In North Carolina, where people are divided by their allegiance to vinegar and tomato, Tim Pattan of Rockingham has created a barbecue sauce that brings both sides together.
Pattan’s Pee Dee River Swamp Sauce mixes the tang of Eastern North Carolina’s vinegar-based barbecue sauce and the sweeter, tomato-based sauce found in the western part of the state with a touch of the mustard that South Carolina’s barbecue is known for.
At Pattan’s Downtown Grille in Richmond County, which straddles the center of the state a few miles from the South Carolina line, the sauce is a true representation of the place that Pattan, 48, and his wife, Julia, 43, call home.
Some may know Rockingham, a city of about 9,000 people, as the home of the now closed Rockingham Speedway, also known as “The Rock,” where NASCAR legends such as Richard Petty and Junior Johnson once competed.
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But to Pattan, his hometown is much more.
“It’s got that small-town feel,” he said. “I think the location is great. We’re an hour in any direction from a major city, two hours from the beach, three hours from the mountains. It’s just, it’s home.”
It’s also where he serves up the Pee Dee River Swamp Sauce he created and began selling in 2003. It bears the name of the river that runs about two miles from his childhood home and five miles from the downtown Rockingham restaurant he and his wife opened in 2015.
“It’s unique. It’s different,” Pattan said. “It’s really kind of on its own as far as taste.”
Swamp Sauce is a prominent feature throughout the menu at Pattan’s Downtown Grille. On the Pattan Special, the sauce is drizzled on slices of slow-smoked pork loin, which is topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on grilled sour dough bread. Chopped and pulled pork platters also are a top seller.
Many regulars come in for the daily specials, like the chicken tacos that are served only on Thursdays and the shrimp burger only available on Fridays. Specials featuring burnt ends, which come from a fattier cut of beef brisket, are served on Wednesdays but are so popular they are often gone by 1 p.m.
Non-barbecue items, like smoked chicken seasoned with Pattan’s signature rub, fried chicken tenders, burgers and a BLT, also are available.
But it was the Pee Dee River Swamp Sauce that really started it all. At one time, the sauce was sold in about 400 stores throughout southeastern North Carolina and eastern South Carolina, mostly in local grocery stores such as Piggly Wiggly and Bi-LO. It can still be found in about 200 stores.
The creation of the sauce led Pattan to barbecue competitions from 2004 to 2010 and more than 100 awards. Now he uses many of these award-winning recipes in his restaurant. The pork shoulders and briskets are cooked over wood each night, and an original and sweet version of his Swamp Sauce now sits on every table, just in case customers can’t get enough.
Many of Pattan’s recipes are made with local ingredients like fruits and vegetables from the Berry Patch – just off U.S. 220 in Richmond County – where ice cream and produce are sold out of the world’s largest strawberry (OK, it’s a strawberry-shaped building).
The emphasis on local doesn’t stop there. A simple decor with photographs of Richmond County taken by local photographer Jimmy McDonald tie it all together, making it a quaint eatery that many locals love.
“Tim is truly a pitmaster,” said Terry Lewis, a Richmond County resident who praised the Pattan Special, burnt ends and shrimp burger.
The sauce in particular is so unique that Lewis likes to give bottles of it to some of his customers at Maness Tire. Or he takes them to the restaurant himself.
“It’s just a special, special place, and the food is exceptional,” Lewis said. “I almost live there.”
Pattan is known to drop by tables to check on customers and offer a sample if someone is unsure about trying something new on the menu.
“He always wants people to be satisfied,” said Emily Tucker, who is Julia Pattan’s cousin and president of the Richmond County Chamber of Commerce. “He’s very hands-on.”
Websites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor also bring in travelers, particularly those heading to and from Myrtle Beach, off U.S. 1 and U.S. 220 to the restaurant and a changing downtown.
Pattan’s Downtown Grille fills a building across the street from Discovery Place Kids. The City of Rockingham built the space with the intention of attracting a restaurant that would serve school groups visiting the children’s museum. Now, aged storefronts are starting to see new life as well as more locally-owned businesses, including a bakery, gym and dance studio, move in.
Locals anticipate more change when Richmond Community College opens a satellite campus downtown in the coming years and hungry students come looking for some barbecue.
“It’s nice from a business standpoint to see downtown Rockingham not fold up after 5 o’clock,” Tucker said. “And it warms my heart to know people are traveling to our county to eat at Pattan’s now.”
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon
IF YOU GO
Pattan’s Downtown Grille, 228 East Washington St., Rockingham. 910-895-8080. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.pattansdowntowngrille.com
From the menu:
▪ Pattan Special: Thin slices of slow-smoked pork loin drizzled with sweet Pee Dee River Swamp Sauce and topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Served on grilled sour dough bread. $8.75.
▪ Chopped or pulled barbecue platter: $9.25 for a regular size or $11.25 for a large.
▪ Pulled pork tacos with sweet Swamp Sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheddar cheese and chipotle sauce. $3.50 each.
▪ Swamp Dip: cheesy dip made with ground beef, sausage, onion, bell peppers and Pee Dee River Swamp Sauce and served with tortilla chips. $5.95
▪ Shrimp tacos: fried jumbo shrimp, dipped in buffalo sauce and topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, cheddar cheese and lemon tarragon aioli and served on a grilled flour tortilla. $4.50 each. Served only on Fridays.
Pee Dee River Swamp Sauce can be purchased in store for $3.95 and the sweeter version for $4.95. It also can be purchased on the restaurant’s website for $8.99, including shipping.