BBQ Jew’s View: Byrd’s Barbecue

2816 Cheek Road, Durham, NC
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 pickup trucks, plumbing/electrician vans and utility company vehicles, all good signs.  Even the method of ordering–open the front door and walk through the porch-like dining room that is separated by a storm door from the counter where you place your order–is encouragingly odd.  The knotty pine floor, red-checked tablecloths, ceiling fans and potted plants complete the look.  But looks can be deceiving, despite Byrd’s displaying most of the superficial signs one looks for in a BBQ joint

Tastes Less Than Ideal
In the interest of fair comparisons, and because I am a BBQ Jew rather than a Slaw Jew or Stew Jew, I always grade a barbecue joint primarily by the pork.  Unfortunately, Byrd’s pork does not rate well.  There is no authentic wood-cooked taste, which is no surprise given the method of cooking used at Byrd’s.  According to that recent story in the N&O (more on it later), the pork is cooked on a smoke-free electric cooker.  (Apparently the propane tank I saw is used to cook beef brisket and ribs but not barbecue.)  I’ve said it before, but if you don’t cook over wood then what you cook is not really barbecue–it’s more akin to oven-baked pork roast.  Not bad but not barbecue.

The pork is available pulled or sliced.  “Pulled” is a common term in Memphis but it’s an odd term to see on an NC menu, which usually will refer to “choppped” or “sliced,” and sometimes “minced.”  But “pulled” describes Byrd’s meat fairly well, as it comes in longer strands than most chopped pork. 

The meat used at Byrd’s is Boston Butt rather than a full pork shoulder or whole hog, the latter of which would be traditional for an Eastern-style joint, as Byrd’s side dishes seem to suggest it aspires to be.  To Byrd’s credit, the meat was moist and had a reasonably good, varied texture with some different size pieces of meat mixed in.  What it lacked was  flavor. 

Flavor can be added from three different types of sauce available on the table (picture inset).  The “Old Fashioned Hot Sauce” was actually a fairly traditional Lexington-style dip made mostly of vinegar and peppers but with a hint of tomato.  It is quite good. The “Memphis Sauce” was a thick, Kraft/KC Masterpiece-style sauce–not bad but sacrilege when used on NC-style barbecue.  The “Spicy Mustard Sauce” is South Carolina-inspired, though thicker and heavier on the mustard (and lighter on the vinegar) than most real SC barbecue I’ve sampled.

For sides, in addition to the good if unremarkable hush puppies, I had Bryd’s crisp, clean slaw.  It is a classic Eastern-style, fine chopped cabbage, mayo, sugar and salt/pepper concoction.  The mac’n’cheese, which I ordered mostly to please my toddler daughter, was subpar unless you really like Velveeta.  Other sides available included cabbage, Brunswick stew, potato salad, and other Eastern-style favorites.   

Another View
For another, more positive take on Byrd’s see this story in the Raleigh News & Observer.  Food writer Greg Cox also took many years to discover Byrd’s but his opinion of the food at Byrd’s is quite different from mine.  Whereas I found the pork bland, Cox describes it as, “tasty stuff, laced with just the right amount of fat and well-browned crust.”  Worth a read, and maybe worth a trip to Byrd’s to decide for yourself.

3 Responses

  1. I happen to live 2min from Byrd’s so I end up eating here a lot. It’s true that the Q isn’t the best. I would say it’s best in Durham. Far better than Bullocks,Hog Heaven, and the Q-Shack. It’s also true that the mac n cheese and Hush puppies are not the greatest, I would offer up the fried corn on the cob as awesome! My favorite BBQ toggles between Stamey’s in Greensboro and Allen And Son’s in Hillsborough. Off the subject of Q, Byrds makes a great pancake b-fast.

  2. I’ll definitely try the fried corn on the cob if/when I return, I’m not sure how I missed that on the menu.

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