Barbecue is the quintessential Carolina comfort food that in some kitchens (or pits) has remained unchanged since colonial times -- which in North Carolina is about 425 years. During these ensuing centuries, barbecue became distinguished and regionalized by cut of meat, sauce and cooking method.
During the past 20 years, a new phenomenon has emerged in the Carolinas: Backyard grillers who have competed and won in sanctioned barbecue championships have gone on to expand this "hobby" first into catering and then into a storefront business.
This is the path that led Chef Herb Tesh, with partner Bob Bowman, to open the 75-seat Fort Mill BBQ Company: Catered Southern Cuisine last May.
As with many barbecue stories, this one begins in Memphis, where Tesh, a native of Fort Mill, worked in a downtown hotel. Tesh's employers urged him to get involved in that city's legendary Memphis in May International Barbecue Contest. He did and was hooked. He became a Certified Executive Chef registered with the American Culinary Foundation and sold his barbecue at barbecue events. This led to his catering company, Chef Herb Productions, and now the restaurant.
This Memphis connection is pivotal to the barbecue at Fort Mill BBQ Company. The pork here is dry rubbed and the beef brisket is dry rubbed "harder." Tesh's spice mix has some fight to it so this is not your grandfather's laid-back 'cue. This is 'cue that talks back -- in a good way.
While traditional Carolina cue is subtly flavored meat imbued with the essence of wood smoke and then enhanced with either a vinegar- or tomato-based sauce, the pork, ribs and brisket at Fort Mill BBQ Company have less smoke (created with a mix of hickory and cherry) and more spice -- however, not the sharp taste nor excessive coating on the ribs at, say, Memphis' Rendezvous (which I have stated before did not impress me).
Of Tesh's barbecue, I prefer the sweetness of the succulent pulled pork to the ribs, which are not as meaty as they could be. My only complaint about the pork sandwich is the bun, which is thick. (Yes, it's true. I cannot be weaned from the soft white bread bun of traditional barbecue.) Less tender is the beef brisket, though happily it isn't predictably Texan. This brisket dances its own two-step.
Of the sides, the densely flavored mac and cheese offers a flavorful crust. The smoked corn maque choux is complex, with both heat from the dry rub and smoke. The wing appetizers are meaty and can be ordered with one of three sauces: the Piedmont, a chipotle Buffalo, or mustard. The Piedmont sauce generously coats the chicken, so if you prefer to dunk into Ranch or Blue Cheese, order them naked.
The tomato-based Signature sauce and the intricately flavored South Carolina mustard sauce are offered tableside. Both are ingredients of the most inspired and excellent Brunswick stew. Although the actual origins of Brunswick stew is murky -- Brunswick, Va., Brunswick, N.C., and Brunswick, Ga., all claim the title -- this dish is endemic throughout the Southeast. This stew is described as "Low Country." Chef Tesh explains his stew is heartier and thicker than most. (Note: It does not contain rice as some South Carolina Low Country stews do, such as the stew offered annually at the Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church Barbecue.) The menu also cites Chef Dan Boone as this stew's creator. Many may remember Boone as the original chef whose family recipes are used at Charlotte's Mac's Speed Shop.
Appetites tend to flag after the second round of comfort food. Even so, the banana pudding, fraught with tiers of Nilla wafers, is nice and creamy, the way it's supposed to be, and the blueberry peach cobbler vanished quickly.
Fort Mill BBQ Company's décor is instantly recognizable to any barbecue aficionado: Orders are taken at the counter and a roll of paper towels sprouts from every table. The walls give evidence to the owners' dedication to the local community: sponsorship of local teams and clubs, and a brief pictorial of Tega Cay's history, along with game machines. However, it's Tesh's new look at a traditional flavor that makes his place worthy of note.
Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please -- these are destined for the spam filter): email@example.com.