So when a recent trip to the South Carolina Lowcountry took me near Walterboro, I could not miss an opportunity to visit Dukes Bar-B-Q Restaurant.
Walterboro never seems to be "on my way" when I travel, so it's been awhile since I've been there. Sure, it's right beside Interstate 95, but as the road less traveled insider, I rarely get on the interstates. My recent excursion has reminded me that the city and Colleton County are a destination all their own, not just a stop on the way.
If you grew up eating in South Carolina barbecue joints, Dukes will feel like home, kind of a plain-Jane restaurant with décor straight from the 1970s: A couple dozen tables in the main dining room, more tables set off by an accordion room divider so large groups can all sit together, a simple buffet line and a fix-it-yourself beverage station with all the soda, ice tea, water and coffee you can drink, but no alcohol.
You pay before you eat at Dukes because you know the food will be worth it. On the buffet sit warming trays full of the reason you've come: big chunks of slow-cooked, smoked barbecue, chicken bog, hash and rice and a load of fried things: chicken, okra and fatback.
Dukes is located in a no-man's land for barbecue sauces. Orangeburg just a little to the north tends toward a tomato-based sauce, while Columbia, as we all know, is fond of mustard. The Pee Dee and coastal regions serve, in my humble opinion, the premier barbecue, steeped in vinegar and pepper, but that is about two hours away.
So Dukes does like so many restaurants that cater to a broad range of tastes: They compromise. The sauce is not put on the pork, but made available in a wide selection of condiment bottles on the buffet. There's apple cider vinegar mustard, there's smokey (tomato), there's hot vinegar (I highly recommend this one) and there's plain vinegar. It's a little spicier than I remember from growing up in the Pee Dee, but it certainly gives the 'cue a kick.
Dukes also includes a loaf of white bread (an essential side) on each table.
Dukes is open more off than most barbecue restaurants: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, until 9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday. And remember to save room for dessert: banana pudding, peach cobbler and ice cream.
If you are going to eat at Dukes, you might as well sample some other Walterboro offerings. Check out: Slave Relic Museum (843) 549-9130, 208 Carn St. Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for children.
The museum is the creation of Danny Drain, a former New York antiques collector who has spent decades building his collection of artifacts used by Africans during slavery. His museum is located a 19th century house and his collection includes historical documents and photographs for researchers. He has so many pieces in his collection that the items on exhibit change frequently.
South Carolina Artisans Center (843) 549-0011, 318 Wichman St. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday. There are more than 250 juried artists displaying their wares here in a wide variety of mediums, including class, metal, glass, wood and film. Every third Saturday of the month includes live demonstrations from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. - the perfect way to work up an appetite before heading to Dukes (or a great way to walk off some calories).