5122 NC Highway 55, Durham, NC
(2nd location at 3218 Guess Road, Durham, NC)
Hours: Mon – Fri 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sat 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: B-
Porky Says: “Research Triangle Pork?”
BBQ in RTP?
It’s hard to believe that there is decent barbecue in the middle of Research Triangle Park (RTP), a science research park sitting in the middle of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, aka “the Triangle.” The Triangle in general has little in the way of good ‘cue–I call it The Bermudacue Triangle for the way barbecue traditions disappear inside it–and RTP is in the geographic heart of the Triangle. Worse yet, RTP is filled with sprawling office parks and crawling with white collar transplants from California and other places where barbecue is merely a misunderstood word that means “a cookout.”
You might think that ordering barbecue in the heart of RTP is as bad an idea as visiting a seafood market in Topeka, Kansas. Yet the owners of the Backyard BBQ Pit were smart enough to see an opportunity in an underperforming BBQ joint on the edge of RTP. With more than 50,000 employees in RTP, they must have reasoned that some of them would appreciate a nice plate of ‘cue. And since buying an old, so-so BBQ joint in 2007, the owners of the Backyard BBQ Pit have provided some pretty good ‘cue to RTPers. And they have done a bustling business, so much so that they opened a second location on the other side of Durham earlier this year.
Isn’t It Good, RTP Wood?
Visitors to the Backyard BBQ Pit #1 (the original location in RTP) will notice sweet oak and hickory smoke wafting out of the chimney in the pit behind the building. The wood pile indicates that this smoke is the real deal, and that they cook quite a bit of meat each week. When I visited the second location (#2) a couple of weeks ago, I was disappointed not to encounter a pit and woodpile. Instead, they had a couple of portable cookers parked out front. Strangely, the cookers were propane but there was a bottle of lighter fluid resting on top, indicating that perhaps they use charcoal. This is an unsolved mystery for me and an email I sent the owners for clarification has yet to be returned. I was told by the person who served me at #2 that they cook some of the pork on site and some is brought in from #1 in RTP.
The Backyard BBQ Pit serves pretty good but not great, classic Eastern-style ‘cue. The meat is tender and has some smoky flavor, although it is too finely chopped (by a machine, undoubtedly) and too heavily salted for my taste. My other complaint about the pork is that, since both Backyard BBQ Pit #1 and #2 are cafeteria style, it is served off of a steam table. Barbecue, even more so than most foods, just doesn’t taste as good when left to linger on a steam table. (The steam table really hurts the hush puppies unless you happen to get them fresh out of the deep fryer.) Still, the Backyard BBQ Pit serves above average barbecue that is complemented well by a solid if unspectacular Eastern-style sauce. The other dishes I’ve sampled there are good too–okra, collards, yams, Brunswick stew, and more. The full menu for #1 can be downloaded here and #2’s menu is here. I have not tried the ribs, BBQ chicken, beef brisket, or other main dishes but have heard some folks rave about them.
The RTP location provides a nice, bright, funky atmosphere that stands out because of the graffiti on the walls. The owners encourage customers to sign their names signed on the white walls, and the walls are filled with hundreds upon hundreds of signatures and musings. The RTP location also draws a truly diverse crowd due to its location–as evidence, Lexuses and Bimmers and pickup trucks can all be found there in equal number.
I’ve only visited the Guess Road location once but, whereas RTP is bustling and bright, it was nearly empty in the middle of the lunch hour, as well as dark and a bit dingy (it’s an odd building with a windowless dining room!). It was a serious contrast compared both to #1, which is packed with people at lunch, and compared to the large lunch crowd that descends on nearby Hog Heaven. That said, the staff are friendly at both locations and the food is good. Give Backyard BBQ Pit a try next time you are in town.