If every Charleston visitor was forced to flash culinary credentials before being allowed to eat in the city, tourists might go home rhapsodizing about the subtleties of Jason Stanhope’s sherry sauce at FIG, or the balanced flavor notes of Reid Henninger’s beef tartare at Edmund’s Oast.
Sometimes, that happens: Charleston sees its share of practiced gourmets. This is still a place where two strangers can walk into a bar and get into an uncomfortably heated debate about sous vide technique. But the vast majority of out-of-towners don’t come here looking for dishes with French pedigrees. When they tell their friends and neighbors about the stellar food in Charleston, they’re more apt to yammer on about Poogan’s Smokehouse’s boiled peanuts, which a father-and-son duo recently shared on the 10th stop of a bar crawl that began at Wild Wing Cafe. Or they’ll praise the restaurant’s St. Louis ribs, giddily sheared from the bone by a golfer fleeing the rooftop shoveling he’s forced to do in Boston.
It’s to Poogan’s Smokehouse’s tremendous credit that its bartenders handled those patrons with generosity and grace, a kindness extended to each thirsty traveler who that weeknight stumbled in off tourist row. What’s the height of hospitality? Is it quietly making Negronis with Campari vanilla gastrique in deference to customers who can’t abide bitterness, no matter what the trendsetters say? Or adding a splash of St-Germain to the happy hour white, so a drinker can enjoy the sweet wine she likes at an affordable price? Poogan’s Smokehouse ably scales all of those peaks.
When it’s not overwhelmed by tourists, Poogan’s Smokehouse can skew a little quiet. In October, the barbecue playhouse sprung up in the East Bay Street space that for eight years served as Social Restaurant & Wine Bar before its owners decided the concept wasn’t aging well.
Locals aware of the changeover immediately noted the reinvented restaurant’s overlaps with Cumberland Smokehouse and Nick’s Bar-B-Q, nearby venues that also specialize in slow-cooked meat and cold craft beer. And the assessment pretty much stopped there, since they didn’t dash over to the new place, which has been stripped of its moody elements. Now, the decor is dominated by exposed brick, rustic woods and patches of whitewash. Pimento cheese is served on a cutting board shaped like a pig.
Yet my guess is most Charlestonians, even those with strong opinions about the right amount of vincotto to put on a plate, would be pleasantly surprised by Poogan’s Smokehouse. In addition to being an excellent ambassador for the city, the restaurant is serving up dependable food and polished cocktails that speak to the experience behind the enterprise.
As the name suggests, Poogan’s Smokehouse is cousin to Poogan’s Porch, which serves one of the area’s loveliest fried chicken lunch plates. The bird’s migrated over to the more casual Smokehouse in the form of a Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, dressed with crisp garlic pickles. Beyond the bracing sauce that’s supposed to make the chicken current, kind of like the mixtapes that Americans of a certain age scattered around their hand-me-down station wagons, the contours of skilled frying are unmistakable. While the meat wasn’t perfectly trimmed on the example I tried, it’s a strong sandwich, even without the available upgrades of bacon and egg.
Another sandwich standout: A meaty short rib po-boy that draws its umami charm from smoke and a slew of mushrooms. I brushed off the shreds of lettuce and diced tomatoes, bathed in a rudimentary Alabama white sauce, and focused on the tender beef, caramelized onion and soft roll, which quite nearly add up to a cheese-free Southern Philly. (Should the lack of cheese upset you, get Adluh grits on the side: The dish is a barely thickened white cheddar sauce, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For a more serious accompaniment, consider the sharply seasoned collards or roasted Brussels sprouts.)
Sandwiches, including a burger and pulled pork piled on a bun, only appear at lunchtime. The dinner menu makes up for the deficit with a slightly longer list of entrees: In addition to the shrimp-and-grits, fried chicken and fried catfish, which are served all day long, it features a grilled pork chop and duck purloo, which turns out to be pink slices of roasted duck with a sugary glaze. The rice is advertised as Carolina Gold, but it isn’t steamed with the care usually applied to the heritage grain, nor is there any edible indication that it came into contact with the showcased meat prior to meeting it on the plate.
So if you’re really hungry, the way to go is probably barbecue. If you’re really, really hungry, Poogan’s Smokehouse serves a whole suckling pig with four side dishes: The menu posits it’s the right size for a group of 4 to 6 people. A manager told us the little guy typically costs around $250, although the price fluctuates with poundage, and always requires 48 hours’ notice to prepare. Because that arrangement would severely test my budget and ability to coordinate friends’ schedules, I can’t speak to the merits of the pig. But the rest of the smoked meats are quite good.
Poogan’s Smokehouse, in keeping with the prevailing pan-regional approach to barbecue, offers an array of sauces, so a western North Carolina tomato-vinegar barbecue fan and South Carolina mustard barbecue devotee can ostensibly share a platter in peace. They might also find common ground in fussing about the pulled pork, which runs slightly short on bark and fat.
Admittedly, it’s hard to muster any complaints about lean meat when there’s pork belly on the tray: Poogan’s Smokehouse’s version is as rich as expected, but smoke still predominates. Even better is the compellingly spiced sausage, which sports a snappy casing, and robustly porky hash served over rice.
The smoker’s also responsible for a few of the better appetizers (although it doesn’t have a hand in the eminently worthwhile okra that’s first pickled, then fried.) The pork belly, which seems like too much when it appears alone, performs well when tucked into a Hawaiian roll with pickled cabbage and mayonnaise.
And for the pork-and-beans, a fry cry from what Van Camp’s cans, chef Daniel Doyle interprets the dish’s defining ingredients in much the way that finer restaurants might: Here, speckled butterbeans share the saucy bowl with pork belly. It’s an awfully nice introduction to Charleston dining, even if ordered between rounds of shots.