Food & Wine // 5 min Read

Meat John Lewis

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Mar 01, 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.”

%GALLERY%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

palmetto bluff

Real Estate / Behind the Bluff with Broker-in-Charge W. Bryan Byrne

Bryan’s Journey to Palmetto Bluff Real Estate In this edition of Behind the Bluff, W. Bryan Byrne, the Broker-in-Charge at Palmetto Bluff Real Estate Company, discusses his two-decade journey in the community. His experience has intricately molded the authent...

Jan 2024
real estate in bluffton sc

Real Estate / Lowcountry Housing Trends & Market Updates

Real Estate in Bluffton, SC: Trends, Updates, and Insights Bluffton, South Carolina, nestled within the scenic Lowcountry, is not just a picturesque haven but also a thriving real estate market. As the demand for homes in this charming town continues to grow,...

Jan 2024

Food & Wine / Mocktails from the Palmetto Bluff Club

Rosemary Spice Mocktail Recipe Introducing Buffalos' exquisite Rosemary Spice Mocktail—a meticulously crafted blend that awakens the taste buds with a perfect harmony of bold flavors. Fresh jalapenos are muddled for a subtle spicy kick, while luscious cra...

Jan 2024

Artist in Residence / Painting Wild

Story by Sandy Lang and Photographs by Lawson Builder In early May, The Arts Initiative hosted renowned Lowcountry painter West Fraser as our esteemed Artist In Residence. Throughout his stay, residents were treated to an array of events, including a painting...

Jan 2024
palmetto buff golf course

Sporting Life / Behind the Bluff with the Palmetto Bluff 9-Hole Golf Course Team

All About the New Palmetto Bluff Golf Course Nestled in the picturesque landscape of Palmetto Bluff, a new golfing adventure is taking shape—the Crossroads 9-Hole Golf Course. To delve into the intricacies of this project, we had the opportunity to sit down w...

Dec 2023

Conservation / Palmetto Bluff Buffalo Run 2023: A Celebration of Endurance, Nature, and Community

A Recap of the 2034 Buffalo Run The Palmetto Bluff Buffalo Run celebrated its 10th anniversary on Sunday, December 11, 2023, drawing in a record-breaking crowd of over 500 runners. The event, nestled in the heart of Palmetto Bluff's 20,000 acres of natural sp...

Dec 2023
places to eat near hilton head

Food & Wine / Ask the Locals: Our Favorite Restaurants Near Hilton Head

The 10 Best Places to Eat Near Hilton Head Island Nestled on the southernmost tip of South Carolina, Hilton Head Island beckons not only with its pristine beaches but also with a culinary scene that rivals its natural beauty. The Lowcountry, known for breatht...

Dec 2023

Artist in Residence / Journey through Creativity: Palmetto Bluff's 2023 Artist in Residence Highlights

As the sun sets over the picturesque landscape of Palmetto Bluff, we are grateful for the creativity that took center stage throughout the year. The 2023 Artist in Residence program has ended, leaving behind a trail of artistic marvels and inspiring stories. F...

Dec 2023

Real Estate / The Builders Behind the Bluff

Meet the Palmetto Bluff Builders Team A home is more than just bricks and mortar; it's where cherished memories are made, and dreams come to life. At Palmetto Bluff, the Palmetto Bluff Builders team designs homes based on your vision.  Allow us to introduc...

Dec 2023

Well Living at Montage Palmetto Bluff

Story by Meghan Lamb A life well lived is a life full of connection and rich experiences. It is about embracing the present moment, exploring new horizons, and nurturing the mind, body, and spirit. One such lifestyle can be found at Montage Palmetto Bluff, a ...

Dec 2023
LIVE
Community Villages
Experience
Palmetto Bluff Club
On The Water
The Arts Initiative
Events
Conserve
About Us