noon, they rang the BBQ bell, and suddenly the hundreds in line stood at attention. A murmur – perhaps it was lips smacking – rushed over the crowd. They were ready. Ready for their turn, their taste. And, Lewis gave everyone a taste. He gently cut off a piece for each person while they pondered their order and did some quick math as they must order by the pound. It was an intimate moment between pitmaster and mouth-watering fan. It was all part of the experience, the relationship between pitmaster and his people. Some of whom have made the trip from afar just for a taste.

And, oh the taste.

Photography by Rod Pasibe