On the hunt for the best barbecue in South Carolina. (Photo: iStock)
We couldn’t help ourselves. There were two ways to drive from Savannah, Georgia, where we’d spent a couple pleasant nights, to Asheville, North Carolina, the next destination on our road trip. The short way was a straightforward shot, about four highway hours. No sweat. The long way was meandering, but it would allow us to make a bunch of smoky, salty, porky, ridiculously indulgent stops along what has been branded “The South Carolina BBQ Trail.”
Lots of sweat.
You know which route we took.
South Carolina has more barbecue diversity than any other state in the U.S., as long as what you are talking about when you are talking about barbecue is slow-cooked pulled pork. The word “barbecue” refers to one meat and one meat only here, that of the pig. The state is divided into four BBQ regions, distinct because each emphasizes a different sauce: mustard, vinegar and pepper, light tomato, and heavy tomato.
Welcome to the BBQ Grill. Time to pig out. (Photo: Allen Salkin)
Along the coast, it’s the fiery vinegar and pepper that has been around for hundreds of years. In the Northeast corner, the Pee Dee region, that vinegar mixture gets a touch of ketchup added to make the slightly sweet, spicy, light tomato sauce. The Midlands are home to the mustard-based sauce most commonly associated with the state. It was developed by German immigrants in the 18th century. Out in the western and northwestern mountains, the sweet heavy tomato is the sauce of choice.
Essential downloading for the trip is the SC BBQ Trail Map, a list of 231 joints at which to sample the Q, usually with sides that include wonderfully greasy golden hush puppies and some kind of slaw.
We did not eat at all 231 in one day. We’re going to make doing that a slow lifelong goal. But we did hit a nice sampling of stops. Each place focused on different styles and sauces. The trail map spells out which sauces are featured at which restaurants, so you can make sure to hit all palate notes.
All you can eat — and then some at the BBQ Grill. (Photo: Allen Salkin)
The best of our stops was the first, the simply-named BBQ Grill in Ridgeland. We opted for the $8.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. The pulled pork carried a rich smoky and fatty savor while maintaining a solid meaty bite. It was shredded lightly and not over-salted. There were multiple sauces on the table. Since this is a coastal location, the vinegar sauce is their speciality, but we couldn’t help but also try some squirts of mustard sauce, which was tangy and tart, just right. Top marks also for the breaded and fried chicken livers and hearts, and BBQ chicken on the bone, all part of the buffet.
Antley’s looks deserted because everyone’s ordering outside. (Photo: Allen Salkin)
Next stop was Antley’s in Orangeburg. Even though Antley’s has a massive dining room and a buffet, most folks prefer to order from the take-out window outside, which features a view of a gas station and a forest. The main sauce doused on the pulled pork at this Midlands spot is “Orangeburg Sweet Sauce,” a slightly sweeter-than-most mustard-sauce. The meat was tender and soaked up the sauce perfectly. The hush puppies were nuggets of crunchy cornmeal goodness.
Bellies feverishly digesting, barbecue sauces starting to ooze from our pores, we hit the mountains as night fell, finding our way to Holden’s Ranch in Spartanburg, number 22 on the Mountains section of the trail map, shortly before their 9 p.m. closing time. Let us say this clearly: the chicken stew is very, very good. We ordered it because it was featured prominently on the menu. But we didn’t come for the chicken stew. Unfortunately, the pulled pork was more like mushed pork doused in too much tomato sauce. Good news: the marble cake, locally made, was a delicious spongy and chocolatey dessert we didn’t need but ate anyway.
Fried okra at Holden’s Ranch. (Photo: Allen Salkin)
One of us has been on a previous trip to Bessinger’s Bar-Be-Que in Charleston. That would be Sara, who has spent a lot of time in the city. It’s the best barbecue in Charleston, and has been in business for 75 years. The meat is cooked 18-hours in wood-burning pit with hickory and oak, then deboned, then pulled.
We rolled into Asheville around 11 p.m. Our hosts had put out a nice tray of wine and cheese to greet us. We politely declined.
WATCH: The Best Pie in Every State