It's road trip time again. 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 Big T's Bar-B-Que at 2520 Congaree Rd., Gadsden, South Carolina. For more hidden gems, check out True BBQ, B's Cracklin' BBQ, and Scott's Bar-B-Que.
In rural Richland County, South Carolina, not far from Congaree National Park, on a quiet two-lane road sits the flagship restaurant of Big T's Bar-B-Que. Larry or "Teddy" "Big T" Brown has served barbecue to the greater Columbia, S.C. area for over 30 years. In 2003, his reputation prompted a request from incoming Governor Mark Sanford to cook for his inaugural barbecue. Big T's cooked enough pork to feed 500 — all from the small pit house on Congaree Road. Mr. Brown has since added two locations in Columbia, but most of the food is still prepared in Gadsden and ferried to the other two shops.
Like many barbecue restaurants, Big T's is a family business staffed with sisters, aunts, sons, and other friends and relatives. The nondescript restaurant bordered by pecan trees sits next door to the old, overgrown Brown family homestead and birthplace of Big T. The day I stopped by, Big T was transporting food between Gadsden and Columbia, and his son Travis, as he typically does, was running the Gadsden smokehouse.
Travis slow-smokes hog shoulders over hot coals in low metal pits. Piles of wood are burned down to coals in a large, warped burn box behind the smokehouse and then shoveled into the pits. Once the pork is done, it's pulled, and mixed with a sweet, tangy mustard-based sauce characteristic of the area. Departing from typical old-school barbecue menus, there is also fried fish, fried chicken, burgers, and pork chops. But, as is the case across S.C., there is also barbecue hash.
If you aren't from the South or more specifically S.C., you can be excused for not knowing what the hell I'm talking about with barbecue hash. Originally a way to utilize the whole hog, especially those parts you probably don't want to talk about, hash is a S.C. barbecue staple, where cuts of meat, usually pork, are slow-stewed with spices until the meat breaks down or can be pulled or chopped and added back to the liquid with mustard, vinegar, and sometimes ketchup. Hash has texture similar to a meat sauce, and color can differ, but it is typically orange-ish from mustard.
Served over white rice, hash can be found at almost any traditional S.C. barbecue restaurant, but particularly in the Midlands or Upstate. Styles vary. Where some places only use pork shoulders, others use some portion of liver, the head, and other offal — and some even include beef. I know of people who will judge a S.C. barbecue restaurant solely on the quality of its hash. Big T's hash is dark, earthy, and tastes of a funky minerality indicative of liver and other pig parts. Don't be afraid of the offal.
Whether you're going for the hash or the barbecue, Big T's is a solid representation of what a lot of traditional S.C. Barbecue is all about. Slow-smoked pork served with a slightly sweet mustard sauce, fresh-made sides, and a hash that is the restaurant's own.