Bessinger's BBQ - Charleston, SC
Here we go...another South Carolina landmark.
Bessinger's BBQ is everyone's first recommendation for bbq when visiting Charleston. I've been coming to this fine city for nearly four years (recently moving here), but never ventured to Bessinger's for two reasons. 1) Most reviews I've read say they drown the meat with sauce (SC mustard based). 2) They cook hams (which I'm no fan of).
Well, my better half has been "bbq'd out" as of late, but Bessinger's has burgers and such so we stopped in this evening. She got a burger and I tried a combo of 3 bbq plate that included pork, beef, ribs, mac & cheese, and hash & rice.
Let's start with my sides. The ubiquitous hash & rice...we've had a couple pretty good examples of hash lately. Bessinger's hash didn't measure up in my opinion. When I first tasted it I immediately said that it tasted like hot dog chili. After a couple of bites I noticed quite a bit of liquid swimming around the bottom of the plate. This was some of the wateriest hash I've tried. It wasn't bad, but I've had much better in recent weeks. The mac & cheese was decent at best. The biggest flavor in the mac was egg. They are using double the amount of egg they need to be using. It really took over the flavor of the mac and made it difficult to enjoy.
My pork was exactly as other internet review describe. It was coarsely chopped/pulled and thoroughly coated with the Bessinger's mustard based sauce which made it sweet and tangy. I could tell that under all that sauce was some very bland, somewhat dry pork. Hams really don't have much flavor on their own and tend to be dry. I figure this is the biggest reason they drown it in sauce. I didn't detect any seasoning on the pork except for the sauce and a light smoke.
The beef looked to be slices of top round. Save for a light smoke flavor the beef really had no flavor on its own. They added a bit of sauce for me, but it was helped out tremendously by adding more sauce at the table. Again, the beef didn't appear (or taste) to be seasoned before cooking.
The ribs were tasty, but light on seasoning (there's a trend of under seasoned bbq here). Like the other meats on my plate, I don't think the ribs were seasoned prior to cooking. It did taste like some of the mustard sauce was cooked into the ribs before coming out of the pit. Again, there was a light smokiness. I got a three bone section of a St. Louis cut spare rib. These also improved with the addition of more sauce at the table.
Speaking of sauces on the table...you have a choice of the Bessinger's mustard sauce and a tomato based red sauce. Both of these are very sweet and have no spicy heat whatsoever. The mustard sauce would rate right in the middle of what I've been served so far in South Carolina. I've had worse and I've had much better. The red sauce was better than the mustard sauce. The red contains some liquid smoke which adds to its flavor.
One thing the Bessinger clan is known for is their BIG onion rings. Each meal comes with a single onion ring. These are supposed to be extremely popular, but I can't figure out why. It was like eating a doughnut shaped hushpuppy that happened to have an onion inside. These things were so doughy you couldn't enjoy them. We ended up pulling the slimy little onion out of the center and eating it, leaving the hushpuppy behind.
There were things we liked about Bessingers and things we didn't like. I've said this alot lately about some places we've been, "nothing we had was bad, but nothing was outstanding either." This bbq restaurant is supposed to be the icon around Charleston. While it wasn't bad, I'm not sure how long it will be before we go back to Bessinger's. We're in no hurry.
Jay, you pretty much hit on my experience every time that I've been to Bessinger's, and as a South Carolina native, that's plenty of times. I used to enjoy the Little Pig sandwiches from the original Piggie Park location in West Columbia back in the day, but they were just standard dry pork on a bun - I'd skip the BBQ sauce entirely and just add ketchup, which should tell you how old I was when I ate those things! LOL! I've never gotten the appeal of Bessingers, unless it's just because there's such a lack of other decent 'cue in South Carolina.
If you want the best BBQ in the Charleston area I strongly suggest that you try Moose's BBQ in Moncks Corner. It may not be traditional SC BBQ but I challenge everyone to try it and find out for themselves just how good it is. To get some background on the place do a web search for Moose's BBQ in Kentucky. This guy is definetly no amateur.
Moving here 3 years ago from Texas we found that BBQ is very different here, I have tried Bessingers BBQ twice and did not like it. They have pretty good burgers, but what keeps me coming back is the Big Chick Sandwhich, fried with Lettuce Tomato and Mayo, the best Chicken Sandwhich I have found. Skid the BBQ.
Folks, you have got to get out in the countryside if you are going to find good BBQ in South Carolina. I don't know of any truly good BBQ joints that are not in the middle of nowhere or in small towns. If you are in Columbia or Charleston and looking for top notch BBQ you just won't find it. All of these big outfits and stripmall chains just cannot compare with a good cinder block BBQ restaurant. In fact, I'd say that being in an cinder block building is probably one of the best indicators that you are at a fairly decent BBQ joint.
I always recommend McCabe's BBQ. It is good whole hog cooked over coals. Not a huge variety in the buffet but top notch BBQ and hash and pretty good fried chicken too. It also has the advantage of being 5 min. off of the interstate which Sweatman's cannot claim.
At exit 122 off of I-95 go south on Hwy 521 just into Manning. McCabe's will be on the left within the first 300 yards or so. The address is 480 N. Brooks St.