BBQ Jew’s View: Bill Ellis’ Barbecue

3007 Downing Street, Wilson, NC
(800) 68-BILLS
Website
BBQ Jew’s Grade: B-
Porky Says: “Royally over-the-top all you can eat.”

The Prime Minister of Q
Number 10 Downing Street is the home of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister and the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government.  But many folks in Wilson, North Carolina would argue that 3007 Downing Street is far more important.  For it’s at this address that His Majesty Bill Ellis has his castle.  Bill Ellis’ Barbecue is a several acre complex that includes a buffet restaurant, a separate drive-thru/takeout building, and an 18,000 square foot convention center.  But is all of this real estate an indication of the great food that Ellis’ serves or a Royal family-style way of distracting from significant shortcomings?  A little bit of both, in my opinion.

Across the country, it is not uncommon for barbecue joints to trade in braggadocio and hyperbole.   From “The best BBQ you’ll ever eat” to “Need no teef to eat my beef”, barbecue proprietors are known to boast about their product even–especially?–when it is squarely mediocre.  But for the most part barbecue joints in North Carolina refrain from the bragging game.  NC BBQ joints tend to be modest places run by modest people.  Thus, it is a little jarring to come across the sprawling cluster of buildings that is Ellis’ Barbecue.  Although I saw no boastful signs or other overt displays of arrogance, it is hard not to feel like Ellis’ Barbecue is trying to prove something that need not be proved.  (One gets the same feeling perusing their website, where Ellis’ Barbecue refers to itself as the “Microsoft of Barbecue,” whatever that means.)

In addition to the several buildings at Ellis’ Barbecue (described above), there is a fleet of dozens of trucks that might make the British Army jealous: 18-wheelers, smaller tractor trailers, delivery trucks, and even dump trucks all with Ellis’ logo emblazoned on the side.  Despite Ellis’ claim of “coast-to-coast catering” it is hard to imagine any occasion, other than an invasion of Redcoats, that would require more than a fraction of these vehicles be put into service.  That said, owner Bill Ellis does have a large catering operation, a thriving restaurant business and even his own hog farm, plus that convention center.  If anyone BBQ joint can come at all close to justifying a fleet of trucks this large, it’s Ellis’ Barbecue.

Dining like Royalty?
Is it relevant to begin a restaurant review with a few paragraphs that have nothing to do with the food?  Possibly not, but Ellis’ Barbecue is one of the very few joints in the state where the food can get lost in the surroundings.  That is largely because the surroundings are so memorable, but also because the barbecue is quite the opposite.  (This is in stark contrast to Wilson’s other famous BBQ joint, Parker’s.)  Ellis’ Barbecue offers a well-executed buffet dining experience with several side dishes that stand out as far above average, the pork itself is middle-of-the-road.  You could do just fine for yourself by wading through the buffet line and gorging on candied yams, delicately spiced sweet yellow slaw, tender collards, odd-but-tasty Brunswick stew, classic boiled barbecue potatoes, fried chicken, meringue-topped banana pudding, hush puppies, corn sticks, and many other dishes.  Most of these dishes are good, some are very good, and only a few (the from-the-can fruit cobblers come to mind) are subpar.

The chopped barbecue provided on the steam table is much too moist and a bit greasy, due to the pooled sauce and drippings in the pan, as well Continue reading

BBQ Jew’s View: (The Original) Parker’s Barbecue

2514  US Highway 301 South, Wilson, NC
(252) 237-0972
No Website
BBQ Jew’s Grade: B
Porky Says: “A tarnished shrine for barbecue fundamentalists.”

The Original
(The Original) Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson used to just be known as Parker’s Barbecue, and to most people it still is.  But a restaurant named Parker’s Barbecue in nearby Greenville, started by relatives of the founders of Parker’s in Wilson–who had sold to non-Parker family owners in the 1980s–gave (The Original) Parker’s reason to want to differentiate itself.  Hence the parentheses, and the confusing lineage.  But (The Original) Parker’s food is the opposite of parenthetical and far from confusing–it is straightforward, honest to goodness classic Eastern North Carolina barbecue… with one major caveat: they no longer cook on wood-fired pits.

Sticking to the Basics
There are two famous barbecue joints in Wilson.  One of them is as close to an amusement park as an old fashioned NC barbecue joint gets.  The other one is (The Original) Parker’s.  From the simple wide white ranch style building that has housed the restaurant in its current location since its founding in 1946 to the food to the waitstaff, Parker’s is all business.  The waitstaff is entirely male–hard working, always hustling, white apron- and white paper hat-wearing young white males.  The decor is sparse and simple–real wood paneling, tables lined up one after another, a few aging newspaper articles about the joint on the wall, etc.

Between the decor and the waitstaff, when you walk in the front door at Parker’s it’s easy to think you have entered a time warp back to the 1950s.   A basic menu and stark–even by BBQ joint standards–presentation of the food does nothing to make you think you’ve reentered the 21st century.  But why bother to live in 2011 when the barbecue was so good a half century ago?  Parker’s delivers on what it silently promises–good, straightforward Eastern-style barbecue and sides.

In my opinion, Parker’s whole hog, wood-cooked barbecue is not as jaw droppingly succulent as places like Grady’s and the Skylight Inn.  Parker’s pork is quintessential Eastern-style ‘cue: chopped fine, tender, lightly sauced and leaning toward the dry side due to the large amount of leaner meat from the hams.  It includes flecks of skin, though Parker’s is “cleaner” than places like those mentioned above.  I personally think Parker’s is a bit too dry and clean, and machine-chopped too finely, but it’s good ‘cue and seems pointless to criticize a place like Parker’s that delivers exactly the type of high quality barbecue it sets out to deliver.  (Well, except that they dropped cooking over wood pits in recent years, which is a major affront to history and tradition, and deserves criticism in my fundamentalist BBQ holy book.) To counter the dryness, I added quite a bit of the straight-ahead simple vinegar/hot pepper sauce (picture Texas Pete cut with a little more vinegar and your right on).  Another strategy is to mix the pork with the terrific, slightly mustardy but sweet yellow slaw.  The slaw matches the pork perfectly.  You’ll also be pleased by the plump, sweet hush puppies and dense, classic cornsticks.

If you want to upgrade from the “barbecue plate” of pork, puppies/cornsticks and slaw to the “barbecue dinner”, you’ll get to add a few selections  from among a small group of traditional Eastern-style sides: barbecue boiled potatoes, string beans, Brunswick stew and french fries.  If you order a combination dinner, you can sample Parker’s highly regarded fried chicken.  Or for a couple of bucks more you can order “family style” and get all you can eat ‘cue and sides, plus a couple of pieces of chicken.  Barbecue chicken, fried shrimp, chicken livers and a few other dishes plus desserts round out the menu.

Long live (The Original).  And maybe someday they’ll revive the wood pits?  A man can dream…

BBQ Jew’s View: Carolina BBQ

2307 N College Road, Wilmington, NC
910.392.1955
No Website
Hours: Monday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C-
Porky Says: “The biggest (not best) BBQ joint in the state.”

Big Enough to Swallow a Lion
Carolina BBQ has a couple of locations in Wilmington, one in Kenansville, and one somewhere in Virginia, if my waitress was telling me the truth.  I stopped at the N. College Street location, which is a mile or so from Interstate 40 at exit 420.  Speaking of 420, one would need to be mighty stoned to think the barbecue is good here, but I still enjoyed parts of my meal despite being stone cold sober.

The best part about a visit to Carolina BBQ at N. College Road is the atmosphere.  It must be the largest barbecue restaurant in the state in gross square footage (the picture at left does not do the vastness of the space justice).  It feels like you could fit an entire grocery store inside the restaurant, which is quite true given it inhabits a former Food Lion.  As the hermit crab-like replacement for Food Lion, Carolina BBQ is the de facto anchor tenant in a strip mall that features a nail salon, Subway, and a few other non-descript businesses (I would describe them were they not so resolutely non-descript).  I was sincerely impressed with the interior decorating job, which managed to make a grocery store feel almost homey.  Sure, the seating capacity is enough to house probably 10 times the number of people ever likely to enter Carolina BBQ at one time, but it is a creative and attractive reuse of a difficult to fill space.  The large historical BBQ photos printed on the far right wall are particularly interesting.

All You Care to Eat (and Then Some)
Carolina BBQ features “buffet style” dining.  This means it is a buffet.  I am not sure where the style comes in. Continue reading

B’s on TV

WRAL TV recently profiled the famous B’s Barbecue in Greenville, NC.  The two minute video gives a good peek into the atmosphere of B’s, even if the reporter naively refers to the pit as an “oven.”  I still think that the Skylight Inn in Ayden, just outside of Greenville, is a couple of notches better than B’s, but no denying B’s is among the state’s best, and best known, barbecue joints.

BBQ Jew’s View: B’s Barbecue

751 B’s Barbecue Road, Greenville, NC
No phone, no website, no problem
Hours: Tue-Sat from the time they open (10ish) to the time they close (they run out of food by ~ 2:00 p.m.)
BBQ Jew’s Grade: A-
Porky Says: “Don’t worry, B’s happy.” 

Shack Magic
Bill and Peggy McLawhorn started B’s Barbecue in the 1970s,  but the place feels like it has been around many decades longer.  For one thing, it has the classic feel of an early 20th century barbecue joint. Also, it’s a real dive: it’s hard to believe a joint “merely” 40 or so years old could be as run down as B’s. Not that anyone cares, of course, so long as they keep serving up good barbecue, truly excellent chicken and down east sides to complement the meats.  B’s has earned legendary status despite its relatively short lifespan, and the phone-less shack only adds to the allure at this point.

The McLawhorn’s three daughters, who run B’s today, would be crazy to deviate from B’s ramshackle formula for success.  As one of the daughters, Judy Dach, described it to interviewer Alan Pike in 2009: “I mean sure we’d like to have a nice new fancy building and eight or ten more people working so we can have a day off and that kind of stuff, but, to us, when when you start doing all that, then it’s—you know, it’s like any other restaurant and that’s not what we wanted it to be. That’s not what my dad wanted it to be; he wanted it to be ours.”

Getting Inside the Shack
Finding B’s is pretty straightforward, despite what I’d heard throught the grapevine. Finding a parking spot, on the other hand, is an adventure at busy times of day (and that is most any time).  Saying B’s has a parking lot would be a generous misstatement. Rather, it seems the B’s building fell from the sky and landed haphazardly in the midst of some scattered gravel. A beautiful old oak tree separates part of the lot from the carryout window. Highway 43 runs next to B’s and is in the process of being expanded; it seems at any moment slight steering error might send a car hurtling into the dining room, just yards away from the right of way. 

Confirming Judy Dach’s above comments on the condition of B’s space being part of what makes B’s, well, B’s, everyone who has ever told me about B’s has mentioned in the same breath the quality of the barbecue and the fact that it is a true BBQ shack.  Having at long last made it to B’s to see for myself I can now attest that the barbecue is indeed good and the place is truly a shack.  The exterior is poorly maintained, with fascia boards crumbling like so many day-old hush puppies.  Inside the building, the dining room is bigger than seems possible, likely seating 40 or so people, but is otherwise lacking in redeeming qualities.  A cooler buzzes noisily and drips out condensate onto the floor.  A side trip to the men’s room reveals a floor seemingly held in place by a can of Great Stuff.  

In short, B’s is a perfect place for a barbecue meal.

Oh Yeah, They Serve Food
The food is served cafeteria style with sides of green beans, tender and expertly flavored boiled potatoes, and tasty (greasy but not heavy) corn sticks laying in wait for hungry patrons.  (As an aside, I find that corn sticks reheat well in toaster oven, as the grease keeps them from drying out like hush puppies tend to when faced with a similar microclimate.)  The barbecue was very tasty. Not the best I’ve had, and a bit sloppily prepared compared to the near-perfection of the Skylight Inn several miles away in Ayden, but it is definitely worth eating.  The chicken, in my opinion, was several notches better than the pork, which is saying something.  It was simple but delicious with crispy skin and rich, smoky flavor; dipping it in the BBQ sauce took the experience to heavenly heights.  Indeed, B’s simple looking barbecue sauce has surprising depth (whiskey as an ingredient, maybe?) and complements the pork and chicken with equal aplomb.  B’s coleslaw is a classic white, sweet, mayo-rich Eastern recipe with a fine chop but not quite as fine as some, which gives it a bit more textue.

B’s was moderately crowded when I arrived at 11:00 on a Saturday and had a line out the door 15 minutes later. They stay open until they run out of food, a trait that refelects either a lack of dedication to work longer hours and cash in or Continue reading

Fatback’s BBQ & Grill Open in Gastonia

According to an article in the Gaston Gazette, “Fatback’s BBQ & Grill opened a month ago on U.S. 321 South in a completely renovated building that was formerly home to Dan’s Quik Pik.”  The new restaurant, specializing in Eastern-style North Carolina barbecue  is located in Gastonia.  No word on whether Fatback’s cooks their ‘cue over wood coals, which probably means they don’t but let me know if I’m wrong.

Ugly and Delicious

I’ve never accused North Carolina barbecue of looking pretty, but it sure is tasty.  Exhibit A is this plate of ‘cue at Wilber’s in Goldsboro:

A hot mess.

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