Returning to the Scene of the Crime
It had been several years since I’d last been to The Barbecue Joint, as my first and last visit there several years ago gave me no reason to go anywhere but Allen & Son when dining on swine in Chapel Hill. However, a couple of friends had been talking up The Barbecue Joint lately, and Mrs. LeSwine was eager to pay it a visit. I wish I could report that I had a change of heart and that The Barbecue Joint won me over. Alas, The Barbecue Joint has some good dishes but barbecue is still not among them.
Innocent Until Proven Guilty
Let’s start with the positives. The Barbecue Joint offers a large menu of pretty good, slightly upscale versions of southern favorites. Their side dishes, in general, are quite good and options include fried green tomatoes, mac & cheese, collards, and more. Better yet, The Barbecue Joint is a strong supporter of local farms and buys quite a few of its meat and vegetables from them. Also, the prices at The Barbecue Joint are reasonable and the atmosphere is warm. Better yet, despite a menu that is similarly planted in the realm of yuppicue, the owners have resisted any temptation to turn their joint into a Chapel Hill version of The Pit. You continue to order at the counter and it’s a charmingly casual place.
Guilty As Charged
Unfortunately for The Barbecue Joint, the reviews on this website focus heavily on the barbecue, and their barbecue is only mediocre. I can’t figure out why The Barbecue Joint’s ‘cue leaves me cold, but there is just something lacking about it. Thought the restaurant tries to offer a faithful rendition of Eastern-style ‘cue, with a good chopped texture and a nice visual appearance, the good flavor is simply not there. Fellow reviewer H. Kent Craig gets it right when he says, “It’s hard for Eastern-NC-Style BBQ to be, well, if not tasteless then somewhat bland, almost always it has either a good to great flavor or a bad to awful one but almost never a taste-less one, but Barbecue Joint somehow manages that.” I loaded up my ‘cue with the pretty good sauce on the table and the pork still seemed bland.
Maybe pig meat loses its flavor in the heart of Chapel Hill? Perhaps this is some sort of swine tribute to the late Senator Jesse Helms (who had a pig’s valve in his heart, after all), since he had no great love for the town. Helms (in)famously quipped during discussions of building a state zoological park, “Why build a zoo when we can just put up a fence around Chapel Hill?”
The large barbecue tray I ordered came with fairly uninteresting slaw (little mayo and vinegar but a good deal of sugar), good but odd-paired-with-barbecue sweet pickles and a piece of floppy, lifeless cornbread. The meal didn’t do much for me, though I enjoyed sneaking bites of Mrs. LeSwine’s much more interesting and flavorful side dishes (mac & cheese, brussel sprouts and fried green tomatoes). If and when I return to The Barbecue Joint, I’ll be following Mrs. LeSwine’s lead and steering clear of the ‘cue to enjoy the new south dishes that they do well.