366 Valiant Drive, Lexington, NC
BBQ Jew’s Grade: A-
Porky Says: “My only beef with Cook’s is brisket.”
“Right Turn on Rockcrusher Road”
I don’t own a GPS unit; I’m early-2000s-old-fashioned and rely on Mapquest. Still, I can imagine questioning the sanity of the computerized lady were she to instruct me to turn off Highway 8 and onto Rockcrusher Road, as visitors to Cook’s BBQ must do. But the drive to Cook’s is well worth it, as Cook’s serves some of the best barbecue in a town that serves some of the best barbecue in the state.
I first visited Cook’s about seven years ago, when it had a small but loyal following among Lexington area diners. At that time the restaurant was a modest-looking, modest-sized wood building built by founder Doug Cook with timber he milled himself. Maybe it was seeing the humble wooden building after driving down a road I thought surely led to nowhere, or maybe it was the smoky aroma, or maybe it was just the quality of the food. Whatever it was, my first meal at Cook’s seven years ago was magnificent. I had only found my way back once since then, and when I pulled into the driveway this time and saw a large expansion on the original building my heart sank a bit. But the aroma of hickory-smoked pork still hung thick in the air.
Don’t Fear the Brisket
Although my meal at Cook’s seemed a little less magnificent than my memories of my first visit, the ‘cue still rates high. The pork is tender and cooked to perfection, with a distinct wood-smoked flavor from the 10 or so hours the shoulders cook slow-and-low over the hickory coals. Pitmaster Brandon Cook, the son of Cook’s BBQ’s founder (who now owns Backcountry Barbecue across town), firmly believes that cooking over wood is the only way to make barbecue.
Cook’s BBQ doesn’t heed all sacred barbecue traditions. Beef brisket earns a place on a almost distressingly diverse menu alongside chopped, coarse-chopped and sliced pork barbecue. The brisket served at Cook’s is the product of father Doug’s time spent in Texas years ago. Brandon learned well from his dad and makes a mean brisket, but the succulent pork is good enough that it won’t be upstaged by the interloping brisket anytime soon.
‘Cue Ain’t All
The slaws–I sampled both the barbecue and white varieties–were both excellent and complimented the slightly on-the-salty-side meat well. The white slaw was light on the mayo, as I believe it should be. The barbecue slaw was very good, reflecting the dip that forms its dressing. And oh that dip. It is a brilliant, ketchup-tinged but proudly vinegar concoction with some heat to it. Just be careful not to use too much of it, as the pork needs little embellishment as flavorful as it is straight off the pit.
The marble-sized hush puppies are the smallest I’ve ever seen but somehow stay fluffy and are fried just right. God bless Cook’s for finding a way to get even more “friedness” into every bite by making the hush puppies so small. And they wash down nicely with the full pitcher of iced tea that arrives when someone at your table orders a glass (and someone will).
The Old and the New
It’s a credit to Brandon Cook that he has not wavered in his hickory-smoked faith even as Cook’s BBQ has added a huge new commercial kitchen to allow for serving additional customers and expanding the menu. The style and scale of the kitchen makes one feel it could just as easily be located in an Applebee’s, save for the tempered glass window that gives a direct look into the original brick pit that Brandon tends. Cook’s BBQ is not quite as quaint as it used to be, and they have made some sacrifices to tradition like machine chopping their pork to keep up with the volume they now serve. But the meat is cooked how it always has been, and that’s what counts.