Traveling in search of excellent barbecue give you a chance to experience different traditions and savor new flavors. When you stop for BBQ in South Carolina, be prepared to appreciate how a mustard sauce can add a tangy and tart flavor that matches well with the sweet taste of pork barbecue. At Melvin’s Barbecue on James Island in the Charleston area, I enjoyed a mustard sauce that has been celebrated since the 1930s.
Mustard SauceA mustard sauce is very prominent in the state’s Midlands region — specifically a belt from Columbia to Charleston — where German immigrants settled in the 18th century and brought their common use of mustard. At Melvin’s, the barbecue’s deep golden color and sharp mustard flavor tell you that the condiment is indispensable in preparing chopped pork that is slowly cooked 24 hours on live-oak coals.
|The wood pile outside the entrance tells you that the meat has a smoky flavor.|
Melvin Bessinger (a surname that has roots in Bessingen, a town near Hanover, Germany), whose name the restaurant carries, learned to make his family’s golden sauce — now marketed as Melvin’s Original Golden Secret Sauce — when he was 10 years old and he watched his father Joseph (1892-1949) prepare it. Success as a pitmaster led him to open a restaurant in 1939 that served only mustard-sauced barbecue.
|Three generations of family traditions are packed in each bottle of Melvin's Original Golden Secret Sauce.|
First Family of Mustard-Based BarbecueAfter service in World War II, Melvin (1923-2012) joined his five other brothers working for their father in the restaurant business in Holly Hill, S.C., before each left to start his own BBQ business in South Carolina’s lowcounty. Melvin moved to the Charleston area where he worked with brothers J.D. and Thomas in a series of BBQ restaurants. Then in 1978 he ventured on his own and opened Melvin’s (not affiliated with any restaurant owned by other Bessinger family members), which now has two locations. When Melvin was 86 in 2009, his son David took over the business.
|The signature chopped pork is moist, tender, lightly smoked, and flavored with Melvin's proprietary mustard sauce. This plate includes two sides (slaw and mac 'n' cheese) and cornbread.|
The Bessingers are South Carolina’s first family of mustard-based barbecue. The South Carolina Barbeque Association considers the Bessingers to be the most prominent among the families with German heritage who sell mustard-based sauces and mustard-based barbecue. (The family is not without problems. According to The New York Times, Melvin’s late brother Maurice was widely known for his racist views, which became nationally prominent in a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Melvin publicly disavowed his brother’s political and social views and quit speaking to him.)
|Extra sauces are available on a counter in case more is desired.|
100-Mile BarbecueConcerning Melvin’s barbecue, the association endorses it as “100-mile BBQ,” or barbecue so good it’s worth driving 100 miles for, and the hash is “100-mile hash,” too. The recipe for hash — served over rice — is somewhat daunting. (It includes pig hearts, livers and kidneys, jowls, brisket, hams, beef shoulders, a hog’s head, and vegetables such as celery, carrots, corn and potatoes, all layered with black pepper and salt in a huge stainless steel pot.)
|Melvin's ribs (on a plate with fries and mac 'n' cheese) have a crunchy crust but are tender inside.|
Not limited to pork, Melvin’s also offers brisket, burnt ends, pulled chicken and smoked turkey. All regular plates come with two sides and cornbread. In addition to meat plates, Melvin’s also serves a hash and rice plate.
|Ribs (this serving with sweet potato souffle and bread) are as popular as chopped pork.|
Having more than a dozen Southern sides often causes a delay at the ordering line while customers contemplate the choices. I had to try the country hash with rice as well as the fresh collard greens. (Smoked ham hocks are Melvin's secret for flavoring the collards.) Other members of my family chose sweet potato souffle, homemade mac & cheese, baked beans and baby butter beans — all were good.
|After the food has been served, getting everyone to smile for a picture can be challenging.|
Four SaucesA barbecue fan can actually find that mustard, indispensable for the Bessingers, is just one of four sauces that South Carolina BBQ houses may offer. The others are vinegar and pepper (the most popular style along the coast), light tomato (basically vinegar and pepper with ketchup added for sweetness that is popular in the upper middle and northeast regions), and heavy tomato (sometimes called tomato and sugar sauce that is popular in western and northwestern areas).
Melvin’s is a destination for travelers as much as locals. Its recognition by Travel + Leisure, Southern Living, Food Network, National Geographic, Eater and other foodie publications and groups has extended its renown across the country. When you visit, plan to encounter golden barbecue with a tangy and tart flavor.
|Melvin's is popular throughout the day until closing time.|