How far would you travel for good barbecue? For Eater Barbecue Week, contributor Robert Donovan explores some of the establishments tucked around South Carolina and states closely surrounding the region. Today, it's a closer look at True BBQ at 1237 D Ave., West Columbia, South Carolina. For more hidden gems, check out Big T's, B's Cracklin' BBQ, and Scott's Bar-B-Que.
There's something to be said for the power of a placing your barbecue pit in front of your restaurant. Don't get me wrong, the mystique of burning hickory spiraling up from somewhere behind a known purveyor of barbecue is special too, but putting that pit out front so every Tom, Dick, and Robert driving by can see the smoker at work has some serious pull. Put that pit under a sign that claims the "Best hash & rice in S.C.," a tall order in the state that claims hash as its signature barbecue dish, and you're creating an almost irresistible force to smoke junkies. These roadside barbecue peddlers know what's up.
Brothers Ernest and Milton Zanders opened True BBQ in 2010, in West Columbia, South Carolina, near the intersection of D Avenue and Charleston Highway. According to Milton, the objective is "to keep the two front door hinges moving back and forth" and "give the consumer a great product, with great service, with a great attitude and in a clean place!" Milton has the great attitude part nailed down, with some to spare. He's one of the friendliest and most engaging people you'll meet in a trade full of friendly and engaging people.
When you walk in the shop, you immediately notice the shelves full of barbecue-related knickknacks and books, sports memorabilia (including a number of garnet colored Gamecock statues, due in no small part to the close proximity of the University of South Carolina), drawings of famous people, and ceramic pigs. Frankly, it's hard to say if there are more Gamecocks or pigs.
True BBQ uses bone-in Boston butts and smokes them over "whatever type of wood that comes [their] way" — "white oak, red oak, hickory, pecan, and seasoned oak." The chopped pork is deeply smoky and served with a choice three sauces. There's the creatively-named, tomato-based "Sexy Lady" and mustard-based "Pretty Lady," or there's the more workday named "Vinegar Red." Turkey legs, chicken, ribs, and pork chops all share space on the smoker with the Boston butts. Fresh-made sides, like mac ‘n' cheese and collards, with a glass of classic, teeth-shaking sweet tea all live up to True BBQ's "great product" motto — but what about that "best in S.C." hash?
Hash is almost exclusively a S.C. thing, as writer Robert Moss describes in Barbecue Lover's: The Carolinas: "Like yellow-mustard based sauce, hash is one of the regional twists that baffles newcomers to South Carolina barbecue. A cross between a meat stew and a gravy, it's almost always served over a bed of white rice and it's the state's signature barbecue side item." True BBQ's hash is dark, reddish orange, and thick. While most S.C. hash is pork, this tastes of beef, is sweeter, and has less offal funkiness than you'll find at other joints down the road.
I asked what's the secret to the "best" hash and rice, and Milton let me know, "Our hash is our signature dish! It's a secret! And we've got the secret!" Alright then. Well, whatever the secret is, their sweeter hash stands as a contrast to earthier versions elsewhere, but that's not a critique. The ground meat texture and sweet mustard flavor are an alluring combination. Best hash in South Carolina? Hard to say. You'll have to try them all to find out. Time to start planning that road trip.