In a 2007 pageant, Miss South Carolina Teen became a YouTube sensation after butchering the answer to a question about U.S. geography. Within three days, the video clip had attracted nearly 3.5 million views. The befuddling question she was asked was “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the United States on a world map. Why do you think this is?” Her now famous response: “I personally believe the U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh…people out there in our nation don’t have maps, and, uh, I believe that our education like such as South Africa and, uh, the Iraq everywhere like, such as and…I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., err, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future for our…”
When I told family and friends about my plans to vacation in Charleston, South Carolina, some of their responses may have validated Miss South Carolina’s contention that U.S. Americans don’t have maps…”Where’s South Carolina?” “Why would you visit South Carolina?” Other friends who know me very well and understand my single focused “live to eat” approach to life reasoned that Charleston must have some fabulous restaurants. That’s an understatement! From 2008 through 2010, Charleston chefs earned three consecutive James Beard awards, a feat heretofore accomplished only by chefs at the Big Apple. They earned the “Academy Award of food” equivalent by using high quality local ingredients as Charleston’s chefs have done long before “farm-to-table” became the de rigueur buzzword and modus operandi of restaurateurs everywhere.
Charleston is not only the epicenter of a robust farm-to-fork Lowcountry cuisine movement, it is a preeminent practitioner of the pursuit of porcine perfection. Rather than hold fast to sacrosanct traditions, Charleston is open-minded and tolerant of new-school variations (okay, so maybe it’s not that revolutionary to see pork chopped into chunks instead of delicate strands). Despite that “progressive” attitude, one tradition not tampered with in Charleston is that pork reigns supreme throughout the Carolinas. Locals will argue that “barbecue pork” is redundant because barbecue is pork! Sure, barbecue restaurants may include chicken, smoked turkey and even brisket on their menus, but pork is king in all its forms: pulled, chopped, sliced, shredded, ham, whole hog, half-rack and full-rack.
One of the Charleston area’s most venerated barbecue restaurants is Melvin’s Legendary B-B-Q whose legacy and traditions have been rooted in Charleston’s barbecue scene since 1939. In some respects, you may feel you’ve warped back in time when you step through the doors. Melvin’s is not exactly what you’d term as nouveau, not that it matters once you bite into those pork ribs. A line-up of bottled soft drinks holds court on the counter where you place your order. Radar O’Reilly would be happy to see Nehi sodas are available. So is the best cherry milkshake you’ll find anywhere. If you’re so inclined, you can also find out from posted flyers on the wall when the next patriotic meeting will be held.
Melvin’s menu is a pantheon of pork, but it also offers chicken, brisket, turkey and a phalanx of burgers the envy of burger purveyors everywhere. In 1999, none other than Emeril Lagasse called Melvin’s cheeseburger “America’s best.” Similar sentiments were also expressed by Jimmy Buffett, himself a renowned connoisseur of burgers. It may take a clothespin clamped around your nose to order a burger because the pervasive bouquet of hickory smoked meats will envelop you the second you walk in. Those beguiling aromas are a siren’s call for barbecue aficionados. For me, the Carolina style dry ribs beckoned most enticingly. Dry means the ribs are slathered with a rub of sundry spices. It’s really the choice which makes most sense because on every table, you’ll find two sauces. That means you can have ribs three ways–with a dry rub and with each of the two sauces.
Since it’s been established that pork reigns supreme in the Carolinas, the most contentious debate in the Carolinas is to sauce or not to sauce. The answer, of course, is sometimes you feel like sauce and sometimes you don’t. At Melvin’s, you can have it your way every visit (forgive me for the three cheesy cliches in a row). The Carolina style ribs are terrific every way you have them. The mustard barbecue sauce (called “Our Golden Secret”) is considered the gold standard among South Carolina’s mustard-based sauces. It’s an amazing sauce with tart, savory and just slightly piquant (cayenne?) notes. The “Southern Red” sauce, based on apple cider vinegar, also has tart, savory and piquant notes, but differs greatly from the Golden Secret. Both are exceptional as is the dry rub.
There are seven ribs on a half rack, each one very meaty and larger than most pork ribs. They’re not the “fall off the bone” variety, but they’re also not beef jerky-like in texture. A rib plate comes with cornbread and your choice of two sides. One of the most popular sides are the golden onion rings, available in quantities of one or two. Though those quantities may seem small, each onion ring is roughly the size of a donut with a thick coated batter some may find off-putting. The macaroni and cheese is a bit on the dry side, but it’s much better than the “Kraft dinner” to which American children are subjected.
As you wait for your number to be called, you’ll want to peruse the condiment bar not only to provision yourself with plastic cutlery and napkins, but to stock up on peppers, relishes and pickles. They may not last until your order is ready for pick up. Each table includes a roll of paper towels and you’re going to need several of them.
Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q may not be the first restaurant a visitor to Charleston will visit if the purpose of the visit is to explore the city’s culinary heritage, but you can’t have a total picture of an exceptional culinary city without sampling Carolina style barbecue. Besides that, the drive across the Arthur Ravenal, Jr. Bridge from Charleston to Mount Pleasant is spectacular. So is the barbecue at Melvin’s.
Melvin’s Legendary Bar-B-Q
925 Houston Northcutt Blvd.
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
LATEST VISIT: 12 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Half Rack of Ribs, Onion Rings, Cornbread, Cherry Milkshake