An inconspicuous storefront in a commercial strip by the side of the two-lane, 521 B-B-Q & Grill is a conspicuously worthy barbecue destination. Not that there’s anything wrong with the menu’s extra-thick fried bologna sandwich, but it would be a crime to come here and not eat chopped pork and/or ribs. The former – Boston butt that is slow-smoked for 14 hours – becomes rough-hewn hash that is served sauceless. Please, savor some unadorned forkfuls for full appreciation of the refined synergy of swine and smoke. But then, bring on the sauce. Two kinds are arrayed in squeeze bottles on every table (next to the roll of paper towels): a thin, pepper-powered vinegar dressing that adds an exclamation mark to the flavor, and a thicker, sweeter and extremely tangy tomato sauce. Both are winners.
The ribs are just about the meatiest baby backs we’ve ever run across. Huge amounts of juice-sopped meat slide off the bone at the slightest provocation. Like the pork butts, the ribs are slow-smoked so the woodsy flavor of the pit completely insinuates itself into every fiber of the meat. Then they are painted with some of that tangy sauce and grilled until the sauce begins to caramelize. The glaze hugs the pork; and those two tastes together define the joy of ribs.
We haven’t yet mentioned what some people consider to be the very best thing on the menu, included on every plate or tray of barbecue: hushpuppies. Irregularly shaped with dark, red-gold skin that offers both crunch and chew, their interiors are moist and sweet-corn sweet, laced with perfumy onion. Nor are the baked beans to be ignored. They fairly vibrate with barbecue zest.
And finally, we need to mention the staff: a corps of waitresses who are as much fun as they are efficient, eagerly replacing a couple of hushpuppies that accidentally tumbled into the baked beans and lost a touch of their crispness and taking great joy when a customer is caught licking every bit of sauce off his fingers. In short: if you like barbecue, put 521 on any short list of must-visits in the Carolinas.
Note: There is a 2nd 521 BBQ at 1135 Stonecrest Blvd, Suite 101, Tega Cay, SC.
If it wasn’t for our Roadfood friend Amy Howington, we might never have stopped at 521 BBQ & Grill. All we needed to hear was, “They make their own vinegar sauce,” and we were on our way. Tucked in a small strip south of Indian Land High School on Highway 521 (toward Lancaster/Monroe), its unassuming façade hides spectacular barbeque, ribs, and hushpuppies, though it’s certainly not concealed to their loyal legion of regulars, some of whom travel as far as Asheville, North Carolina to eat here. 521 has been voted best BBQ for the last two years in local publications.
First and foremost, the chopped pork is tender, irregular chunks of “inside” meat mixed with a smattering of charred “outside” skin. Its flavor is smoky and woodsy, and it’s itching to be graced by a tableside triumvirate of sauces: two commercially bottled tomato- and mustard-based sauces, indigenous to Western North Carolina and South Carolina pork parlors, respectively; and 521’s homemade vinegar sauce, a heady brew flecked with red, yellow, and black pepper, and harboring a manageable kick that’ll send piggy partisans into ecstatic displays of affection after first taste. Two types of cole slaw are available: a traditional, mayonnaise-based white slaw, or the more popular barbeque slaw, made with finely minced cabbage and a tangy, tomato BBQ sauce.
The other item of unprecedented choice is their hushpuppies, the omnipresent starch on Southern barbeque and seafood plates. Mind you, these are not the cold, corny chewfests of lesser restaurants that resemble Styrofoam peanuts. These beauties are big, bumpy, deeply browned delights that, when hot from the fryer, induce backflips of glee upon the tongue. And like many similar establishments, 521 runs out of items (ribs, most frequently) late in the day, so customers must have a Plan B in mind if they show up for a late dinner. There is even a disclaimer printed on the menu: “In order to offer the highest quality barbeque and ribs, we smoke them fresh daily on the premises, which means that on occasion we may run out. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
521 does not yet sell bottles of their vinegar sauce, though the kitchen is known for sending customers home with containers of sauce when asked. There was once an extreme dearth of quality, non-chain barbeque houses in the Rock Hill/Fort Mill area, especially on this once desolate stretch of secondary highway. Thankfully, 521 BBQ rises to fill that need with consistently delicious pork, sides, and a spicy vinegar sauce that cannot possibly be beat.