Not Really Smoke Free, Praise Be

Holy Smoke author and wood-cooked barbecue evangelist John Shelton “Reverend Smokey” Reed was kind enough to send along the below picture.  Being a Billy Graham-level traditional barbecue preacher, John titles the picture, “Not really smoke free, praise be.”

In case you need further explanation, the Bar-B-Q Center is one of the state’s oldest (and best) barbecue joints and still cooks the pork in traditional wood pits, despite the state imposed ban on smoking in the dining room. Praise be indeed.

Porky’s Pulpit: To Judge or Not to Judge

On Saturday I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of judging my first officially sanctioned barbecue competition.  I was one of an elite few hand-selected judges (okay, actually one of 54 judges and I had practically begged for the opportunity) at the first annual BBQ Capital Cook-off in Lexington, NC. 

The event drew more than 50 teams from across the southeast, including a half dozen or so from the Lexington area.  Under the rules of Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned events, the teams competed across four categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork butt/shoulder and beef brisket.  Prizes were awarded for the grand champion, the best cumulative score across the four categories, as well as category-specific winners.  If you actually care about the details of the event, including who won, read this article.

I thoroughly enjoyed the judging experience, especially meeting a bunch of friendly and dedicated barbecue enthusiasts.  It’s definitely a different world out there on the “barbecue trail,” as members of the BBQ competition tribe call it, and I enjoyed being let into the world for a few hours.  I was among the younger judges, but it was a more diverse group than I expected: quite a few women, not all of whom were dragged there by their spouses, as well as people from as far away as Alabama and even, gulp, San Francisco.  There was a real sense of camraderie among the judges and other volunteers; one big, smoked meat loving family. From what little I observed of the teams competing, the camraderie is equally strong among cooking teams.

Despite the good time I had, I am not yet a competitive BBQ convert.  But it’s not because of the quality of the food.  The 24 samples I tried (six in each of the four categories, per KCBS judging protocol) were as a whole excellent–most were better than good restaurant barbecue and some were exceptionally good, with just a few subpar.  Plus, I wholeheartedly support the KCBS focus on wood-cooked barbecue, as gas and electric cookers are banned.  Yet I don’t quite buy into the concept of turning barbecue–which to me is all about enjoying oneself among friends in a laidback atmosphere–into a competition governed by a myriad of bureaucratic rules (e.g., a strict policy of disqualification for entries featuring garnishes other than green leaf lettuce, parsley or cilantro).  It’s not that I begrudge anyone the thrill of competing, but I’m not sure it is the scene for me.  On the other hand, I sure do like getting the opportunity to sample a bunch of delicious barbecue so I’m not ruling out giving judging another shot…

Judgment Day is Near

If you happen to be in Lexington, NC this Saturday please drop by and say hello to your’s truly.  Just don’t interrupt me while I’m hard at work.  I’ll be among the dozens of lucky folks volunteering at the first annual Lexington BBQ Capital Cook-off, a Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned cooking competition.  It will be my first experience judging barbecue as a KCBS Certified Barbeque Judge and I am feeling the pressure already–am I worthy of grading others on their chicken, pork ribs, pork butt, and brisket?   

The cook-off should be a fun event to watch, but a word of warning: according to the Greensboro News & Record, “Because of health department regulations, those who attend the two-day event will not be able to taste the barbecue prepared by the teams during the competition.”  What a drag, and what a waste of pork.  The good news is that three of the competitors will be selling BBQ to hungry onlookers.  Read more about the event in the Greensboro News & Record or at the event website.  See you in Lexington!

BBQ Jew’s View: Speedy’s Barbecue

1317 Winston Road, Lexington, NC
336.248.2410 or 336.248.2092
Website
Hours: Mon-Sat 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: B+
Porky Says: “Better Than Average B.B.Q. Everywhere.” 

(Or at least the best BBQ for a block or two.)

Barbecue Braggadocio
Despite the tendency of customers to have strong opinions about who makes the best barbecue, most barbecue restaurants in North Carolina are quite modest and humble.  When I visited Speedy’s Barbecue, the sign outside the restaurant read, “Best B.B.Q. Anywhere.”  As I set foot inside Speedy’s I wondered to myself whether the hyperbole on the sign (not to mention the needless periods in “BBQ”) was a good omen or a bad one. 

It turns out that Speedy’s is neither the best BBQ anywhere nor completely unworthy of such a claim.  I found their barbecue to be far better than average, but not quite as good as some other joints in the barbecue Mecca of Lexington. The fact that one of the superior joints, Smiley’s, is located within a few blocks of Speedy’s is irrelevant but amusing. 

A Pig on Wheels
The other notable part of Speedy’s sign is the demented looking pig in roller skates and a t-shirt (and pantless as far as I can surmise).  This is easily one of the better barbecue logos, as it mixes humor with a nod to Speedy’s motto: “Quality, Quantity and Quick Service.”  (The skates are also a nod to the joint’s long tradition of providing curb service.) Speedy’s prides itself on those three Qs and delivered all of them on my visit. 

Others must agree that Speedy’s provides those three Qs, as the place draws a large crowd. Even at the early hour of 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday when I visited,the joint was jumping… to the extent that a bunch of mostly olders folks eating chopped pork can be called jumping.

Quality
The barbecue at Speedy’s is good.  Not calm down and take a cold shower good but good nonetheless.  The tender and almost too-moist ‘cue is served with dip provided in a cup on the side, as is common but not universal for Lexington-style joints. I found Speedy’s dip a little ketchupy for my palate, which tilts toward straight vinegar and pepper flakes, but the dip typifies the style in this part of the state so it’s not a fair critique. 

Quality, Quantity and Quick Service indeed.

Accompanying the pork were tasty, dense/firm puppies and classic Lexington-style BBQ slaw (cabbage sauced with modified dip and completely mayo-free).  I enjoyed my meal and found Speedy’s lived up to its three Qs, if not it’s claim to serve the best BBQ anywhere.  One major caveat: I have it on good authority that their pork is not cooked in a wood-burning pit. It’s pretty good nonetheless, but something short of traditional barbecue.

Unhinged Ramblings from a Real New Yorker, Part II

Below is a message I recently received from New Yorker Aaron Weiss, wanna be BBQ expert and all around good sport.

————

Hello Mr. LeSwine,

You may remember me 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 afraid it may it ruffle your pig feathers. (Flying pigs have feathers, little known fact.)

This past January we drove home up north after a winter holiday in Florida [Editor's note: typical for a New Yorker!]. On the way toward an overnight stop in Winston-Salem [Editor's note: atypical for a New Yorker], I realized that we would be driving through Lexington. I know from reading your site and other ‘cue blogs that Lexington is considered a holy ground, but had not had a chance to visit before. Sadly, I do not yet own a smart phone, and I wanted to do the smart thing by referring to BBQ Jew before wandering into Lexington naked and clueless. So I stopped at a McDonald’s to take a ride on their free wifi, grabbed my netbook
from the trunk, and loaded up bbqjew.com [Editor's note: and ordered a delicious McRib sandwich?].

We pulled into Lexington and stopped at, of course, Lexington #1. We ordered two “large” pork platters, one in the standard chop style and one in a “coarse” chop. Now, before I speak the words of heresy, let me be clear that we enjoyed our meals. I mean, come on — NC barbecue pork!  But…I have a few buts.

Portions were a little skimpy for the price. Maybe I am just the “pig” here, but a little more pork for the money would have seemed more fair. Likewise, we felt a little shorted on the vinegar sauce [Editor's note: next time just ask for more, this is North Carolina, we're friendly like that]. The Lexington-style cole slaw wasn’t quite to my taste, especially compared to Allen & Son, although my partner liked it more.

In sum, we enjoyed our meal but didn’t walk away feeling like we were on barbecue cloud nine, like we did at Allen & Son (and, before it went under, Barbecue Joint). I realize that this reaction is not quite in line with the orthodoxy, and so if I am now cast out of the tribe, I will understand and return to eating Buffalo wings. [Editor's note: If you were Catholic, I'd listen to you repent for your sins, but as a fellow member of the tribe it'd be more appropriate for me to try and make you feel guilty... just remember to atone for your failures next time Yom Kippur rolls around.]

Porkless in NY,
Aaron

KCBS BBQ to LEX

Ever wanted to learn the art of barbecue judging?  Well, right here and right now is your chance. And by right here and right now I mean Lexington, NC in February of 2011.  The Kansas City Barbecue Society, the granddaddy of BBQ organizations, brings its respected judging class to Lexington on February 19 leading up to the inaugural BBQ Capital Cook-Off to be held in April.  (A tip of the snout to Another_Q_Lover for bringing the class to my attention.)

Sign up for the judging class, or to enter the cooking competition (wood or charcoal only, hallelujah!), using the forms below.  Oh, and I should warn you that your’s truly plans to be there for the class, and I am excited already.

Cook-off_-_Judge_Application_&_Class

Cook-off_-_Competition_Application_2010

BBQ Jew’s View: Smokey Joe’s Barbecue

 1101 South Main Street, Lexington, NC
336.249.0135
Website
Hours: Mon-Sat 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: A-
Porky Says: “Much better than your average Joe.”

 
Hey Joe, Where You Goin’ with that Bun in Your Hand?
Barbecue pilgrims who come to pay their respects in the Land of Abundant Pork (aka Lexington) tend to favor the BBQ Center and Lexington #1.   However, locals know that the nearly 40-year old Smokey Joe’s is the real deal too.  There is no doubt that Joe’s serves up ‘cue that is worth a visit whether you are a Lexingtonian or a barbetourist. 
Smokey Joe’s inhabits a tidy, mid-sized brick building with green corrugated metal accents that sits six long, dull blocks from quaint uptown Lexington.  Although modest, Joe’s nice building stands out on a commercial corridor that includes a bevy of light industrial uses, check cashing joints, discount stores, pawn shops and the like.  This type of drab location, of course, is common for barbecue joints.  (In fact, I am usually wary of barbecue joints located in the heart of downtowns–where downtown is there space for a joint’s pit, for one thing?)  But who cares about location and building design when there is barbecue on the menu.  If the meat is good, even windows are a needless luxury.
In a town full of good barbecue, Smokey Joe’s manages to stand out.  Smokey Joe’s may not be the best BBQ joint in town–of the places I’ve sampled, I’m still partial to Lexington #1, Smiley’s and Cook’s–but it’s darn good and worth a visit.  Smokey Joe’s pork is tender and has a good deal of smoky overtones (or undertones, if you prefer), as you’d expect from a place with smoke in the name.  If I was being picky I’d say the meat was ever so slightly on the dry side, but it’s sauced well and extra dip is readily available. 
Joe’s dip is a classic Lexington dip, which is to say it is a bit ketchupy for my taste but that’s the style they like in Lexington and it is is a good exemplar of the style.  As an aside, it may be Lexington #1’s distinctive, non-ketchupy dip that causes me to rate it at the top of the pack of Lexington joints.  Joe’s mayo-free barbecue slaw also sticks closely to the Lexington tradition, with fine chopped cabbage coated in dip.  The slaw is both crisp and squeaky (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever had barbecue slaw) as you chew it.  The hush puppies were a bit on the dry side, not fried as perfectly as they should be but passable.   I ended my meal on a down note, as I sampled some of my dining companion’s side vegetables and found them lacking in flavor and freshness (instant mashed potatoes, it seemed, for instance).
Back to the positive: Smokey Joe’s still cooks its pork in traditional, wood-burning pits, which is increasingly rare even in Lexington.  As I’ve said before, this is a critical point for me, though I know others are not as fundamentalist about the issue (these others are, of course, uniformly ill-informed and not to be trusted). 
Smokey Joe’s is an official sponsor of the Barbecue Festival held in uptown each October, and its walls are decorated with plenty of vintage festival posters, a nice touch. Similarly, a couple of decorative “pigs on parade” from past festivals greet visitors at the joint’s entrance.  From the decor to the meal itself, Smokey Joe’s is a classic Carolina ‘cue joint and worth your patronage.
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