John Lewis, the smoke-house mastermind behind Lewis Barbecue, has earned plenty of awards over the years, but rest assured that when the Austin-style barbecue joint opens its second location in the old Tommy’s Ham House spot in 2022, the restaurant will be anything but fancy.
“Because we’re not trying to be fancy,” Lewis said. “And that’s what made Tommy’s Ham House so great. It’s really approachable comfort food that everyone likes. That’s what we do — a different kind of comfort food, but comfort food all the same.”
Those unfamiliar with Lewis Barbecue, the original location of which is in Charleston, should also know that it’s a quick-moving operation.
Photo by Leslie Ryan McKellar
“You’re not having to sit down for table service, talk to a server and wait 25 minutes before you get your food,” Lewis said. “The moment you get to the front counter, there’s a piece of meat in your mouth right away.”
He means that literally, as a matter of fact, because patrons can sample any of the meats before making an order, much in the same way ice cream shops offer samples for any of the flavors.
Lewis said the casual, quick-paced philosophy is core to Lewis Barbecue. Diners simply walk up to the front counter, where multiple meat cutting stations are in use at one time. There, all the slow-smoked meats are on display: prime beef brisket, pulled pork, pork spare ribs, turkey breast and Texas hot guts (aka house-made sausage). As with a butcher shop counter, diners choose their style of meat, and the meat station worker slices or chops up as much as one wants, weighs it and hands it over to the diner on a tray covered with a sheet of butcher paper.
“When we first opened up in Charleston, people freaked out about the no-plates thing,” Lewis said. “But pretty soon everyone got the hang of it and thought it was pretty cool.”
Sandwiches, daily specials, takeout deals and a litany of classic side dishes are also on the menu, in addition to extras like brisket nachos, chips and queso, and banana pudding.
Lewis said the sheer size of the new space, far larger than the original Charleston spot, will allow the Greenville location to offer a more expansive menu with unique options only available locally.
“Here we’ve got a kitchen that’s 3,000 square feet, and we’re going to have a few more smokers than we do in Charleston,” he said. “That was one big draw, but just as important for us was the spot’s tradition as a meeting place, a spot for the community to come together. I hope and will do all I can to continue that tradition.”
The interior of the restaurant will be designed by Betsy Berry, who runs B. Berry Interiors, which designed the interior space of the original Lewis Barbecue in Charleston.
Lewis said the Greenville spot will be “the second and also the last Lewis Barbecue” he’ll ever open.
“Any more than that and it would be too hard to maintain the quality of the food and the service,” he said. “I’d rather keep it smaller, make less money, but keep it perfect.”
Raised in El Paso, Texas, Lewis moved to Austin when he was 18 years old before settling in Denver, where he found himself more and more enamored with the slow and deliberate process of barbecue.
“I was missing barbecue a lot when I lived up there for those years, and it got to the point where I was going to a bad national barbecue chain and would leave disappointed every time, but still I went back,” he said.
Eventually, he figured he could do a better job himself, so he began constructing his own custom-made smoker, which was basically just two trash cans stacked on top of each other.
It wasn’t long before Lewis made a name for himself in the competition barbecue circuit (“I didn’t even know such a thing existed when I started out,” he said), and after moving back to Austin, he helped his friend, Aaron Franklin, launch the now-widely-celebrated Franklin Barbecue.
Lewis went on to parter with LeAnn Mueller to open La Barbecue in Austin in 2012, which earned him the award of “Best BBQ in Austin” by the Austin American Statesman.
He founded Lewis Barbecue in 2016 in Charleston. To this day, Lewis still relies on the scrappy techniques he honed when he was starting out in Denver, meaning all of his smokers are still custom-made — albeit much larger than the two trash cans he originally used.
Despite the acclaim he’s earned, Lewis said his goal is still as simple as it was when he first got into the craft: to always strive to do better.
“You got to be a little crazy when you first start out,” he said. “I think what drives everyone in this weird little community is that we’re all really nerdy about barbecue.”
He remembered when he first began serving barbecue, it would be him handing out plates to people in his backyard. His pride came from seeing more people show up as the weeks and months went on.
“And that’s really what it’s about,” he said. “What’s way better than any competition award is when people come to your restaurant and then come back to bring their friends, to show the people who haven’t tried it yet. To me, that’s by far the most gratifying part of what I do.”