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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.

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  1. 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.

    1. Forgive me for being such a noob, but is there much of a difference between Bessinger's and Melvin's?

      3 Replies
      1. re: SISC

        Brothers...different restaurants.

        I also believe there are two additional brothers who are also in the business. A total of four brothers with four different businesses...all serving, from what I've been told, very similar food.

        1. re: JayL

          Gotcha. I know Maurice's BBQ empire in Columbia is associated with the Bessinger family. It sounds as if all of the restaurants feature a similar style BBQ. Thanks for clarifying.

          1. re: JayL

            We like Melvin's a lot more than Bessingers... but they are similar.

            I don't get those onion rings either.

        2. 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.

          1. 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.

            1. 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.

              5 Replies
              1. re: GrillMaster

                As a Memphian living in Charleston, I agree. Jim'n'Nicks is fairly decent. Fiery Ron's Hometeam bbq is good. All the others I have tried are just plain bad (including the raved-about Momma Brown's). Some even make their bbq in an oven. How can they even call that bbq?

                1. re: GrillMaster

                  Grillmaster - I'll be driving from Charlotte, NC to Savannah, GA in April, along I-77, I-26 and I-95. Where would you suggest I stop for some good 'q in SC? Duke's, Antley's, Sweatman's? Others? Thanks!

                  1. re: carolinadawg

                    For sure stop at Sweatman's. Most people will say it's the best in South Carolina. It IS whole hog and cooked over coals like you're used to at home, but it's no competition for good NC Q either. Still, worth a visit.

                    1. re: carolinadawg

                      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.

                      Enjoy.

                      1. re: GrillMaster

                        Thanks, but unfortunately, Manning would require a pretty lengthy detour.

                  2. Tried Bessinger's not long ago on a trip out to Charleston.

                    Got a combo of 3 BBQ plate, chopped pork, chopped chicken, and ribs. The chopped pork was the best of these, a little more moist than the somewhat dry chopped chicken. Both had some mustard based sauce on them (mild but with a hint of spiciness), but I actually found the meat didn't have enough sauce on it -- added some from the squeeze bottle on the table. The ribs were the same 3-bone St. Louis cut spare rib JayL described, and were easily the least attractive option -- overcooked and tough with a dark crusty outside (firm I like, falling off the bone I'm OK with, but not this). There was very little sauce on the ribs at all, just a splash.

                    Had three sides accompanying, an OK hash and rice (basically ground beef that tasted kind of like chili), collards (not a lot of flavor, had better during this trip), and baked beans (liked these best, tomato-ey but with something more complex I couldn't identify added to make them interesting). Cornbread was by far the sweetest I tried on this trip, and I tried several examples in Charleston, Savannah, and Atlanta -- folks on the Boston board aren't kidding when they say that Southern cornbread has no sweetness to it at all, took a little getting used to.

                    Sweet tea was fine.

                    As we have no mustard based BBQ up in Boston, it was good to try this place, though it wasn't as remarkable as I'd hoped. And at least it was reachable without a car (city bus runs past there).

                    Should add that I had two really fine BBQ experiences in Atlanta, a very good one at Rolling Bones, and a stunningly fine one at Fox Brothers. But they're also not Carolina mustard based spots.

                    1. As a Charleston native, I grew up on Bessinger's BBQ. Children of Joe B: Maurice, Melvin, Robert, Thomas and Peggy have all had restaurants over the years. Currently Robert's in N Charleston, Melvin's in Mt Pleasant and James Island [run by son David], Maurice's in Columbia, and Thomas And David Bessinger's in Charleston are all of the restaurants that I know of now. Peggy used to run the Piggie Park in Mt. Pleasant years ago, but it is now gone.

                      Melvins is unfortunately not nearly as good as it used to be in the past, last time I went the food was frankly bland, so something has changed, and while it is ok, it is not great. The James Island location seems to be a lot better than Mt. P, but your mileage may vary.
                      Bessinger's on Savannah Hwy in Charleston has a sandwich shop and a buffet restaurant, food is good, not great, but probably the best in town. Buffet is Friday-Sunday only last time I checked.
                      Robert's has closed his Rivers Ave. location, the Ashley Phosphate is still open last time I checked. The BBQ can be a bit fatty but pretty good, but the hamburgers are down and out the best in town.

                      I ate at Maurice's over the weekend in Columbia, had the buffet, and I will tell you THIS is the Bessingers I remember, great BBQ, the hash and rice was wonderful, mac and cheese great, even great fresh squash and of course 'nanner pudding. Went to the big location on Hwy 1 off of I-26, and will be making a special trip there a lot, I can tell you. The food was just excellent, and even though the buffet was small, worth every penny. I believe the buffet is only from 12-3, not sure about weekends when I went, ran about $27 for 2 people with drinks and tax. Worth the trip, exit 113 off of I-26, there are billboard signs. Highly recommended!

                      13 Replies
                      1. re: chasnjim

                        i do not know of a Peggy Bessinger. The old Piggie Parks in Mt. Pleasant were run by Joe and his wife Helen. Joe built a new place on College Park Rd. in Ladson a few years ago while in his 80s. He and Helen both passed away in 2010. His son, Steve, and Steve's wife Gloria, now own and operate the restaurant.
                        I think Melvin's has the best burgers in town, as does Emeril Lagasse, who voted them the best cheeseburger he's ever had.

                        1. re: bcpolno23

                          Emeril may like those burgers, but I disagree. best burger in the area is at Poe's on Sullivan's.
                          For decent que Fiery Ron's is good (they actually have real Brunswick Stew) and Jim 'n'Nick's.
                          I just can't do that mustard thing.

                          1. re: Sue in Mt P

                            Jim n Nicks is Alabama BBQ and can't even compare to Carolna Q. The sanitation that I have witnessed at Fiery Ron's is poor, at best. I wouldn't go back. At Sweatman's, I felt like I was eating at the Bates Hotel from the movie " Psycho". Some of the best BBQ I have had in either Carolina is at Scott's, just outside of Hemingway, SC.

                            1. re: bcpolno23

                              I'm not sure I recognize "Alabama BBQ" as a style. There is no particular favored way of serving BBQ there; styles range from the white sauces in the north (Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur) to the original Dreamland's offering of ribs with NO sauce, and don't ask for any potato salad, chips, or banana pudding. The Carolinas do have distinctive styles, within geographic regions that divide the states into vinegar/pepper versus tomato camps, with the occasional outlier like Bessinger's mustard sauces.
                              Jim 'N Nicks is a franchise/chain operation. Fodd's not bad, but by no stretch of the imagination is it what one would call a BBQ joint. It's got loud music, ferns, full bar; and a menu as long as your arm. Passable if starving, doesn't measure up if you're looking for an authentic ribshack. BTW, any place with a buffet disqualifies itself from my personal list of places to visit. FWIW, my go-to joint is Southern Heritage in Dublin, GA, operated by a retired GA State Trooper.

                              1. re: Mayor of Melonville

                                Mustard sauce is not an outlier in the sense that you're implying; it's centered on a geographic region(the South Carolina Midlands) just like Lexington style prevails in the western NC Piedmont and parts of upcountry SC, and V&P sauces in Tidewater/Southside Virginia, eastern NC, and the Pee Dee.

                                1. re: Naco

                                  Point taken and I stand corrected. But for my own edification, isn't it true that even in the region where mustard-based sauces prevail a diner can also find many establishments that offer tomato or vinegar-based sauces? That doesn't occur in GA where ALL sauces are tomato-based.

                                  1. re: Mayor of Melonville

                                    I can't really say definitively as I haven't eaten barbecue down that way in a few years, but I don't recall ever having seen anything but mustard sauce around Columbia.

                              2. re: bcpolno23

                                I'd eat at the real Bates Motel if they served Sweatman's 'q!

                                1. re: jla1960

                                  I'm with ya, jla1960. Bub is smiling down on us.

                              3. re: Sue in Mt P

                                OK Sue, I went to Poe's and tried their burger. It was good and the quirky atmosphere was neat, but a cold bun with a $9 burger...please. I still think Melvin's is a lot better and a lot less $$.

                                1. re: bcpolno23

                                  I'm glad you went! I will respectfully disagree (I just don't like the well well done thing) Go back and try the fish tacos.

                                  1. re: Sue in Mt P

                                    Now that's just sacrilegious, I don't think God ever intended for fish to be made into tacos. That's almost as bad as folks trying to fool people into thinking that squid can be made into onion rings!

                                    1. re: bcpolno23

                                      Hahaha! Nobody could ever make me think that squid is onions!

                          2. I'm headed down I-95 end of feb. From md to charleston, via Ashville. I'm very familiar with the greater charleston area and want to venture out. Any BBQ recommendations? What about along the way?

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: GoodforthePalate

                              Again, a search will turn up many, many posts on this topic, such as:

                              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/748057

                              Most of the great NC BBQ places are a 20 to 30 minute detour off 95. Blackbeard's is probably the best place closest to the highway. In Charleston, Sweatman's is excellent, imo.

                              Edit: I just read that you are detouring through Asheville. You might want to provide more detail about your route...I-95 to I-85 to I-40? Then I-26 to Charleston?

                              You might also want to search/post on the Mid-Atlantic Board for Virginia recs.

                              1. re: jla1960

                                Right. You won't be on 95 if you are detouring through Asheville. Look at this link:
                                http://www.ncbbqsociety.com/trail_map...

                              2. re: GoodforthePalate

                                If you want some of the best BBQ in NC get off I 40 at Exit 266 in Chapel Hill, NC and go N on Highway 86. Go 2 miles to Millhouse Road. Allen and Son's will be on your left.

                                Allen and Son BBQ @ 6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill, NC. 919 - 942 - 7576.

                                Get off I 40 at Exit 278 and go S on Highway 55 to Backyard BBQ for good road food.

                                Backyard BBQ Pit @ 5122 NC Hwy. 55, Durham, NC. 919 - 544 - 9911.
                                http://www.sweetribs.com/

                                Get off I 40 at Exit 162 at Cleveland, NC and go 2 miles S on Highway 64 to Woodleaf Road. Take a left and go 2.2 miles to Keaton's for oustanding BBQ.

                                Keaton's BBQ @ 17365 Cool Springs Road, Cleveland, NC. 704 - 278 - 1619.
                                http://www.keatonsoriginalbbq.com/

                                Get off I 40 at Exit 203 at Kernersville, NC and go N on Highway 66 to Clark's BBQ for good road food. Get off I 40 at Exit 214A at Greensboro, NC and go N on Wendover Avenue to Country BBQ for good road food.

                                Clark's BBQ @ 1331 NC Highway 66 S, Kernersville, NC 336 - 996 - 8644.
                                Country BBQ @ 4012 Wendover Avenue W., Greensboro, NC 336 - 292 - 3557.

                              3. I agree with you regarding Bessinger's BBQ. It's horrible. I tried it at a new location in Rock Hill and the hash was tasteless and the BBQ way too sweet.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: richburgfoodie

                                  Agreed.In my opinion Bessingers and Maurices are sorry excuses for BBQ.I'm a big vinegar fan and I enjoy Browns BBQ on 52 between Kingstree and Lake City.Sweatmans is worth the trip, but they are mustard base.Browns ribs blew me away.
                                  As far as burgers go, it's too bad Bert's bar on Sullivans isn't around anymore, they had the best burgers i have ever tasted for under$6.YUM