My banker, Trent, glanced furtively through the glass wall of his office. Satisfied that no one was watching, he leaned across his desk slightly, indicating I should do the same. I drew in closer; when your banker want to give you insider advice, you pay attention.
“Duke’s,” he said quietly. “It isn’t fancy, but if you want the real thing, that’s it.”
“What do you mean, not fancy?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just big long tables and paper plates and you go up and help yourself. And they don’t have much. Just barbecue and hash and rice and cole slaw. Oh, and pickles. Couple kinds, I think. And tea.”
Trent and I had had a relationship going back, oh, perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes before I started squeezing him for tips on good eats. I’d just moved to Charleston from Upstate NY and was getting set up, but I knew from past experience that when you’re new in town and want to find the best places to eat, you keep your eyes open for a certain type of big guy. Not big-around-the-middle big - more like farmboy big. I’d sized Trent up immediately, and my suspicions were confirmed when the wall clock, edging toward the lunchtime hour, began to draw his glance more and more often.
At first, he mistook my inquiries about “good” restaurants to mean those kinds of places where nice people dress up and drape napkins across their laps.
“No, Trent. Where are the joints?
“Yeah, you know: joints, shacks, roadside diners?” I was looking for those places that serve great food, exotic and interesting food, legendary food, on rundown side streets and in slant board shacks. Places with eccentric atmosphere and an authenticity that corporate restaurant chains can’t even dream of reproducing. The sort of places where the locals always go but for some unknown reason, don’t always admit to.
He thought for a moment. “Well,” he said hesitantly, “Do you like barbecue?”
Now, those were the magic words…
The soulful, unstrung sound of gospel organ seeped through the white cinderblock wall from the storefront revival chapel next door just as a room-filling guy in a faded marlin tournament shirt stepped inside.
“You hear that, bubba?” the counterman said smiling, nodding in the direction of the sound, “They’re tryin’ to tell you you need to get right with Jesus.”
“Jesus?” the customer chuckled, “Hell, I’m already right with Jesus - I just need to get right with two sandwiches and some hash and rice to go!”
Duke’s Bar-B-Que is that increasingly rare thing: the traditional, neighborhood barbeque joint. A place that knows its customers. A place beyond the reach of that artificially flavored world of food fashions and focus groups. A place with an elemental purity and, in the truest sense of the word, refinement. Duke’s figured out a long, long time ago what it was put on this earth to do and has kept on doing it the same way for 56 years.
The range of offerings is shockingly minimal by today’s standards, but it’s all you could want: pork barbeque, rice, hash, cole slaw, pickles (sweet and dill), crispy pork skin, sauces, sweet tea, Sunbeam bread, a few desserts. And that’s it.
Check that list again:
See any burgers?
Like many legendary places - Shangri-La, El Dorado, Xanadu, etc. - Duke’s can be hard to find. The white stucco building is so easy to drive by that you almost have to triangulate it when giving directions. And don’t bother looking for a professional sign with spotlights shining on it; the only identifying marks on the place are the small hand-painted letters on the window and the faded, Pavlovian “OPEN” signs.
It’s also not in the most genteel of neighborhoods, but that doesn’t stop the faithful from flowing there on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Things are quiet when they first open, but soon the parking lot fills with everything from pickup trucks to Jaguars. Handicap parking is informal, i.e., on the sidewalk right in front; you may have to step around an octogenarian’s shiny-new Sedan De Ville to get to the door.
Inside, it’s disorienting; a bit inside-out, and a bit like time-travel: fluorescent lights, concrete floors, whitewashed walls. Long green picnic tables covered in off-the-roll red & white checked tablecloths, the edges nearest the windows bleached a pale pink. At the far end, speckled Formica counters, a well-worn sink, a vintage home stove, a couple of refrigerators and ice chests. A paper bag sign announces the availability of banana pudding. Another sign, just in front of the antique cash register, is a gentle reminder of our less well-mannered age: “We will be glad to help you when you get off your cell phone.”
Once you’ve got your bearings, though, everything becomes simple: after you pay, just grab a foam plate and a fork, and help yourself.
Start by laying in a foundation of white rice and ladling on some of their fine hash. Step to your left and you’re in front of a tray of freshly pulled and chopped pork that’s moist and flavorful, with a nice amount of tasty, crusty edges. Pile some on, leaving room for cole slaw, and look for the bowl on the left with Duke’s sweet, golden, mustard-based BBQ sauce. The red squeeze bottle near it is their homemade hot sauce, which they describe as “real hot - but real good!”
Some habanero-munchers might think it too tame, but I found it just right and the perfect accent flavor for the mustard sauce. Snag a pickle or two as a palate refresher before you move on to their freshly ground, very lightly sweetened cole slaw.
Now, you may be tempted to ferally dart to the nearest horizontal surface and dig in, but wait - you’re not quite finished. Just to the left of the slaw, there’s a small dish of crunchy pork skins the color of burnished mahogany. Take one or two (more would be impolite, as there’s only a limited amount.) If the dish is empty, ask if there’s any left. They do go quickly, but sometimes there’s a secret stash in the kitchen. Now, grab your sweet tea and find a spot on a bench. Salt, pepper, bread, and napkins are on the table. Sit. Eat. Repeat.
“Everything here is homemade from scratch - except the pickles,” Miss Lisa, grand-daughter of the folks who started the business, tells me when I ask about the sauces. Miss Lisa is busy, but friendly, so I take a long-shot, “Tell me about the hash. What exactly is it?”
Now, many places act like their hash recipe is the formula for Coke, but Miss Lisa was unexpectedly candid, “It’s just four things: ground up barbecue, potatoes, onions, and ketchup.”
“That’s it? No secret ingredients?” I was shocked.
“No, that’s it. Just those four things.”
Obviously, some sort of alchemy was involved, some arcane and mysterious process she wasn’t telling me about, but since she was so nice I decided not to press for details.
I did decide to have dessert, something I never do at barbecue places, but those homemade goodies, right there on the counter, were a siren’s call I was too weak (but somehow not too full) to resist. It was the plaintive song of the moist, rich, red velvet cake that snared me. Twice. Resistance, as they say, is futile.
Simplicity has an elegance of its own. A glass of sweet tea. A plate of good food. A slice of bread from a communal loaf. These few things - elemental, pure, and refined in a way that’s would be impossible to explain - are both filling and fulfilling at the same time, especially when seated at a long picnic table with friends-not-yet-met, united by a Southern heart’s need for these things.
In the 3 years since I moved here, I’ve been to many barbecue places. Some may have better this or that, but none has helped me feel the depth and importance of South Carolina barbecue tradition the way Duke’s has.
The romanticized vision of the “Old South” - formal dinners and crinoline and polished silver - is nice of course, but for folks visiting from “off” (that is, anywhere other than the South) and “comeyahs” (folks who moved here from “off”) I recommend seeking out the small, local places like Duke’s that aren’t fancy, but in their way are more truly Southern than any soiree. And don’t try to change them; let them change you.
Forgo the finger bowls and fancy attire. Grab a plastic fork and find a spot. This right here? This here’s the real thing.
4428 Spruill Avenue
North Charleston, SC
Open Friday & Saturday Evenings only.
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