The last time we met up with friends Nancy and Greg and their son, Colin, it was barbecue. Our next dinner date, they suggested barbecue again.
“I guess you guys like barbecue, huh?” I asked.
They laughed. They used to live in Atlanta and are still craving the ’cue they enjoyed in the city, so they are on a bit of a hunt to find a local joint that’ll hit their sweet spot.
Our latest meet up was at Willie Jewell’s Old-School Bar-B-Q, which opened earlier this year on a narrow lot just between Washington Road and River Watch Parkway. Our GPS instructed us to turn left, but it was a bit of a U-turn to navigate into the drive and then around to the front of the restaurant.
The restaurant is a franchise, with six locations across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina and more opening soon, according to its website. The restaurant certainly looks the part, with its rocking chair front porch exterior and stripped-down wooden interior hung with industrial lighting, old-fashioned bulbs and mix of charming signage.
Once upon a time there really was a Willie Jewell, according to the site, and her flair for cooking lives on in the barbecue that bears her name. The menu promises slow-smoked ’cue that’s served up fast. So we stepped up to the counter to take a look and make our orders.
Willie Jewell’s features the familiar standards and some new options, too. There are seven meat options on its platters – pulled pork, smoked sausage, chicken tenders, turkey, beef brisket, chicken and St. Louis ribs – and you can also choose a two- or three-meat combo. Sandwiches feature pulled pork, beef, turkey, sausage or chicken breast. I was intrigued by the stackers, which feature meats piled up on a large seeded bun – everything from pulled pork with slaw to a burger with pulled pork and cheddar cheese.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are several salad options that can be topped with pork, turkey, beef brisket or chicken. And there are unusual appetizers such as country corn fritters, fried pickles, even fried okra. Meals come with your choice of one or two sides (all made from scratch using recipes dating back over 65 years, according to the menu!). The usual suspects were there, but I was a little surprised that hash and rice was listed as a side of the day along with potato salad. (However, the cashier assured me they always serve hash and rice – to me, a barbecue restaurant isn’t a barbecue restaurant without it!)
Since I wanted to get Willie Jewell’s measure, I ordered a standard plate: pulled pork with hash and rice (natch) and collard greens. My husband, Sean, went for a rib platter with Brunswick stew and baked beans. Meanwhile, Nancy had a brisket platter and Greg copied me with the pulled pork, adding a side of potato salad.
While we waited for our food, I filled up tiny plastic cups with the restaurant’s four unique varieties of sauce: Hickory Heaven, a smoky red; Sweet & Sassy; Low Country Gold, mustard-based; and Hot Momma, spicy mustard-based. The sauces are likewise from old recipes and are served warm – a nice selling point, although to be honest, I kind of forgot about that fact and didn’t really notice a difference while I was sampling them on my food.
Colin just had time to tell us about school and his Halloween costume before the platters arrived. They were served on metal pans layered with paper, with the sides in little paper cups and a slice of Texas toast drenched in butter.
The hash surprised me. It didn’t look like any hash I’ve ever had before, light brown in color with chunks of potato throughout and an earthy, meaty flavor. It was also surprisingly spicy – a little too spicy for me to enjoy it, but lovers of heat would probably groove on it. It was very different for someone who was expecting a tangy tomato-based hash.
As its counterpoint, the collards were surprisingly sweet. There were big leaves and they were nicely cooked down, but again, it was too sweet for my taste.
The shredded pork was in between both, not having much flavor at all on its own. The bits of pork were a bit raggedy and really seemed to serve as just a carrier for the sauces, which also added moistness. Hickory Heaven and Sweet & Sassy had the same tomato base and brassy, smoky flavor, but the first was mildly spicy while the second tempered that spice with sweetness. Meanwhile the Low Country Gold also was sweet – and the Hot Momma really was!
Sean let me sample the St. Louis ribs and sides. Thanks to Google, I learned that St. Louis refers to the cut of the ribs, making a rectangular rack. These were darkly crusted and grilled, fairly fatty but tender with a great smoky flavor.
His Brunswick stew looked fantastic, loaded with okra, beans and potatoes among other vegetables, but there was also a strident herb flavor that I couldn’t quite place. Meanwhile, the baked beans weren’t sweet, but tangy in an almost alcoholic kind of way.
I took a taste of Nancy’s brisket, which was sliced beautifully thin and like the ribs had a great smoky flavor. I really wished I’d ordered Greg’s potato salad, too – a very pretty white potato salad, flavored with what I think was sour cream – and it was delicious.
I’d chosen to wash everything down with the restaurant’s signature grape lemonade, but for someone who usually drinks only water and sometimes juice – whoo-eee! Can you say sugar rush? It was reminiscent of old-fashioned grape soda without the bubbles and with even more sugar.
Not that I needed more sugar, but we ordered a couple of desserts to split: the banana pudding and peach cobbler. Both came piping hot and piled high with whipped cream. I liked how the banana pudding still had lovely crisp vanilla wafers and a good banana flavor, and I also liked how the peach cobbler was flavored with a touch of cinnamon.
Overall, the menu does have a few jewels (see what I did there?). But with so much competition for good barbecue in the area, I have to admit that Willie Jewell’s didn’t quite hit the spot for our barbecue-seeking friends or for us.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Willie Jewell’s Old-School Bar-B-Q, 3512 River Watch Parkway
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
ENTREE COST: $7.49 to $26.99
SECOND HELPING: (762) 222-8587, williejewells.com