June 28, 2012
Note: There are two Dukes BBQ’s in Orangeburg. This review details our experience at the Whitman Street location. There is a different Dukes on Chestnut which we have yet to try.
Heather talked me into driving up to Orangeburg today after she got off work since we had time for a quick road trip. Camden did not accompany us as he wasn’t feeling well, so we set out for a meal.
I was kind of excited to try Dukes. Now, one thing you need to know is that there are many Dukes BBQ’s in the lowcountry. Heck, out of the blue, we passed one in Ridgeville on the way back. I know there is one on Spruill Avenue in Charleston, one in Walterboro, apparently one on James Island, and I hear there is another in Orangeburg, itself. I think they are all loosely related, but they are not franchises or part of a chain.
Anyway, we arrive at about 4:30 and hop out. The building is a nice one compared to many we have stopped at. It has a walkup take-out window on the side. The front is wood-sided with red doors and trim and wooden shingles. The interior is sparsely decorated. “Small town country buffet,” Heather commented, not being derogatory. There are lines of tables arranged around the room almost like a school cafeteria might be. Each row of tables has pitchers of sweet tea, hot sauce, and salt and pepper shakers. Around the interior, you will find t-shirts on a rack for sale ($15), used books on a bookshelf for sale (.50), and flower-strewn crosses for sale ($12). Frankly, it felt sort of Goodwill meets BBQ restaurant. Strange choice, but hey, we don’t care; we’re here for the BBQ.
We walk up and order two buffets ($18). On the buffet there was: hash and rice, green beans, baked beans, mac and cheese, something akin to hush puppies, a fried something (gizzards?), BBQ chicken, fried chicken, chopped pork BBQ, coleslaw, potato salad, pickles, sliced white loaf bread, a squirt bottle of ketchup, one of vinegar/pepper sauce, and a huge warming tray full of mustard sauce. Strangely, I saw no desserts anywhere. We filled our plates and sat to eat.
The BBQ had no sauce on it, which we prefer. I have to say the first thing that entered my mind going through the buffet was that the BBQ was really dried out. Honestly, I considered the fact that since we were here early on a Thursday, opening day for the Dukes each week, that the BBQ we were being served was actually leftovers from the week before. I don’t know this to be the case, but I certainly suspect it because it is clearly dried out.
Anyway, because there is no sauce, we are able to taste the meat itself. In this case, there was little taste. “My BBQ was dry. Didn’t have much flavor,” we both agreed afterwards. I will say, however, that I got a second serving and the meat that had been added to the pan was much moister. We also purchased a pound to bring home to the kids. We tasted that when we got home, and I thought it had considerably more flavor, but Heather disagreed.
Regardless, the BBQ itself was a disappointment for us, I have to say. We don’t believe Dukes uses wood coals but cooks with propane. This is based on the taste, the propane tank in the back and the absence of wood anywhere in sight… but mainly on the taste.
Ironically, neither of us realized at first that the big vat of carmel-colored goo on the buffet was their famous sauce. Looking for sauce, I searched the bar and found two squeeze bottles. I grabbed one and squeezed out what was obviously was ketchup upon a plate. Into a separate section of the tray, I squeezed what was a very thin vinegar-pepper sauce and returned to the table, not knowing yet the mustard sauce was available by the ladleful on the buffet.
As for the vinegar, if it was intended to be a BBQ sauce at all, it was simply awful. There were two flavors: straight vinegar and HOT pepper. That’s it. Nothing else. I would guess the two ingredients are distilled white vinegar and cayenne. Maybe it was just vinegar for greens and not a sauce at all. I hope so, anyway. About this time, Heather said, “I think that is the mustard sauce on the buffet.”
The mustard sauce was interesting. Sweet. Very thick. More condiment than BBQ sauce. It literally sits on top of the BBQ when poured upon it. We agreed it was the best mustard sauce we’ve had so far, but again, we really didn’t love it. “I never realized how much I like vinegar-based BBQ until we started doing this. It’s just so much better,” I said on the ride home. The sweetness of the mustard sauces we’ve had tend to overwhelm the taste of the pork. Still looking for that perfect mustard sauce at a restaurant.
As for the sides, here is our conversation: “The baked beans were just baked beans. My first thought was that they were straight out of a can,” I said.
“Yep…and obviously the green beans looked like they were straight out of the can; didn’t eat ‘em. The mac and cheese looked really dry; didn’t want to try that,” Heather said. I agreed.
“The potato salad was good,” I said. It was tangy and smooth with a bit of mustard in it and pickles.
“The fried chicken was great: moist, tender and crispy,” Heather pointed out. I agreed.
In the end, the impression we were left with was one of sweetness. As Heather said, “Everything was really sweet: the sweet tea was sweet, the hash was sweet, the mustard sauce was sweet. Mustard sauce: like thicker than syrup… just thick… sticky and thick…very interesting…never had a bbq sauce like that.”
Ironically, there were no desserts to be found on the buffet. Guess the meal was sweet enough on its own.
Heather summed it all up on the way home: “I think my problem with these kinds of places is they try to do too much. You know, maybe at one time, they were probably good BBQ places, but they try to do all these other things, and they can’t do all the other things, and they just need to think about the one thing they were probably good at years ago. Maybe it’s the mustard sauce that people like and it not really about the taste of the meat, so it’s really about the BBQ sauce and not about the taste of the meat and to me it should be about the taste of the meat first. The meat has to taste good first before you can say you make good BBQ.”
That pretty much says it all.
So, bottom line: Was it worth the trip?
“I’m disappointed… No.” I said.
“Glad we tried it. Wonder if others are the same. No, I wouldn’t go back,” Heather said.