For a certain subset of barbecue devotees, there is no cook team T-shirt or whole hog tattoo that can adequately express the depth of their smoked meat allegiance. Instead, they feel the surest way to relay the superiority of their favorite food is to point out that barbecue is approximately 1 billion times better than salad.
If you’ve strolled the grounds of a barbecue festival or shopped online for a Father’s Day gift, you’ve no doubt come across these slogans, proclaiming that the West wasn’t won with kale.
Nowadays, though, an unequivocal carnivore is likely to run into trouble at a barbecue joint. Particularly at chain barbecue restaurants paddling furiously toward the mainstream, where one-time adult haunts TGI Fridays and Chili’s Grill & Bar were decades ago baptized in the waters of family-friendliness, the menus are so stacked with greens that it’s perfectly reasonable to recommend them to vegetarians.
At the new Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint on James Island, for instance, more than half of the appetizers, and three-quarters of the side dishes, are made without meat. Patrons also have their pick of four different salads, all of which are built on a base of cold, crisp lettuce and finished with shredded cheddar cheese and tender cornbread croutons. If a Martin’s patron skips that menu section because of an outmoded “dinner comes from a ranch, not with a side of ranch” credo, he’s just being a meathead.
To put it another way, despite the name of the Tennessee-based chain (which stands 10 location strong with its entry into the South Carolina market), barbecue is not Martin’s forte. The restaurant’s best dishes are those in which smoked meat plays a supporting role, such as the generously portioned salads and sandwiches that function as handheld showcases for slaw and an array of dialed-in sauces.
In fact, the single best thing I ate over the course of three visits to Martin’s didn’t involve barbecue at all: Martin’s makes a mean grilled patty melt on white, distinguished by a juicy burger, charred on both sides and smeared with rich pimento cheese. Pair that with Martin’s copiously sugared broccoli salad, a potluck standard that inherits its zip from apple cider vinegar, and you’ve got yourself a fine Folly Road lunch.
What you don’t have is a venue fixing to shake up the local barbecue scene. With the exception of James Islanders stuck in the previously barbecue-deficient area between Melvin’s Barbecue and Smoky Oak Taproom, locals probably won’t adjust their barbecue habits based on what’s served at Martin’s.
Almost anywhere else, that would qualify as a severe verdict. But it’s not so much a rap on Martin’s as an acknowledgement of how brightly Charleston already shines in the barbecue universe. The same intense relocation wave that has brought golfers and yachtsmen to the area also carried with it John Lewis, already considered one of the nation's top pitmasters before striking out on his own, and Rodney Scott, the first pitmaster to win the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef Southeast.
Since opening Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston in 2016, Scott has added a second restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., where Pat Martin last fall set up shop. That means the whole hog maestros have experience going head-to-head, although in good Southern form, the competitors are closely related.
Both Scott and Martin were charter members of The Fatback Collective, a group loosely affiliated with the Southern Foodways Alliance, which advocated for integrity in barbecue. Additionally, both were initially backed by Nick Pihakis of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Que.
Scott has maintained his professional connection with Pihakis, while Martin has partnered with Jim ‘N Nick’s former local owner John Haire on the James Island Martin’s Bar-B-Que; co-owner Hannah Barton, who's frequently in the dining room, helped out at Rodney Scott’s BBQ.
Barton’s done a bang-up job. The front-of-house staff has found the sweet spot between friendliness and efficiency. That being said, if you hang a right at the restaurant’s front door, you’ll probably be able to count your interactions with employees on one hand.
Like Rodney Scott’s BBQ and Lewis Barbecue, Martin’s follows a counter-service format, so you’re pretty much on your own once you claim a bench or metal chair in the dining room, which has been aggressively countrified since Sermet’s Southernterranean vacated it. Now there are Mississippi license plates, Dale Earnhardt posters and Conway Twitty album covers affixed to the wood-paneled walls at jaunty angles.
Unlike Rodney’s and Lewis, Martin’s hasn’t yet devised a system to deliver drinks in advance of food, so patrons don’t have anything to sip if there’s a hold-up on their hoecakes. That’s reason enough to take a left away from the dining room when entering and snag a seat at one of the outdoor picnic tables or ell-shaped bar that hugs the sunny patio.
Martin’s barbecue career began in West Tennessee after the former banker’s landscape company went belly up, and while there are shades of Nashville in the restaurant’s soundtrack, the region that the bar most powerfully evokes is the icehouse-belt of South Texas. Out back at Martin’s, the oscillating fans blow fast, the beer’s frosty and there’s likely to be a drinker nearby with a story to tell.
There’s also the scent of smoke in the air, courtesy of the pits alongside the restaurant. Yet there’s no trace of smoke in the meats that emerge from them: A chicken leg was reasonably juicy, and ribs were tender, but a dry rub did most of the work on the flavor front on all three of my visits.
Still, rubs and sauces can’t rectify the textural problems that afflict the presumptive showstoppers of the barbecue bunch. The brisket is tough, and bland strands of whole hog are disconcertingly yarn-like. The sticky grits upon which the latter is optionally presented don’t do the dry pork any favors. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the amount of barbecue slipped into a baked potato topped with sour cream, shredded cheddar and chives is stingy (although the $8.99 price is excessive).
So on to the sides, then? Despite an aimless mac-and-cheese, there are a few standouts in this section, including salty hand-cut fries and baked beans of the sweet-and-thickly-sauced variety.
Either would be a good choice alongside a griddled flour tortilla, folded around freshly fried catfish and raw cabbage, with rings of pickled jalapenos and a firm lime wedge at the ready. Subtract the wrap, and the filling is really just a very good salad, albeit one that calls out for a beer. This is a barbecue joint, after all.