When people ask me where to get good barbeque in South Carolina, especially in Columbia, I have a hard time finding a good answer. First of all, most people don’t eat out for barbeque in the Midlands, since the good stuff has to be made by somebody’s grandma in her kitchen. But the few options available are either so so or racist, both of which should be avoided at all costs.
The welcome exception to the mediocrity and bigotry of many southern spots is True BBQ, a small and relatively new restaurant in West Columbia. Though the restaurant has only been there since 2010, its owners, Ernest and Milton Zanders have been selling barbeque out of the back of their car for a few years. They’re known for their three sauces—the Pretty Lady, which is mustard based, the Sexy Lady, a tomato based sauce, and the vinegar red.
True BBQ has very traditional South Carolina fare, with a real focus on pork. Each entrée comes with my favorite southern dish, hash and rice. The hash in this dish has nothing to do with weed, but is instead a South Carolina specialty pork dish that historically was made from ‘leftover cuts’ like head, livers, and I’ve been told, ears, with the traditional Carolina mustard barbeque. Either way, hash is not quite a stew, not quite gravy, it looks like what they call mystery meat on high school tv shows, and it tastes like heaven. This might turn you off, but if it does, you’re probably not going to enjoy most Southern food.
Hash and rice is a great representation of what traditional Southern black food is—taking scraps or leftovers and turning them into something worth treasuring. This idea of preservation and ingenuity is one of my favorite things about the South, and True BBQ gave me a little bit of that vibe. While lots of Southern restaurants (especially outside of the south) try to fake a homegrown vibe, True BBQ seems authentic and comfortable in its simplicity. The walls are decorated with paintings of big white houses and pigs, football schedules and bible verses. It’s much cleaner than a hole in the wall, but it’s nothing fancy. It doesn’t matter, what you’re going to be paying attention to is the food.
My mom and I decided to get the Big Z combo platter, so we could try as much as possible. For our three meats, we got the chopped BBQ, which is just traditional pulled pork, a turkey wing, and the dark meat chicken. We ordered macaroni and collard greens for our sides, and of course, every meal comes with hash and rice. You also have to pick a sauce to go with your meal, and we got Pretty Lady, both because my mama would never buy something called a ‘Sexy Lady’ sauce, and because mustard based barbeque will always be the best kind of barbeque. We also ordered sweet tea, because we might as well go all the way. This all came out to be a bit more than 20 dollars, which is really all you can ask for.
I’ll go from good to amazing. The turkey wing was just okay, and seemed to have been cooked for a little longer than I prefer. I enjoyed it, but I’ve never met a turkey wing I didn’t like, so there’s that. The chicken is much better, literally fall off the bone tender, but it’s also a smoked chicken, so it has to be good. It’s not the star of the show here, though—everything else on the platter was slap your mama good. The chopped barbeque is so tender and flavorful—it comes without sauce on it, and you really don’t need it. The smoke lingers in the mouth, and it’s one of the smoothest bites of barbeque I’ve ever had. If you add the sauce to it, it’s absolutely unforgettable: the Pretty Lady isn’t as sweet as many mustard sauces, but it brings a pleasant vinegar finish. I’m also ridiculously picky about macaroni and cheese (you would be too if you’d had my mama’s recipe) but True’s is delicious (though still not as good as my mama’s), and their collards are firm—the only thing they need is pepper vinegar.
True BBQ has some of the best food in the city, and it’s great opportunity for anyone who’s looking to get a good idea of traditional South Carolina cuisine. But what I like best about it is how much it reminds me of eating at home. The woman who takes your order at the front desk doesn’t smile when she takes your order, but she calls you baby when she refills your tea. Mid way through our meal, someone yelled “we got pig feet?” And of course, the answer was yes.