R.I.P. Ralph Parker

It seems like North Carolina barbecue legends are dying almost every week, and I suppose this is the natural course of events given the age of many of NC barbecue’s founding fathers.  As reported by the Associated Press and run in the San Francisco Chronicle (which shows just how far and wide barbecue culture has spread), Ralph Parker passed away last week.  Mr. Parker had been the lone surviving founder of the venerable Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson.

Although Parker’s Barbecue committed the original sin of switching away from wood cooking in recent years, the restaurant spent many decades since its founding in 1946 as one of the state’s true old school barbecue purveyors.  Plus, the old time atmosphere at Parker’s still makes it worth a visit even today.  There is no doubt we will always remember Mr. Parker’s contribution to North Carolina barbecue history.  May he rest in peace.

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 Presents: A Week in Wilson

There are a few glaring holes on my North Carolina barbecue resume, and  Wilson was one of them.  But no longer.  After a weekend sojourn to Wilson with a buddy of mine, Cracklin’s Goldstein, I can cross Wilson off of my barbecue bucket list.  After eating at both Bill Ellis’ Barbecue and (The Original) Parker’s Barbecue, I can honestly say I’ve never come across two veteran barbecue joints that are so different from one another, let alone in the same small city.  Tomorrow I’ll post my review of the classic old-timer, Parker’s.  My review of the Barbecue Extravaganza that is Bill Ellis’ will follow on Thursday.

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