Porky’s Pulpit: Roasting Raleigh

Every once in a while your’s truly, the Honorable Porky LeSwine, receives an email that restores his faith in ‘cue-manity.  A few days ago I read just such an email.

The message had the subject line, “Raleigh BBQ Scene,” and with a title like that I figured it would be nonsense–Raleigh has no real BBQ to speak of, and what’s a barbecue scene anyway?!   Raleigh is a barbecue desert (one “s”, not to be confused with banana pudding) and I think it’s an embarrassment to have a dearth of BBQ in our state capital.  Well, as it turns out the email’s author agrees with me:

I am a native North Carolinian (a Raleighite) who has been out west for 20+ years and I am here in Raleigh trying to figure out how to move back here to God’s country. I learned to make my own BBQ many years ago because I couldn’t get it any other way. 

Question: Where can I go in Raleigh to get a good plate of authentic (wood smoked, not oven roasted) pork barbecue? Coopers – nope. Carolina BBQ – nope. How many others are using gas or electric ovens and no wood? The Pit cooks with wood, but I just don’t go along with having to make a reservation for a table to get a good plate of true North Carolina barbecue in North Carolina’s capital city. Its just not right. [Editor's note: reservations or not, I've been underwhelmed by The Pit's barbecue but kudos to them for cooking it over wood and it's hard to argue with their success as a business.]

Sorry for my ranting. I just can’t believe the BBQ heresy that is going on here. God bless Coopers for being around for 75 years, but they don’t sell BBQ. They sell roasted pork. Are there others that feel like I do?

Heck yeah, there are others that feel like you do.  Not many of us, perhaps, but we exist and we applaud you for speaking truth to propane-power.  Unfortunately, Raleigh is the tip of the iceberg. The lack of real barbecue plagues the state and I can imagine a future that has no true North Carolina barbecue left.

While we wait for the private sector to come to its senses, can’t the state legislators in Raleigh turn their attention to this problem through some sort of hickory smoke stimulus program?  With or without leadership from the legislators wasting space on Jones Street, some of us traditionalists are as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

If you care about traditional barbecue, I encourage you to like the page at www.facebook.com/truecue, where a Campaign for Real Barbecue will soon begin.  Until then, keep your faith in the holy smoke.

A Dead End on the Barbecue Trail

On Friday I dragged my wife and kids to Mocksville, on the way to a mountain vacation weekend, in order to dine at Deano’s Barbecue.  You see, Deano’s had been one of the few remaining stops on the NC Barbecue Society’s Historic Barbecue Trail that I’d yet to visit.  The Trail features barbecue joints that, among other criteria, “cook their meat product on pits fueled by wood or charcoal, make their own sauce, [and have a pit that has]… operated continuously for fifteen or more years.”

Until recently Deano’s met the Trail’s criteria for inclusion, and without a doubt earned its place on the map.  But a short visit behind the scenes revealed an unexpected change: I discovered–and confirmed with the owner himself–that Deano’s recently switched to a gas-fired Southern Pride cooker.  The traditional brick-lined, wood-burning pits were for decoration only.  Deano’s change to gas is, first of all, grounds for immediate removal from the trail (I emailed the NC Barbecue Society already, since I figured a 9-1-1 call would be extreme).  I did have some sympathy for the owner when he told me that some health problems had made maintaining the wood pits difficult.  But a gasser is a gasser whether one is sympathetic or not.  And thus another venerable North Carolina barbecue institution has turned its back on tradition and chosen convenience and cost over tradition and quality.  I hate to say it, but Texas is starting to look more appealing every day…

“New” Places for ‘Cue in Clayton, Durham, Lumberton

Within the last couple of weeks I’ve learned of three “new” restaurants serving barbecue.  It turns out only one of these places is actually new, but they were all new to me so perhaps they’ll be new to you too…

1) The venerable Durham institution Fishmonger’s, in business for nearly 30 years as a seafood market and restaurant, added barbecue to the menu a few years back.  I’d noticed the neon “BBQ” sign in the window a couple of times but never thought much of it.  As a restaurant known for oysters, shrimp, and other fresh caught seafood, I assumed their barbecue was store bought or from another restaurant.  Well, it turns out that Fishmonger’s founder and owner is a transplanted Texan from the Houston area, and he loves barbecue almost as much as he loves seafood.  He added his own gas-fired, wood chip burning smoker a few years back and turns out a wide assortment of barbecue, from Carolina-inspired pork barbecue with vinegar sauce to Texas standbys like brisket, sausage and ribs.  Their full BBQ menu is shown here.  I doubt they’re going to change their name to Porkmonger’s anytime soon but they seem eager to have more folks sample their ‘cue.

2) Food writer Greg Cox of The News & Observer reviewed Charlie’s BBQ & Grille in Clayton in a January 6th article.  Cox’s very positive, three-star review notes that Charlie’s is a place where, “Purists might turn up their noses at such an ecumenical approach to barbecue–not to mention that [owner Charlie] Carden uses an electric cooker to coax the smoke from chunks of seasoned hickory.”  Ecumenical?  Charlie’s menu includes brisket, Eastern, Lexington-style and even sweet Western North Carolina pork; chicken; ribs; and sausage.  Ecumenical indeed, and that always raises a red flag for me unless I’m in Kansas City or Texas.  However, it is encouraging that Cox’s article mentions the inspirational stint Carden worked at the rightly revered Allen & Son in Chapel Hill; Carden is clear that he never had any intention of setting out to duplicate Allen’s laser-like focus on vinegar-spiked chopped ‘cue.

3) Finally, the restaurant I am most excited to try: Nelson’s Barbecue in Lumberton, which opened just after Christmas (actually, on the 8th night of Hanukkah, I believe).  I’ll be sampling Nelson’s soon so will save the presumably juicy details for then, but I am encouraged that the owner, Andy Price, has decided to cook over a traditional wood-burning pit.  From what I’ve heard about Price from reliable sources, the guy cares deeply about NC barbecue traditions and knows what he is doing.  I have a sneaking suspicion that Nelson’s is going to be a must visit place for barbecue enthusiasts. We shall see.

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

BBQ Jew’s View: Huey’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar

7601 Highway 70 East, Mebane, NC
919.563.6731
Website
Hours: Tu-Th 4 – 8:30, Fr-Sa 4-9, Sun 12-8:30
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C-
Porky Says: “This barbecue is fishy.”

Beware Inland Seafood & Coastal Barbecue
I’ve always been wary of seafood restaurants that are located far from the coast, and even more wary of beachside barbecue joints.  Huey’s Restaurant & Oyster Bar is located in Mebane, a long ways from the beach but on the edge of Lexington-style barbecue country.  The family-owned business has been around for well over 50 years and has a menu sure to please anyone.  (Don’t take my word for it, listen to the woman who magically teleports herself onto the restaurant’s website.)  Well, almost anyone.

Huey’s features a large array of dishes, with an emphasis on steak and seafood, as well as barbecue.  You can get everything from $26 filet mignon with lobster to $17 snow crab legs to a $6 BBQ tray.  Huey’s also offers flounder, shrimp, clams, oysters, scallops, chicken, jalapeno poppers and much more.  Guess what I had? Yeah, well that comes as no surprise.  What is surprising is that the barbecue at this 54 year old dining institution tastes institutional.

Unfortunately, especially for those of us still mourning the loss of the A&M Grill, Mebane’s recently shuttered barbecue temple, Huey’s fails to deliver on its promise of “tempting” barbecue.  As with all restaurants that serve raw shellfish in North Carolina, the restaurant displays a warning from the NC Department of Environmental & Natural Resources warning patrons that, “Eating raw oysters, clams or mussels may cause severe illness.”  I wonder why no such warning appears in places serving lousy barbecue? “Caution,” the sign could say, “the barbecue you are about to ingest may cause severe emotional distress.” Continue reading

Backyard BBQ Season is Here

As I write this post it is one of those remarkably beautiful North Carolina spring days.   The temperature and humidity are perfect, the sky is Carolina blue (even for a devout Duke basketball fan like myself), and the swarms of summertime mosquitoes have yet to come out of hibernation or wherever the heck they are over the winter. In other words, it’s the perfect time to cook some barbecue.

If you want to become a master barbecue cook, or at least not embarass yourself too badly, I highly recommend reading through the great info at AmazingRibs.com.  The chief blogger/cook/all around BBQ guru over there, Meathead, offers a ton of free advice on everything from cuts of meat to buying guides for grills and accessories.  Really valuable info that ignorant wanna-be BBQers like myself can’t match.  If good old fashioned cookbooks are more your speed, I highly recommend Peace, Love, & Barbecue by Mike Mills or pretty much anything Steven Raichlen has written. Sure, he looks like a bit of a goofball but he knows his stuff.

You can spend a ton of money on a grill or smoker, but if you’re a newbie I recommend starting with something basic.  Cooking barbecue isn’t easy but it’s not all that complicated either.  There are lots of places to buy a grill, and online shops have started offering a lot of choices at competitive prices.  For example, CSGrills.com offers everything from entry level charcoal Brinkmann Smokers to top of the line Weber Gas Grills, as well as a range of other BBQ grills (with free shipping on most).  In my opinion, the only thing better than using a grill is dreaming about what a darn good pit master you’d be if you just had the right set up.  (Okay, maybe that’s just me).

Anyway, enough about my fantasies.  The bottom line: if you need a grill, buy one; if you have a grill, use it; and if you are planning to cook a bunch of barbecue, by all means save me some!  Happy cooking.

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.

Porky’s Pulpit: Now You’re Cooking with Gas

The phrase “now you’re cooking with gas” dates back at least to the 1940s, when advertisements used the tagline to tout the performance of gas stoves, and likely earlier.  By the 1940s, gas ranges had been around for decades and had supplanted wood stoves in urban areas but were being challenged by a new competitor–the electric range.  In North Carolina, of course, “now you’re cooking with gas (or electricity)” is not something to be proud of when your cooking barbecue.  But when the gas with which you’re cooking barbecue comes from North Carolina, it’s newsworthy.

According to a story on WRAL News, Patterson Exploration Services of Sanford operates North Carolina’s only natural gas well in nearby Chatham County.   On Saturday, a group of scientists and others celebrated with a barbecue.  As the WRAL reporter points out, “for the first time in history this is pork cooked with North Carolina gas.”  Personally, I’d rather have been around to enjoy the first time pork was cooked with North Carolina hickory wood, but this is one of those rare occasions when cooking pork with gas seems like a pretty good idea.

BBQ Jew’s View: Brushy Mountain Smokehouse & Creamery

201 Wilkesboro Blvd., North Wilkesboro, NC
336-667-9464
Website
Hours: Mon & Wed-Sat 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday Buffet from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C
Porky Says: “A pitless pit stop.” 

Bobby Flay’s Kiss of Death
Few self-respecting Carolina barbecue joints have websites.  Fewer still would be proud of an appearance on a TV show featuring the Food Network’s brash yankee know-it-all Bobby Flay.  The Brushy Mountain Smokehouse and Creamery has a website that touts its 2005 appearance on “BBQ with Bobby Flay.” Leaving those sins aside, the Brushy Mtn. Smokehouse has its advantages: namely the combination of homemade ice cream and a large menu sure to please a variety of tastes.

No Pit Stop
The relatively wide range of offerings available at Brushy Mtn. Smokehouse make the restaurant a nice pit stop for family road trips in the heart of stock car racing country. (North Wilkesboro, where Brushy Mtn. Smokehouse is located, is famous for its legendary speedway and its prominent role in the history of stock car racing, which was tied closely to moonshining, another local tradition.) Alas, this barbecue pit stop features no traditional wood pit, as the barbecue at Brushy Mtn. Smokehouse is cooked over gas.

Brushy Mtn. Smokehouse offers a sizeable menu that includes barbecued ribs, chicken and pulled pork, all dishes that are “on track” for a barbecue joint (pardon the pathetic attempt at a car racing pun).  Alongside these legitimate dishes, the Smokehouse offers a few items that raise a caution flag for me, most notably the Barbecue Crunchers (“Our famous Smokehouse Barbeque nestled inside a crunchy tortilla shell flavored with our homemade sweet Barbeque Sauce”). Did they just say “nestled” and “tortilla”? Oh dear.

With items like catfish and potroast on the menu, it is safe to say that the Brushy Mtn. Smokehouse does not consider itself a traditional Carolina barbecue joint, and thus it is probably unfair for me to judge it in that context.  But that is what I do on this site. Suffice it to say that the chopped/pulled barbecue is standard, middle of the road fare, neither particularly good nor particularly bad. I’ll spare you the details and leave it at that. The good news is that after your meal, you can head into the attached Creamery, where many varieties of homemade ice cream are available. My family enjoyed the ice cream and we had a good time, even if the barbecue isn’t nearly good enough to take a checkered flag.

Porky’s Pulpit: Pignorance is Bliss

It’s a new year and the perfect time for a little bit of reflection on 2010.  Without a doubt, my favorite new dining experiences over the past year had one thing in common: I had to drive an extra mile (or 50) to seek out traditional, wood-cooked barbecue at places like Grady’s in Dudley, Wink’s in Salisbury and The Skylight Inn in Ayden.  Unfortunately, I also ate a lot of mediocre ‘cue, and almost all of it was made in electric or gas-fired cookers. 

There was a time when mediocre barbecue was good enough for me; I suppose that pignorance is bliss. But the more barbecue I eat the less tolerant I am for so-so swine. Unless it is doused with a terrific sauce and served with outstanding sides, in my experience electric/gas-cooked pork is rarely better than okay.  After a year of eating more than my share of forgettable barbecue, I am looking forward to focusing on eating at the traditional pit-cooked ‘cue joints as time allows, while passing over most of the faux ‘cue. Consider that my first BBQ Jew Year’s resolution. My other resolutions include:

-Finally write reviews of several restaurants that I dined at awhile back and still haven’t reviewed, in large part because I really don’t enjoy writing negatives things about someone’s livelihood.

-Continue to interview interesting folks for the BBQ&A section of this site, as that has been my favorite part of running this site for the past two years.  Look for a BBQ&A with NC barbecue legend Bob Garner, as well as others, soon. If you have any suggestions for BBQ&A interviewees, let me know.

-Convince some friends and strangers to contribute guest posts to mix things up. After all, it’s hard work reading your own words three times a week.

-Most of all, enjoy another year of rambling on about the incredible, edible world of North Carolina barbecue.

Best wishes for the year ahead,

Porky LeSwine

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