Yum. Wood-smoked pork. It smells great and tastes even better. Smoky pork sandwiches, pulled pork suppers and fall-off-the-bone ribs. 3 sauces – vinegar, mustard and red. Here in Columbia, located dead center in South Carolina, barbecue capital of the world, there is a whole lot of competition for Q-lovers’ business. Barbecue joints are everywhere, from roadside shacks and trailers to sit-down restaurants where Q is served off the menu or buffet-style with country vegetables, cornbread and banana pudding. Barbecue is offered by roving Q trucks that show up at craft breweries, festivals and downtown parking lots at lunch time. Barbecue cook-offs are center stage at local festivals each spring and summer. So where do you go for the best? One of our all-time favorites is Little Pigs Barbecue on Alpine Road in northeast Columbia. We aren’t the only ones who rate it high. Little Pigs Barbecue was chosen Best Barbecue in the South by Southern Living magazine. Hard to quibble with their pick. We recently sat down with Champ McGee, master barbecuer.
You started off working at Little Pigs when you were young and worked your way up. How did all of that happen?
The guy who owned Little Pigs, Lawrence Britton, was my neighbor and when I was 11 years old, he asked if I wanted to help out (at his restaurant). I started out washing dishes and whatever else I could do. Over the years, I learned to do everything. In fact by the time I was in high school, when I got off from school, I went to work and everyone else who worked there went home. I ran the place totally by myself until supper time when Lawrence came in to help with the supper rush. I have been at Little Pigs almost all my life.
How did Little Pigs start out?
Little Pigs has been in business for 45 years. The one on Rosewood Drive, before we moved here, was the 38th franchise out of Memphis. It had 36 seats and it was a small restaurant. People walked up to the counter and we chopped the BBQ in front of our customers. There were two wooden chopping blocks in front and behind us was a great big pit where we smoked the meat… and we’d cut the meat up and make sandwiches or plates right there. There was no buffet back then.
In the 1962, we decided we would start a small buffet at the Rosewood Drive store. It progressed fast and the buffet was quickly becoming a larger part of the business. When we opened up on Alpine in ’78, we went totally buffet. You can still get a BBQ sandwich, you can still buy a BBQ basket, but it’s 99% buffet. You know, it’s over the last 10 years that we’ve expanded the buffet. We still had pretty traditional BBQ stuff when we first put the buffet out here. It was about half the size of what it is now. You had your coleslaw, and your barbecue beans, rice and hash, the different kinds of pork, and fried chicken with rolls and pickles and banana pudding. It’s grown from there. We have a lot of variety on this buffet today. I make jambalaya and we make chicken pot pie – both from scratch. We added tomato pie. Everything we try and the customers like, we keep. I think there are over 40 items on there and we rotate things out every once in a while. Mac and cheese is our most popular side.
Where is the pit located?
I have a pit in the back and three cookers outside. We do a lot of the chicken and ribs outside.
Is that all wood smoked? What kind of wood do you use?
It’s all wood smoked on hickory. Definitely hickory. I’ve got a chicken breast on my menu that’s a mesquite, but everything else is hickory.
18 hours. We cook the meat for 18 hours at about 225 to 235 degrees. We cook the BBQ overnight, and it’s smoked on hickory wood the whole time. Then we take it out, sauce it, let it marinate in the sauce until the next day, a full 24 hours, put it back in the smoker and bring it back to temperature and let it smoke. Not only is the meat smoked, but the sauce actually gets smoked into the meat. I don’t think anybody else in town does that and it makes a difference in the flavor.
You use three different sauces for your BBQ, right?
Yes, plus out here in the buffet area, we also offer meat with no sauce. We have shoulders that are cooked over hickory wood and we put it out on the pig pull, without sauce. Fridays and Saturdays, we use between 12 and 15 shoulders on the pig pull, which is the front leg. The ham dries out more, but the shoulder stays moist out here under the light.
What seems to be the favorite dish that people like to get off of the buffet?
Mustard BBQ. In this area, that’s going to be the biggest hit. I don’t keep up with the weights, but we probably use about 3,000 pounds of ribs a week. No other BBQ restaurant in town gives you all you can eat ribs on the buffet.
What about favorite side dishes?
Macaroni and cheese, number one. Hash is number two. Our hash is different from any other hash. It’s the Little Pigs of America’s hash. It has no heads, no feet, no livers, no junk. Typically, when you think about hash, BBQ people use hash to get rid of what they couldn’t make BBQ out of. We don’t do that at all. It’s pork ham and chuck roast. All meat. Period.
What’s your favorite dish to prepare?
I really love making the chicken pot pie. It’s a lot of fun. You’re using fresh carrots and celery. You caramelize the onions and add flour and milk and you make the roue to just the right thickness. I use pie crust on top and bottom. We serve probably 50 gallons a week – it’s really good.
What’s in tomato pie? A lot of people have never had tomato pie. I’ve always wondered what goes into it.
It’s tomatoes and basil, caramelized onions, sour cream, mayonnaise, and cheddar cheese. Fresh basil is what makes it.
Did you ever think about owning Little Pigs when you were younger?
I bought in early on, and then when Lawrence died, I bought his wife out. I did have another career – I ran the dining room, dormitory, mail room and reservation section for the Police Academy for 32 years, 5 months, and 17 days, but I never quit Little Pigs. I worked at the Police Academy from 4:30am until noon, and I was at Little Pigs starting at 12:30pm every day.
Do you have any good food combinations that you’ve tried over the years that people wouldn’t necessarily think about?
Not really, other than things I like to eat. I like french fries on my BBQ sandwich. And skins on my BBQ sandwich. That’s really good.
When you’re catering, is there a set menu?
We have nine different menus on the website. We don’t just do BBQ. We do weddings, and I can make foods from any custom menu. Matter of fact, right now I’ve got a wedding I’m doing and they want bruschetta fig gorgonzola, and I’ve never made that before but we’re going to figure out how to do it. We do anything. Any custom menu you want for catering.