Smokin' the Competition: Award-Winning BBQ at the Smokehouse
Author: Whitney Farmer | Photographer: John Brackett
Jerry Leonard has a secret. “I can’t tell you where I’m from,” Leonard said, almost immediately upon introduction. Why? “The whole New York City BBQ thing doesn’t go over well,” he laughs.
While Leonard may consider his Northern origins to be something to hide, they may very well be the secret weapon behind The Smokehouse owner’s success. The collection of trophies and strong hickory smell that greet guests at the door are immediately telling that The Smokehouse ain’t your momma’s Southern barbeque. Judging by his restaurant’s collection of awards (over 20 since its opening in 1999), Leonard’s reservations couldn’t be more unfounded. “We’ve won three first place and two second place awards in the last five years, and we’ve never left the Rib Burn without first in something,” he said.
Every signature item on the menu, from ribs to wings to chili to, of course, pulled pork, is stamped with the “Award-Winning” medallion, quite a feat for Leonard, who started the restaurant from scratch nine years ago.
The restaurant began when Leonard had a revelation on a trip to a barbeque joint in Colorado. While waiting in a packed line, he realized there was nothing like it on Hilton Head Island. “A light bulb went off. I saw this was a niche,” he said.
So he quickly made it happen. All of the recipes are Leonard’s own and, although he does get behind the smoker from time to time, he said, “They try to keep me out of operations.”
Leonard, who considers himself foremost a bartender, built the elaborate focal-point bar himself. The combination down-home/old western atmosphere brings tourists in all season, but keeps devoted locals coming consistently year-round, he explained, scanning the restaurant to prove it.
“Those guys over there are from the fire department. They come in all the time. Those ladies there work for the town. Those guys work for Hargray. I think the people over there are bankers. There’s probably about a ninety-nine percent local crowd here for lunch,” he pointed out.
Like any good barbequer, Leonard takes his work outside of the restaurant. “I eat ribs everywhere to test them,” he said, acknowledging that he compares his recipes to what other barbeque restaurants do, taking cues to constantly improve his food. And year after year, his recipes are the ones that, umm, “smoke” the competition.
“Everyone uses the same smoker. I guess our rub sets us apart,” he said. “I don’t know what else we’re doing differently.”
It could be his patient attention to detail. Despite the fact that many restaurants chop pork because it’s faster and easier, The Smokehouse’s barbeque is all hand-pulled.
“We have girls pulling pork for hours at a time,” Leonard said, describing the work that goes into supplying the Heritage. “Last year we used about 1,500 pounds of meat. There will be about eight people crowded around a little table just pulling pork all day.”
As for his previously guarded Yankee secret, Leonard has lived on the island long enough to freely let it out. “I really don’t care anymore,” he said. “I’ve been here 19 years. I’ve been here longer than I’ve been anywhere else.”—Much to the delight of the local regulars and the returning visitors alike.
Located on Pope Avenue, across the street from Coligny Plaza, The Smokehouse is the perfect lunch destination for beachgoers looking for a laid-back, casual lunch or dinner. Leonard’s big bar is a great place to re-hydrate with a nice cold drink. And what barbeque restaurant would be complete without a big ol’ porch? The Smokehouse provides outdoor deck dining for a lazy afternoon or quick and easy take out to keep on-the-go guests going. Leonard’s prize-winning recipes are served daily from 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
History of BBQ
The waving neon pig associated with modern barbeque has come a long way from its mysterious origins. Barbequing means slow-cooking meat at a low temperature for a long time over wood or charcoal. The origins of barbeque are relatively unknown, but evidence suggests barbeque as both a word and an activity originated in the Caribbean and migrated into other cultures.
In America, the earliest evidence of barbeque dates back to the late 1800s during Western cattle drives. The cowboys were often fed brisket, a tough and stringy piece of meat that required five to seven hours of cooking to tenderize. The less-than-picky riders barbecued every meat from pork butt, pork ribs, beef ribs, venison and goat.
Now, even within the States, barbeque has cultural variances. Although in every region barbequing conjures up images of gingham tablecloths and backyard gatherings, in the Southwest, the word barbeque is used primarily in reference to cuts of beef, while we Southeasterners generally roast pork. So eat up, y’all!