Notes from the Underground (aka Unhinged Ramblings from a Real New Yorker)

I recently received an email from a reader, Aaron Weiss of… ahem, cough, cough… New York.  As you might have guessed from his name, Aaron is a fellow BBQ Jew.  He visited North Carolina recently and gave me a full run down on the rather substantial BBQ-related portion of his itinerary.  Check out Aaron’s reviews of The Pit and Allen & Son’s below.  Note that I edited his report slightly just to remove some non-BBQ commentary that diluted from the pig-centric focus of this website.  Once you’re done reading Aaron’s interesting report, check out his other writings here.

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As I prepare to head back to NY in the morning after being here in the Durham area this week, I wanted to share my experiences. In a perfect world, I would have eaten at a dozen bbq places and be able to write a comparative tome.  [Editor's note: In a perfect world pig grease would heal the sick and give sight to the blind.  And maybe it does.]  But unfortunately I can’t eat like that anymore.

Last year we’d been here on our first trip to the area and had eaten at the Barbecue Joint in Chapel Hill and also Allen & Son. At that time we really liked the Barbecue Joint. I know you gave it a lackluster review, and I certainly would not pretend to disagree with your wisdom [Editor: They don't have sarcasm in New York, right?]. I do think their pork was quite good on our particular visit (in fact, we went there twice on that trip). When we hit Allen & Son that time, I think we were a little porked out. I remember liking it, but didn’t remember coming away from it wowed (although I did remember being wowed by the pecan pie).

This year, things worked out a little differently. First of all, the Barbecue Joint is now closed. Apparently this just happened recently. Upon arriving in the area, we made our first stop at Allen & Son. Guess what? This time, we were wowed. Really, really wowed. I’m not saying the food was any different — maybe it was just as good last year and we
just weren’t in the right moment to appreciate it. Maybe we were hungrier this time. I don’t know. Both me and my GF ordered the “extra large platter”. Man, everything was spot on. The cole slaw is amazing. It doesn’t look amazing, but it sure tastes amazing. I need to re-create that at home somehow. The hush puppies — which as far as I can tell are
only served in this part of the world (we have “hush puppies” in NY but they are cornmeal-fried hot dogs, totally different) — anyway, I love NC hush puppies and these were excellent. Well fried, crunchy on the outside, warm and soft and slightly sweet on the inside.

And then there’s the pork. Wow, that was some fine pork. Smoky, juicy, tangy. We both love the vinegar-style sauce so much more than gloppy, sugary tomato-based sauces you see everywhere else. [Editor: Amen, brother Aaron, you have seen the light!] I ended with the pecan pie and, as I remembered, it was excellent. Anyway, it was a perfect meal.

Yesterday we decided to take a gamble and try The Pit in Raleigh. I had some concerns going in. On the one hand, the ratings from Internet strangers are very high. And people do recommend the ribs, and as you know, I was interested in ribs despite their local sacrilege. On the other hand, people had described The Pit as more upscale. In my limited
experience, attempting to “fancify” barbecue rarely ends well. You see this a lot these days especially in New York City, where barbecue has become very trendy. (But it’s hard to get excited about a $20 plate of pulled pork that probably isn’t that great anyway.) Anyway, back to the pit: oh yeah, it is upscale alright. Hell, it’s upscale for any style
food, not just barbecue. Red flag.

I know that pitmaster Ed Mitchell is famous and he was ambling around the restaurant in his jean overalls. Friendly guy, but also weirdly out of place in his own restaurant, what with the white tablecloths, business casual decor, and hostesses in slinky black dresses. When your barbecue place has pretty young hostesses, I think that is another red flag. [Editor: It'd be more politically correct if I disagreed with you but I don't.]

Cut to the chase: we ordered a half rack of “Carolina ribs” and a double-combo with pulled pork and chopped “barbecue turkey”. Yeah I know, the turkey was a lark because my GF loves turkey and we wanted to see what they did with it. The table comes with a basket of biscuits and hush puppies. Long list of “creative” sides to choose from, such as
bacon-cheese grits and sausage-sage stuffing. The food at The Pit is good. My ribs were actually quite tasty, with an
interesting rub. The pork was a mixed bag–there were strands that were kinda dry piled on chopped bits that were much juicier. The turkey was actually quite good and more moist than the pork (it was dressed with the same kind of vinegar sauce). The sides were all good. But here’s the thing: I’m using the word “good” intentionally. None of it
was great. What’s more, there wasn’t that much of any of it. This is where the “upscale” part kicks in. You’ll have to order a lot of meat to leave The Pit feeling really full. Not that good barbecue is only about quantity, but value is important. Throw in a couple of drinks, and you’re walking out with a $50 bill for 2. Coming on the heels of Allen &
Son, The Pit just didn’t match up for us.

Today, our last day here, we went back to Allen & Son. May as well leave with a home run, right? Again, perfect. A little more challenging to clean our plates today, just because we’re getting full up. Of course, man cannot live on barbecue alone! To be honest, I tried to balance these meals with healthier choices.

On a side note, I notice that you say that the Pittsboro Allen & Son is unrelated to the Chapel Hill location. But I notice that both locations are printed right on the menu — what’s up with that? [Editor's note: You ain't from 'round here, I reckon?  It's just the way it is, but trust me that the two joints have been unrelated for years and years.] Anyway, when I get home I will begin work on reverse engineering that cole slaw. (I have no hope of cloning the pork so I’ll leave that to the experts.)

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4 Responses

  1. Just had to stop by to say I agree with this statement: “Friendly guy, but also weirdly out of place in his own restaurant, what with the white tablecloths, business casual decor, and hostesses in slinky black dresses. ”

    It’s my understanding that Ed is the ‘face’ of the restaurant and the initial funding, and day to day running of the place is handled by his business partners. Upscale BBQ joints are definitely not the norm, but I get the feeling the investors were going for the novelty of an upscale atmosphere BBQ joint and hired Ed to cook the cue. So in that sense it’s not surprising he’s “out of place in his own restaurant…”

    All that said, the Carolina style ribs and The Pit are awesome.

  2. It is always a fine thing to read about the somebody finally seeing the true light and true way. Now tell that boy to git hisself a copy of John Shelton Reed’s HOLY SMOKE, so he knows even more on his next trip down here.

  3. If you went to The Pit and didn’t get banana pudding, then you didn’t go to The Pit.

  4. [...] from my Durham-area trip report from last spring. In fact, you posted it (with editorial comment!) on your web site. [Editor's note: indeed I do remember you, with editorial comment.] I owe you a follow up, but I am [...]

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