After a month in business, Kinsey’s Auto Grill is vying for the winner’s circle in the Augusta Barbecue Cup. Diners, start your appetites.
Near the corner of Greene and 13th streets sprawls the former automotive repair shop, but the only mechanic it houses now is owner Ben Kinsey, along with his wife Laurie and their bouncy, pony-tailed 10-year-old daughter, Melissa.
“Since I was 12 years old, I’ve worked on cars,” Ben said. He might have continued in the automotive business, but the U.S. Post Office delivered a message that God was leading them into the restaurant industry. A random letter delivered to the wrong address invited him to an auction of the appliances, fixtures and furniture of a restaurant that had gone out of business in Columbia, S.C. Here they bought what they thought they would need to start a restaurant celebrating the legacy of auto racing left by Ben’s parents, both award-winning sports car drivers. Their photographs and trophies mingle with personal artifacts and racing memorabilia that Ben compiled over the years.
“A lot of this is my birthday presents and stuff,” he said, with a grin.
The cavernous space and rubber-and-steel feel of the décor is softened by a koi pond dedicated to Ben’s mother and an old rugged cross hangs over the front windows of this family-friendly environment. The nearly 200-year-old structure held at different times a metal foundry, horse stables for the city’s old fire department and an auto repair shop but the original load-bearing ceiling beams, completely blackened from smoke, soot and time, look brand new after weeks of cleaning.
“Most of our meals are very simple things, but we try to do it at the highest quality,” Ben said. The couple spent two years visiting trade shows and food expos in search of the best. In most cases, “the best” came from the recipes in their own kitchen, including a secret dry spice rub on the pork, the barbecue sauce, peach cobbler, key lime pie and fried green tomatoes. But they did choose a baked potato salad from a specialty house in Columbia, S.C.
“When I tasted it, I knew I couldn’t duplicate it to those standards,” Ben said. Although burgers and fries are on the menu, this is not fast food because nearly everything is cooked to order. Chicken takes a pit stop on the rotisserie. Charcoal grills and huge, tiered smokers slow cook pork ribs and Boston butts in the screened-in-summer kitchen out back. Shrimp and green tomato slices are artfully cooked from scratch.
“When you order them, we hand-batter and fry them. They’re not prepped in advance and it really makes a difference in flavor,” Ben said. He promised the best fried green tomatoes you ever put in your mouth. “We lightly batter them with flour and fry them in a cast-iron skillet just like
grandma used to do. Then when they come out we very lightly salt them and serve them with a cucumber wasabi sauce, and it’s like they’re made in heaven together,” he said.
The restaurant is one of the few in the CSRA to serve country-style ribs, mighty meaty slabs that are more like pork chops and may actually be labeled as “loin chops” in some areas of the country. The ribs are cooked over charcoal for four to five hours until fork tender.
“You can eat them neat with a knife and fork. You don’t have to get all greasy unless you want to,” Ben said. Kinsey’s 17-spice dry rub starts savory, races in a little heat and hits the finish line — like anything good or Southern — on a sweet note with a hint of sass. While a building housed in a former car repair shop may not be an automatic choice for some, the Kinseys see victory lane in the historic building they’ve saved.
“When I was fixing cars, I’d get home at night sometimes with tears in my eyes because I felt like I’d wasted a day,” Ben said. “Since I’ve been doing this, I see satisfied customers and friends, and that makes all the difference.”
Kinsey’s Auto Grill is located at 518 13th Street, Augusta. For information, call 706-724-2272.