BBQ Jew’s View: The Skylight Inn

4618 Lee Street, Ayden, NC
252.746.4113
No Website
Hours: Mon-Sat 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: A+
Porky Says: “Capitol Q indeed, Jones’ place lives up to the hype.”
 
Do A Few Things But Do Them Well

The Ayden skyline. Photo by Conor "Swine Factor" Keeney.

The Skylight Inn is not the type of restaurant that tries to be everything to everyone.  Far from it. Instead, the folks at The Skylight  do just a few things but do them as well as any barbecue joint anywhere.  The Skylight Inn is still referred to as “Jones’ Barbecue” by many old timers in deference to Pete Jones, who started the place, and the Joneses who have followed in his footsteps.  The menu that Pete Jones established when he opened The Skylight in 1947 remains nearly unchanged today.  When you set foot in The Skylight Inn your only choices are whether you want a BBQ sandwich or a tray (small, medium or large) and where to sit.  The options are limited to barbecue, slaw and skillet cornbread from a 180 year old recipe!  You might think it’d be disappointing to not have some variety on the menu, but I think I could make do with Jones’ pork-slaw-cornbread holy trinity most every day and die happy (and probably several years before I otherwise would).

“If I told you the recipe for the slaw, I’d have to shoot you in the head.”
When you visit barbecue joints and talk to the owners and cooks, you get used to the line, “I could tell you the recipe for [insert menu item], but I’d have to kill you.”  This is practically a motto for barbecue folks.  That said, The Skylight Inn was the first place I heard that line delivered by someone who was prepared to follow through on the statement.  I asked Samuel Jones how they cook their hogs and he told me he’d be happy to share, as it’s simply hard work and sticking to tradition rather than any secret.  On the other hand, he said, “If I told you the recipe for the slaw, I’d have to shoot you in the head.” Since Samuel had a handgun in his back Continue reading

BBQ Jew’s View: Holly Ridge Smokehouse

511 Highway 17 North, Holly Ridge, NC
910.329.1708
Website
Hours: Tu-Th & Su 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fr-Sa 6:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: B-
Porky Says: “Decent Beach-B-Q at last.”

Palatable Barbecue Near the Beach? Finally!
Earlier this summer I took a family vacation to Topsail Beach.  Unsurprisingly, I dragged my wife and kids to a barbecue restaurant on the way.  Equally unsurprising was the fact that I did this over my wife’s protests.  She is only an occasional barbecue eater and, like most women, operates under the misguided belief that a greasy plate of chopped pork and hush puppies is a less than perfect pre-bikini meal.  Nonsense!  Plus, in fairness, my wife knows from traveling with me that barbecue joints within 50 or so miles of the coast tend to be mediocre at best.  Needless to say, that fact has never stopped me from trying to find exceptions to the rule.

Given that it’s located inland about five miles from Topsail Beach, Holly Ridge isn’t really a beach town as much as a refueling pit stop on the way to the beach.  Still, five miles is pretty damn close to the beach by barbecue standards, so I had to try the Holly Ridge Smokehouse despite that it looks like just the type of place I know to avoid.  It is large, Continue reading

Garden & Gun & Swine

As summer beckons yet again, it’s the perfect time to read this article from Garden & Gun magazine, in case you missed it last year when it was published.  It’s one of the best written articles I’ve seen in terms of capturing the spirit of NC’s barbecue culture, and the accompanying photo gallery is outstanding.  The author takes us readers on an Eastern-style barbecue pilgrimmage, visiting places like Grady’s, the Skylight Inn and the Nahunta Pork Center.  Just to whet your appetite, here’s my favorite passage from the article:

“If you chase barbecue dreams, someday, somewhere you’ll find yourself this way, too, sitting on a rusty folding chair in a town you’d never driven through before, eating vinegar-drenched lukewarm meat and sweet fried hush puppies from a foam tray. There’s no music. There’s no beer. But you take another bite with your plastic fork and think, damn, this is good.”

BBQ Jew’s View: Jack’s BBQ

213 W. Main Street, Gibsonville, NC
336.449.6347
Website
Hours: Mon-Tue, Thu-Fri 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Wed 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Sat 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: D-
Porky Says: “All pork with no taste makes Jack’s a dull ‘cue.”

Can’t We Do Better?
At this risk of sounding overly dramatic or harsh, Jack’s BBQ is emblematic of what is wrong with North Carolina’s dying barbecue culture.  It’s a charming and cozy little joint, complete with about a half dozen booths and an old fashioned (and just plain old, as Jack’s dates back 43 years) counter, plus a carry-out window.  The service is efficient and the staff couldn’t be nicer.  The customers look happy.  And so on.  But the barbecue is terrible.  If the place was called Jack’s Cafe, I’d be nice and leave them alone.  Hell, I’d even return for another (BBQ-free) meal.  Instead, I have to be honest and mean.

Not fit to be served

Home of the Big Boy
The barbecue seems like an afterthought on a menu that touts the “Big Boy,” a very large hamburger that the waitress told Continue reading

Newsflash: Jason Grill & BBQ

A tip of the snout to John Shelton Reed, who alerted me to a relative newcomer to the Eastern NC barbecue scene: Jason Grill & BBQ, a traditional wood-burning shack of a barbecue joint that looks like it is from another era.  John has already agreed to give me a full report and pictures when he visits Jason’s, so I’ll share his comments with you soon.  In the meantime, check out the pictures and very positive reviews on Chowhound and at the NC Folklife website. 

Jason’s looks like the type of place I dream of “discovering” when I travel down the backroads of NC, so rest assured I’ll visit soon.  Readers, please chime in if you’ve been there and can confirm it is the holy grail the reviews make it out to be.

BBQ Jew’s View: Byrd’s Barbecue

2816 Cheek Road, Durham, NC
919.530.1839
No Website
Hours: Mon-Fri 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C
Porky Says: “Noah’s Temple didn’t make me a believer.”

“Worth Your Time to Find”
I’m embarassed to admit that I first heard of Byrd’s Barbecue fewer than 6 months ago.  Byrd’s–with the motto “Worth Your Time to Find” etched onto its rooftop sign–is located in Durham within 20 minutes of my house.  And it was founded over 50 years ago.  (According to a recent News & Observer article, Noah and Michelle Temple bought Byrd’s in 2005.  Noah used to work at Danny’s Bar-B-Que in Cary, which we’ve yet to visit but have poked fun at.)  How could I have not know about Byrd’s sooner?  And was it worth my time to find after all these years living in the dark? 

I still can’t figure out the answer to the first question, but maybe it has something to do with the answer to the second one: No.  Although it is a decent enough place, Byrd’s is nothing special.  It’s one of hundreds–or thousands–of mediocre barbecue joints in NC that long ago took the cheaper, easier path and stopped cooking over wood, in the process sacrificing quality, flavor and tradition.

Looks Like the Real Deal,
If you choose to ignore the propane tank that looms behind the building (which, of course, you should not), Byrd’s has the look of a gem of a BBQ joint.  Located just outside the city limits, it occupies a rural setting that is appropriate to good ‘cue.  The modest wood frame building looks the part too.  And the parking lot welcomed a steady stream of Continue reading

BBQ Jew’s View: Prissy Polly’s

729 Highway 66 South, Kernersville, NC
336.993.5045
Website
Hours: Mon-Sat 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C+
Porky Says: “Polly has an identity crisis.”

 
 
 
 

Prissy Polly's: The view from my table

Pollyanna
With a great name like Prissy Polly’s, which made it into my barbecue joint name hall of fame, it’s tempting to be Pollyannaish about the quality of the barbecue.  The fact that the restaurant is named after the founder’s mother makes it even better.  But despite the great name, Polly’s suffers from an identity crisis.  And, leaving the name aside, the food they serve is just okay.

Trying to Do Too Much
Instead of focusing on preparing one style of barbecue well, which is a difficult enough task, Polly’s tries to serve both Eastern- and Lexington-style ‘cue and does neither especially well.  According to their own website:

“Originally Prissy Polly’s served only Eastern-style barbecue.  This caused a bit of consternation among some of the local folks, who were accustomed to Lexington-style barbecue. To please the taste of those who preferred Lexington-style, Prissy Polly’s began to offer both styles of barbecue.”

I have to give Polly’s a lot of credit for being bold enough to start an Eastern-style BBQ joint in the heart of Lexington-style territory.  And the Eastern-style ‘cue they serve is definitely the better of the types.  I can’t really blame Polly’s for caving to local preferences either.  Judging by the fact that they have stayed in business for 18 years and have a sparkling, large restaurant, adding Lexington-style ‘cue to the menu was the right decision. I simply don’t think their Lexington-style ‘cue is particularly good.

One, Two, Three Types of ‘Cue
Since Polly’s started out serving Eastern-style barbecue, let’s focus on that first.  The biggest problem with Polly’s Eastern-style ‘cue is that it is not cooked over wood and the lack of care shows in a lack of flavor.  Sadly, Polly has plenty of company in both the east and the west in terms of not using wood, but that doesn’t excuse them.  Leaving that aside, Polly’s Eastern-style BBQ is moist and has decent flavor, which is enhanced by a slightly too salty but quite good vinegar/pepper sauce that accompanies it, though it appears to be machine chopped and is a bit mushy.  I’d probably give their Eastern-style ‘cue a B- if I were grading it alone.  Polly’s Lexington-style barbecue fares worse.

Polly’s actually offers two types of Lexington-style ‘cue.  (Pay close attention, this gets a bit confusing.)  Polly’s original Lexington-style BBQ is called “Original Lexington,” and they have served it for years.  It features a rather thick, sweet dip that has as much in common with KC Masterpiece or Kraft as it does with traditional NC style sauces.  Recently Polly’s added another Lexington-style dip option, this one called “Traditional Lexington.”  The dip used for the newer traditional version is significantly better than the original recipe, as it is much thinner and more vinegar-based, though it is still too sweet for my palate.  The Lexington-style ‘cue was too heavily sauced in the kitchen and needed no added dip at the table.

First course: Eastern-style

Second course: Lexington-style

Continue reading

On the Origin of Brunswick Stew Species

For those of you who believe in evolution, I thought you might be interested to learn about the origin of Brunswick Stew, that classic accompaniment to Eastern North Carolina barbecue.  But then it seems Brunswick Stew’s story is as much a creationist one as it is a story of evolution.

As served today in North Carolina barbecue joints, Brunswick Stew’s recipe varies significantly from place to place.  Common ingredients include chicken, pork, corn, lima beans, tomatoes and more.  The consistency ranges from quite soupy to rather thick, and the texture from chunky to almost baby-food soft.  Even the color ranges from bright tomato red to a sickly brownish-gray.

Although present day species of Brunswick Stew have evolved over the years to adapt to whatever niche they fill, with ingredients varying widely from region to region and cook to cook, all the Brunswick Stews seem to have a common ancestor.  Or maybe two.  The origin of Brunswick Stew remains in dispute roughly a century and a half after it emerged from the primordial soup of southern culture.  Continue reading

BBQ Book Review: Smokestack Lightning

I recently read Smokestack Lightning and strongly recommend you drop whatever you are doing to buy a copy right now.  Although this book only includes one chapter on North Carolina barbecue (and it is a chapter shared with–gasp–South Carolina), it is one of the best books on barbecue ever written.  Smokestack Lightning–the title taken from the classic Howlin’ Wolf song–is in small part a barbecue guide book, in even smaller part a cookbook and in large part a sociological treatise on American culture.  Whichever part you’re most interested in, all parts of Smokestack Lighting are well worth reading.   

Author Lolis Eric Elie, who when he set out to write the book was the road manager for the Winton Marsalis Septet, writes in the preface: “Our thesis was this. Barbecue reflects and embodies all the important themes in American history and culture–region, race, migration, immigration, religion, politics.  Yet this art, so vital to our national identity was dying or at least endangered.  We were half right…  we were also half wrong.” 

In the introduction, Elie continues to explain the underlying purpose of the book.  “We know that barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense,” he writes, “and that it is a more appropriate metaphor than any other American food.  Barbecue alone encompasses the high- and lowbrows, the sacred and the profane, the urban and the rural, the learned and the unlettered, the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the reds, and the whites.  Barbecue, then, is a fitting barometer for the changes, good and bad, that have taken place in the country, and this book, ostensibly about that food, is really about the people and places and consistencies and changes that produce it.”

As the quotes above indicate, there are some pretty heady themes in Smokestack Lightning.  It’s a refreshing change to read a barbecue book that goes so deep into its subject–well past the hickory and mesquite smoke, well past the pork and beef, and straight into the marrow of American culture, history and race relations.  But despite all the serious themes that help carry the book forward, Smokestack Lightning stops short of being too serious for its own good and certainly is never dull.  Quite the opposite, it is full of rich storytelling and humor.  One funny anecdote has a relative of notoriously surly jazz legend Miles Davis’ trying to impress him by bringing him barbecue from his hometown of East St. Louis, where snoots are the specialty.  After traveling by plane with this carefully packaged barbecue treat for Miles, the only response the relative gets from him is, “Motherf*&ker, why you f%*k up my snoots?”

Smokestack Lightning was first published in 1996 and the second edition was printed in 2005.  It is not currently in print but it is available used on Amazon.com and other sites.  The fact that the book is a few years out of date only adds to the timeless nature of the stories, the people featured, and the splendid black and white photography by Frank Stewart.

Defining the Styles

“People who would put ketchup in the sauce they feed to innocent children are capable of most anything… [W]e, the Eastern North Carolina purveyors of pure barbecue, will not be roadkill for our western kin.” - Former Raleigh News & Observer columnist Dennis Rogers reflecting on a legislative proposal to make Lexington’s Barbecue Festival the state’s official celebration of BBQ (see more quotables here).

Back when he wrote for the N&O, Rogers carried on a funny, long-lasting intrastate feud with fellow journalist Jerry Bledsoe, who used to write for the now-defunct Greensboro Daily News.  Bledsoe took every opportunity to extoll the virtues of the Lexington-style barbecue served in towns like Greensboro, Salisbury, Lexington (of course) and other parts of the Piedmont.  Rogers, on the other hand, denigrated Lexington-style ‘cue any chance he got, instead singing the praises of the Eastern-style ‘cue served in Wilson, Greenville, Goldsboro and other towns east of Raleigh. 

But is the chasm between Eastern- and Lexington-style ‘cue really that large?  Although I will make neither side of the state happy by saying this, I think not.   I can claim to be fairly neutral on the debate, having grown up on the edge of the tectonic BBQ plate where Eastern- and Lexington-styles collide.  Now perhaps that just makes me totally unqualified to judge, but nonetheless below is a short summary of the two styles.  You’ll note that the differences are pretty minor outside of the cut of meat used.  Furthermore, it is not uncommon for joints to incorporate elements of both styles (e.g., Allen & Son in Chapel Hill cooks shoulders but serves them with a quintessential Eastern-style sauce).

  LEXINGTON-STYLE EASTERN-STYLE
Geography Burlington and west Raleigh and east
Origin of style Circa 1910s Colonial times
Meat Pork shoulders chopped, sliced, coarse-chopped Whole hog chopped
The Sauce/Dip “Dip” made w/ vinegar, hot pepper, salt, other spices, a bit of ketchup “Sauce” made w/ vinegar, hot pepper, salt, other spices, NO ketchup
Cooking Method Traditionally, slow-cooked over hickory/oak coals. This method is dying off but is more prevalent than down east. Traditionally, slow-cooked over hickory/oak coals. Gas and electric cookers are all too common, but a proud few still cook over wood.
Typical Sides Hush puppies or rolls, red slaw, fries. Hush puppies or corn bread, white slaw, boiled potatoes, Brunswick stew, greens, more.
Beverage Iced tea (sweet, of course) Iced tea (sweet, of course)
Best Virtue Orders of “outside brown” are divine Whole hog is the original American BBQ
Famous Joints Hursey’s, Lexington #1, Stamey’s B’s, Skylight Inn, Wilber’s
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