Whether north or south, diners still crave smoke and fire

February 3, 2023

One of my favorite hangouts – next to our delmarvalous Cape Region, of course – is Charleston, S.C. Why? Well, it’s no secret that the Carolinas are the holy grail of barbecue and expertly smoked meats, and my history as a BBQ restaurant owner (Memphis style) keeps me searching for the perfect bite. In fact, across North and South Carolina alone, there are at least five entirely distinct methods of preparation and saucing. I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t include Memphis, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Kansas City and even Florida and Virginia in that list, but no matter where you are, without smoke, a cut of beef is just a roast; a pork shoulder is just a bony ham and a chicken is … well, just a chicken. Just in Charleston and surrounding areas, there are quite literally more BBQ joints than I can count. In fact, I stopped counting at 68. And no wonder: Add smoke or fire from glowing hardwoods, and magic happens. Slather somebody’s closely guarded secret sauce on top, and that’s nirvana for meat lovers.

All styles of smoked meats can be found basking in smokers the size of a Prius. Regional differences can center on the sauce and when it is applied. Eastern Carolina is known for its vinegar and pepper blend. Some add brown sugar, red pepper flakes, molasses, butter and even mustard. Throw in some ketchup, and all of a sudden you’re in Western Carolina. Bethany Blues’ Carolina vinegar/pepper sauce goes all-out with brown sugar, mustard and butter. Move westward, and the red sauces take over. Denizens of Memphis start with a tomato base that turns darkly fragrant when molasses, brown sugar, and maybe orange juice, onions and garlic are added. I love a perfectly smoked pulled pork sandwich dished up on a warm, toasted roll. Add a cool, crispy and relatively dry slaw (a must in Memphis). Toss on a couple of crunchy pickles for good measure. Life is good.

But wait! Cast your gaze northward: Sometimes it’s not all about smoke. Baltimore lays claim to its very own style, and they call it pit beef. And it's not what one might consider barbecue at all. Barbecue is slow-cooked; pit beef is not. Pit cooking involves premium beef bottom-round roasts – or hams, turkey breasts or brightly spiced sausages – placed directly over a slowly smoldering flame. The fire occasionally contacts the meats, producing a dark and crunchy coating prized by meat lovers as “burnt ends.” Carnivores have been known to arm wrestle over who gets the burnt ends. Since it’s just on the surface of the meat, there’s only so much to go around. (I ate about half of the precious burnt ends at my restaurant, which is probably one of the reasons I now write about food rather than sell it.)

We have some very good smoked barbecue here at the beach. Bethany Blues, of course. But also high on the list are Fat Daddy’s in Georgetown and Mission in Dover. But we also are blessed with one of Baltimore’s longtime purveyors of pit beef: Chaps Pit Beef. Brothers Gary, Chris and Steve Desch brought a Chaps Pit Beef franchise to the building they share with Iron Hill Brewery. Chaps is a household name in Baltimore, but Marylanders might also remember The Canopy Pit Beef and Pioneer Pit Beef. All of them provide the obligatory onions, sauces and pickles, and pit purists will also appreciate the fresh horseradish. When I eat at Chaps, I like to include a few burnt ends as crunchy little exclamation marks.

Chaps also serves pork barbecue - not “pulled” in the Memphis/Bethany Blues style, but actually shredded with a bit of sauce. Both the pulled and the shredded versions come from the shoulder (aka Boston butt or just pork butt). The high fat content and multiple bones bring extra flavor to the meat. Depending on where you are on the map, you’ll get it chopped/shredded (like Chaps) or sliced/pulled off the bone in chunks a la Bethany Blues. Or perhaps drizzled with vinegar and pepper in the Carolinas.

This is Delaware – Sussex County, yet. Celebrity Chef Hari Cameron describes it as “the state where there are more chickens than people.” So the chickens have to get into the act. Bethany Blues, Fat Daddy’s and Mission smoke quarters until the skin is a crispy golden brown and the meat falls off the bone. The Baltimore-flavored Chaps uses a slightly bigger bird: Turkey breasts roasted over the licking flames and then cut paper thin for sandwiches. One of my favorites at Chaps is the pit turkey/pit ham combo sandwich. I add pickles, a bit of BBQ sauce, some Texas Pete, and I’m good to go. Oh, and a nice local craft draft. Ice cold, thank you.

Backyard grilling is OK, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the wood, the flames or the smoke. The reasonably priced Chaps is doing well with lots of parking and a full bar offering a selection of drafts dished up by friendly, local employees.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

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