I'm going to say this up front: I really like Swig & Swine. And to save you the trouble of putting your outrage in e-mail form, allow me to answer a few questions: Yes, I've had great barbecue. No, I don't think Rodney Scott's title belt is in jeopardy. And yes, the brisket is unconscionably dry. But I defy any naysayer to try the chicken wings and stay seated on a high horse.
Swig & Swine
Representative Dish: Smoked sausage plate, $13
Address: 1217 Savannah Highway
Bar: Full bar
Hours: 11 a.m.-until Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Costs: Starters, $5-$9; sandwiches, $9-$11; plates, $12-$18. Barbecue is also sold by the pound.
Parking: Lot. Bike parking is scarce.
Honestly, it hadn't occurred to me that a pro-Swig & Swine stance could qualify as a controversial opinion until I spoke highly of the new West Ashley joint while lunching at another restaurant. My friend wasn't familiar with it, but two young men at the adjacent table launched their considered "meh" into our previously private conversation. Barbecue is like that.
What our stars mean
5 stars: Exceptional; sets a standard for dining excellence.
4 stars: Superior; worth a trip beyond your neighborhood or culinary comfort zone.
3 stars: Solid example of this type of dining.
2 stars: Adequate if you're in the neighborhood or seeking this type of dining.
1 star: Generally disappointing dining experience.
What our $ signs mean
One $: $5 to $15
Two $$: $15-$25
Three $$$: $25-$50
Four $$$$: $50 +
The problem, I presume, is that while smoked meat has a centuries-long history in South Carolina, Swig & Swine represents a far more recent development in barbecue service. Rather than focus on just one animal's meat and a single fiercely guarded sauce recipe, Swig & Swine concerns itself with the whole barnyard, accompanied by a diverse cabinet of sauces. The pleasantly rowdy restaurant also pours liquor, takes credit cards and lists a mixed green salad on its menu.
Swig & Swine's undogmatic approach isn't just novel, it's Northern: After years of barbecue deprivation, cities including New York, Boston and Seattle have lately welcomed slick new smoking operations featuring a compendium of domestic barbecue styles. For example, at The Mighty Quinn's, a two-year old restaurant that now has half a dozen locations in and around Manhattan, customers can squirt a hybrid "Texalina" sauce on their half chicken or spare ribs.
With Swig & Swine, the expat 'cue trend trots back toward barbecue's birthplace. And as it turns out, there are plenty of reasons to cheer its arrival.
Steve Kish, the restaurateur responsible for 82 Queen and Lowcountry Bistro, and pitmaster Anthony DiBernardo, a South Philly native whose cooking resume includes The Atlantic Room, Rita's Seaside Grill and a stint on a submarine, are partners in Swig & Swine. Their years of experience are evident in the restaurant's crisp service, hearty portions and kitchen's midday efficiency: If lunchers are late getting back to the office, they have only their own dawdling to blame.
In their defense, though, the outstretched dining room doesn't exactly encourage rushing away: The bright red walls and roomy wooden booths strike a nice balance between lively and comfortable. The same mood prevails at the bar, where bartenders, who make a point of exchanging names with patrons, will happily correct a batched Old-Fashioned that's not to a drinker's liking. (I didn't encounter any sippable disappointments on the standard cocktail menu, which includes an impressively steady smoked Manhattan.)
The restaurant's far west wall is dominated by a chalkboard devoted to daily specials, which really do come and go. Swig & Swine's genuine interest in locally grown produce bookends most meals, from the rainbow of spry pickled vegetables, crammed into a jelly jar, to the manageably sweet fruit pies sporting flaky crusts. But if the excellent side dishes are any indication, what DiBernardo likes best is meat.
Bucking the old-timey barbecue template, Swig & Swine lavishes attention on its side dishes: Its version of mac-and-cheese starts with al dente ribbed shells, heaped with grated white cheeses, and ends in an oven. The resulting rich casserole is rife with coveted crispy bits. Other meatless sides include a tidily chopped slaw and tangy baked potato salad, a flurry of chunked potatoes, mayonnaise and sour cream.
Still, the sides that borrow directly from the wood-fired pit are even better. The mahogany-hued Brunswick stew, pebbled with corn, has the enticingly hoary flavor of a soup that's spent the right amount of time simmering in a pot, allowing smoke to commune with cayenne pepper and vinegar. Also in the line up: A respectable tomato-based hash, ground up fine and spooned over tidy white rice, and vinegary sheets of collard greens dappled with what tasted like brown sugar.
With two sides permitted per plate, and eight sides listed on the menu, the laws of probability say a good number of diners will end up with beans on their plate. But this is the sort of important decision that shouldn't be left to chance: Make sure to order the baked beans-and-brisket. The brawny beans, cohesive but not overly syrupy, have a lovely meat sweetness that's the perfect counterpoint to smoke.
As for the meats themselves, a few of them are downright terrific: The aforementioned wings, while sauced too exuberantly, are satisfyingly roly-poly and roundly charred. If you're more interested in the swig than swine portion of the program, the wings should make an ideal craft beer companion.
But if swine's your thing, the pulled pork is a clear statement that the restaurant's aware of its bearings: In accordance with local expectations, the meat is juicy and distinctly textured. Swig & Swine also serves a smoked pork belly, but it seems like more of a gimmick than a good idea. Although I didn't try the belly on my three visits, a man who sidled up to the bar moaning about his immense hunger played the too-unctuous card before he was halfway done with his plate.
The punchiest meat is perhaps the housemade sausage, which has flavor for days and a snappy casing. Swig & Swine has no shortage of pulled pork competition, and its wings might not quite equal the best efforts of Home Team BBQ (which practices a more freewheeling form of barbecue ecumenicism), but I'm not sure there's another great smoked sausage within a cleaver's throw from Charleston.
Very few pits can get every meat right, and Swig & Swine has found its waterloo in the form of brisket. The thick slices I tried had a pretty smoke ring, but they were lean and drastically overcooked, without any moisture or give.
A pepper-edged turkey and ribs are dry too, but the turkey tastes so powerfully of turkey that it has enormous sandwich potential, so long as the mayonnaise is generously applied. And the ribs are porky and smoky, making for another pass-the-sauce situation.
There are four sauces at Swig & Swine, and it comes as a relief that none of them are showily perked up with unexpected ingredients. The tomato-based, vinegar-based, mustard-based and mayonnaise-based sauces are admirably on message, so the choice really comes down to personal preference.
Moving further off-script, Swig & Swine offers at least one unlisted sauce. It's a doozy of jalapenos and vinegar, and was probably my favorite of the known quintet. There isn't any clear historical precedent for the sauce, but, sometimes, liberation tastes best.