2016: The BBQ Year in Review

2016 brought pastrami, whole hog, a Charleston boom, and international acclaim

By Robert F. Moss

With whole hog, serious sides, and a full bar, Asheville's Buxton Hall is an impressive barbecue joint indeed
With whole hog, serious sides, and a full bar, Asheville's Buxton Hall is an impressive barbecue joint indeed
Quite a lot happened in the world of barbecue in 2016. New restaurants opened their doors, and a few old favorites closed theirs. We saw a flurry of hot new menu items, and traditional American-style barbecue continued winning new fans not only in the United States but around the globe. Here’s our roundup of the highlights of an eventful year.

Charleston Rising

Over the summer, Jim Shahin of the Washington Post visited Charleston, South Carolina, and was so impressed by what he found that he declared, “I’ve seen the future of barbecue, and it is Charleston, S.C.” What he witnessed was the emergence of a serious barbecue scene in a city that, until just recently, was better known for she crab soup and shrimp and grits.

A long-running local favorite, Home Team Barbecue, opened its 3rd location early in 2016, and unlike its first two restaurants, which were a little outside of town in the West Ashley neighborhood and on Sullivan’s Island, this one is right downtown on the Peninsula in an up-and-coming restaurant and nightlife district. Just a few months later, John Lewis opened the much-anticipated Lewis Barbecue literally right around the corner from Home Team. Lewis cut his pitmaster teeth at Franklin Barbecue and then La Barbecue in Austin, Texas, before heading to Charleston, bringing to the Carolinas his world-class brisket, sausage, and other central Texas delicacies.

John Lewis brought his central Texas brisket style to the South Carolina Lowcountry in 2016
John Lewis brought his central Texas brisket style to the South Carolina Lowcountry in 2016

To top things off, Rodney Scott, the acclaimed whole hog cook from Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, broke ground on a brand new Charleston restaurant, adding the distinctive burn barrel style of the Pee Dee region into the city’s burgeoning barbecue blend.

All these developments have caused some to suggest that Charleston might soon compete with Austin, Texas, as a barbecue tourist destination. They may well be right.

Barbecue as Fine Dining Fare

2016 saw the continuation a trend that’s been underway for several years: the elevation of barbecue from a humble everyday food to the ranks of fine dining. Asheville’s Buxton Hall made it into the “Hot 10” picks on Bon Appetit’s list of America’s Best New Restaurants in 2016. Meanwhile, Austin’s Franklin Barbecue appeared on Bill Addison's Eater list of The Best Restaurants in America—for the third year running.

A parade of barbecue pitmasters made their way to New York City in 2016 to cook at the James Beard House, including Dustin Blackwell and Pitmaster/Owner Tim Hutchins of Hutchins BBQ in McKinney, TX; Bear McDonald of Bear’s Smokehouse Barbecue in Hartford, CT; Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker in Nashville, TN; Aaron Siegel and Taylor Garrigan of Home Team BBQ in Charleston, SC; and, Tuffy Stone of Richmond’s Q Barbeque.

Before long our barbecue pitmasters will be trading in their overalls and Carhartts for white chef coats.

The Year of Pastrami

2016 was the year when everyone noticed the similarities between the smoked brisket served in Texas barbecue joints and another slow-smoked beef preparation: pastrami. What once was the staple of Jewish delis has now moved into the barbecue pit. You can get bang-up beef-belly pastrami burnt ends (and pastrami brisket and pastrami beef ribs, too) at Cattleack Barbeque in Dallas. There’s coriander and black pepper-laced pastrami beef ribs at The Granary ’Cue & Brew in San Antonio, and brisket pastrami is served up on butcher paper at Green Street Smoked Meats way up north in Chicago.

There was even a bit of a kerfuffle when several food writers advanced the bold claim that, instead of originating in New York and making its way from there to the rest of the country, pastrami might actually have been invented in Texas barbecue joints and migrated northward. This hypothesis, as appealing as it may sound on the surface, turns out to be complete bunk, but even if it didn’t originate in barbecue restaurants, pastrami seems well on its way to becoming a permanent fixture there.

Curious how it’s made? This video will show you:

Serious Sides & Plenty of Booze

In 2016, diners still paid the most attention to the heart of the barbecue offering: the slow-smoked meat. But side dishes have started to get a lot more attention, too. At newer restaurants, the pitmasters—many of whom have background in fine dining—are no longer content with opening up cans of green beans and jars of pickles. At Buxton Hall in Asheville, NC, for instance, Elliott Moss has won heaps of well-deserved praised for what he calls “chef-driven, grandma-influenced sides,” which include mashed root vegetables and greens beans that are cooked "under the hog" (literally, so they catch the drippings from the cooking pigs) plus desserts from classically-trained pastry chef Ashley Capps.

Buxton Hall has a lot of other elements of a full service restaurant, too, like a bar that serves craft beer and creative cocktails, but that’s only to be expected. These days you’d be hard pressed to find a newly-opened barbecue joint that doesn’t serve beer, and most of them have full bars with fancy glassware and cocktail shakers and everything.

When Sam Jones, the third generation pitmaster at Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, opened his own new place, Sam Jones Barbecue, in nearby Winterville, he added an element not found at his father’s restaurant: beer. “If you ask me, they go together,” Jones told Bon Appetite. “if somebody’s cooking pig at a tailgate they’re gonna be drinking beer. But people who are our parents’ age for the most part do not dig a restaurant in eastern North Carolina selling beer. “

When I talked to Rodney Scott about his soon-to-open new restaurant in Charleston, he told me that he had decided to apply for a beer license, too—something his family has never had up in Hemingway. "Beer and barbecue just go together in Charleston," he told me.

Hail and Farewell

We did have to say some sad goodbyes in 2016. Johnny Harris Restaurant closed its doors in Savannah after 90—that’s right, 90—years in operation. One of South Carolina’s best barbecue restaurants, McCabe’s in Manning, was shuttered due to illness in the McCabe family. The Palmetto State also lost a legend in September when whole hog and string hash master Jackie Hite of Leesville passed away, though his family is keeping Jackie Hite’s Bar-B-Que going strong.

At the same time, there were some new arrivals and a few revivals on the barbecue scene. Cozy Corner reopened in its old location in Memphis after having to leave it two years ago after a fire.

It was a particularly good year for whole hog barbecue. B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue, which burst onto the scene in Savannah two years ago, opened its second outpost in Atlanta, bringing pitmaster Bryan Furman’s signature whole hog style to Georgia's capital. Over in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Swig & Swine opened its second location, this one outside of Charleston in the town of Summerville, where they cook burn barrel-style whole hog seven days a week. Whole hog even made inroads into beef-loving Texas when Dallas’s Cattleack Barbeque, previously open only Thursdays and Fridays, started opening one Saturday each month and cooking a whole pig alongside their famous brisket and (speaking of pastrami) brisket pastrami.

The whole hog is on at Cattleack in Dallas (That's right, whole hog in Texas!)
The whole hog is on at Cattleack in Dallas (That's right, whole hog in Texas!) (Todd David)

International House of BBQ

As it has the past few years, traditional Southern-style barbecue continued to gain popularity all across America as well as overseas. What the New York Times dubbed the transition “from barbecue desert to rib heaven” is still going in Gotham, which added even more barbecue and other Southern-themed restaurants this year. “I’m doing Texas barbecue, but in New York it can be anything,” Josh Bowen of Mothership Meat Company told the Times. “I’m not bound by tradition, which is why I’m playing around with using spices like garam masala in my rub, a yuzu glaze for duck breast, stuff I see all the time in Jackson Heights near here.” Well, okay.

Cleveland, Ohio has never been on anyone’s list of barbecue hot spots, but celebrity chef Michael Symon is doing his best to change that. In April he opened Mabel’s BBQ, a restaurant that attempts to stake out “Cleveland-style” barbecue. The meat styles—brisket, ribs, pulled pork—may be borrowed from elsewhere, but they’re smoked over local applewood and served with spaetzle, cabbage, and a barbecue sauce made from Cleveland’s own Bertman's brown mustard.

American-style BBQ also kept increasing its footprint overseas, including in Korea, in the Philippines, and even way down under in Australia. When it comes to barbecue, at least, American's export market remains strong.

All told, it was a busy year in barbecue, one that saw one of the oldest and most beloved American foods continue its decades long revival. And that leaves us not only really hungry but eager to see where barbecue will go in 2017.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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