Notes from the Underground (aka Unhinged Ramblings from a Real New Yorker)

I recently received an email from a reader, Aaron Weiss of… ahem, cough, cough… New York.  As you might have guessed from his name, Aaron is a fellow BBQ Jew.  He visited North Carolina recently and gave me a full run down on the rather substantial BBQ-related portion of his itinerary.  Check out Aaron’s reviews of The Pit and Allen & Son’s below.  Note that I edited his report slightly just to remove some non-BBQ commentary that diluted from the pig-centric focus of this website.  Once you’re done reading Aaron’s interesting report, check out his other writings here.

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As I prepare to head back to NY in the morning after being here in the Durham area this week, I wanted to share my experiences. In a perfect world, I would have eaten at a dozen bbq places and be able to write a comparative tome.  [Editor’s note: In a perfect world pig grease would heal the sick and give sight to the blind.  And maybe it does.]  But unfortunately I can’t eat like that anymore.

Last year we’d been here on our first trip to the area and had eaten at the Barbecue Joint in Chapel Hill and also Allen & Son. At that time we really liked the Barbecue Joint. I know you gave it a lackluster review, and I certainly would not pretend to disagree with your wisdom [Editor: They don’t have sarcasm in New York, right?]. I do think their pork was quite good on our particular visit (in fact, we went there twice on that trip). When we hit Allen & Son that time, I think we were a little porked out. I remember liking it, but didn’t remember coming away from it wowed (although I did remember being wowed by the pecan pie).

This year, things worked out a little differently. First of all, the Barbecue Joint is now closed. Apparently this just happened recently. Upon arriving in the area, we made our first stop at Allen & Son. Guess what? This time, we were wowed. Really, really wowed. I’m not saying the food was any different — maybe it was just as good last year and we Continue reading

The Barbecue Joint in Chapel Hill Kaput?

5/17/10 UPDATE: SEE COMMENTS SECTION!

A few alert readers have written in to let us know that The Barbecue Joint in Chapel Hill appears to have closed several weeks ago.  Since then we have been working hard–or at least hardly working–to confirm this rumor.  Sure enough, the doors to the restaurant are closed and there is a sign from the Sheriff’s department saying that anyone who enters the restaurant is trespassing, or something to that effect. 

Recently we heard from a highly placed source (given the Watergate-esque nature of this story we will refer to this source as “Hush Puppy” to protect his/her identity), who confirmed the joint’s closing.  Hush Puppy told us, “they’re flat out of business and the lock on the door is the landlord’s, for non-payment of rent.  Apparently they got over-extended… The scheme for raising money by offering $2,000 worth of future food for $1,000 now was made necessary by some major backers pulling the plug.” 

Bad news for The Barbecue Joint’s loyal fans, especially any who ponied up $1,000 or more to invest in the place when it announced plans to move to a larger location awhile back.   Allen & Son is now back to being Chapel Hill’s only NC barbecue joint.  As much as I love Allen’s, maybe this opens the door for a new barbecue joint in town?

The Texans Are Coming, The Texans Are Coming!

Alarming news out of Chapel Hill, where a recent press release notes that a local franchisee has entered into a statewide agreement with Dallas, Texas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit.  GMW Carolina, Inc. already runs two Dickey’s locations in the Triangle area and plans to open a third soon.  The statewide agreement gives GMW the right to expand into markets across North Carolina, although details have not been released as to where the next locations will be.  Presumably major population centers like Charlotte and the Triad area will be in the mix, as well as additional Triangle storefronts.

What, if any, threat does this pose to North Carolina’s homegrown barbecue culture?  A significant one, I’d speculate.  Sure, Dickey’s serves a different product than authentic NC barbecue joints.  And certainly there are plenty of relocated Texans and others who will enjoy having another options for ribs, brisket and the like.  Heck, I like Texas barbecue too.  But one has to assume that there are some limits to the amount of barbecue North Carolinians will eat (despite our collectively growing waistline).  Thus, for every plate of Dickey’s barbecue sold there will probably be somewhat less NC barbecue sold by a homegrown joint.  I highly doubt Dickey’s will be the knockout blow to mom and pop barbecue joints that Wal-Mart was for many smaller retailers, but its expansion does pose a real threat. 

What should a proud North Carolinian do?  My advice: skip the corporate brisket from Texas and visit your local BBQ joint.  If you insist on adding some Texas flavor, just bring a bottle of Kraft sauce along and dump it over your chopped pork.

Porky’s Pulpit: An Essay on the Origins of My Addiction

My name is Porky LeSwine and I am a barbeholic.

The barbecue version of the food pyramid.

Early Symptoms
Like most addictions, it all started out innocently enough. I grew up in Orange County not far up the road from Allen & Son. My folks took me there from time to time. Back then it was just a couple of times a year habit. I liked barbecue from the start but didn’t think much about it in between those occasional meals. It’s a couple decades later and I’ve now eaten enough barbecue that my cholesterol level can be measured from 100 yards away. How did I, an innocent kid who grew up eating just the occasional BBQ plate, turn into a bona fide barbecue junkie?

After continuing my occasional BBQ routine through high school I soon left North Carolina to attend college in Missouri. There are good ribs in St. Louis but nothing quite like NC barbecue, so I found myself fitting in a visit or two to Allen’s every time I returned home. Soon I was stopping at Allen’s on the way home before even arriving at my parents’ house. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Still, I remained just an occasional visitor to the Temple of Divine Swine, not a member of the congregation. 

Diagnosis
After college I worked a job that sent me on several day trips to Lexington, where I interviewed people about their experiences with… well, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I started my interviews by asking people where I should go for lunch. I was amazed at how varied and passionate their responses were. It seemed like everyone had an opinion and they took pride in sending me off the beaten path to the “little place down the road a bit.”

I knew Lexington was barbecue Mecca (or maybe Medina for those of you partial to the ‘cue served in the Eastern part of the state ), but I was shocked to discover that Lexington had over 20 barbecue joints for 20,000 people. At one joint for every 1,000 people, there may be more barbecue options per person in Lexington than there are physicians or churches. But who needs a physician when a chopped tray a day keeps the doctor away? And who needs church Continue reading

Allen’s: Minor Changes

Just a quick update for any Allen & Son’s devotees out there.  (I’m talking about the Chapel Hill location, of course.) I visited for the first time in close to a year and discovered that their prices have gone up yet again.  Allen’s is now pushing $10 for a barbecue plate, which is a bit ridiculous but it doesn’t seem to be hurting their business so it’s hard to fault them.  As long as Keith Allen keeps cooking over wood and making everything from scratch, I’m willing to pay a premium.

As for the food, the pork was good as ever. I did notice a minor change to the hush puppies though.  They seem slightly smaller. I always assumed that one of the reasons the hush puppies often taste over cooked is that they were so large.  Well, so much for that theory, as the reduced size had no impact on the taste.  The puppies are also served with “butter” (margarine really) these days, something they didn’t do back in the day… and a waste if you ask me.  Finally, and most importanly, I believe the Allen’s slaw is a good deal creamier than it used to be, which is a disappointment because their old ‘cue was just about perfectly tangy and nearly mayo free.  Picky comments, and maybe my memory is failing me, but I’ve been going to Allen’s for 20 years so I take these changes personally!

BBQ Jew’s View: The Barbecue Joint

630 Weaver Dairy Road, Chapel Hill, NC (but plotting a move so call and check)
919.932.7504
Website
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C
Porky Says: “Microbrews and brussel sprouts?!”

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.  

Good beer, and a very bad sign...

Good beer, but a very bad sign...

Innocent Until Proven Guilty  
Let’s start with the positives.  The Barbecue Joint offers a large menu of pretty good, slightly upscale versions of Continue reading

The Gospel According to Keith

As we’ve said before, we are big fans of Allen & Son Barbeque in Chapel Hill.  Here are some beautiful words from the man himself, Keith Allen, to help you BBQ Jews out there get through the work week:

Interviewer: “Can you describe what that taste is that you’re looking for?”

Keith Allen: “Well when—after I chop the barbecue by hand and I put that sauce on it and I put that bite of meat in my mouth and my taste buds start watering and they come alive and that tang reaches out and almost brings tears to your eyes, you know, that you’ve gotten what you’re after. Because if you don’t do all—if it doesn’t do all those things to you, you’ve missed it by a bit. And if—if you come in here and taste that barbecue right off the table, and you put it in your mouth and your taste buds doesn’t just wake up and—and you’re not tasting everything—all aspects about it, not just the sauce but the meat and all—it’s not covered up with really hot—if you’re no tasting all aspects of it, then I’ve missed the boat.” 

Read the rest of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s interview with Keith Allen, and listen to audio excerpts, here.  Click on the Documentary link on the Southern Foodways Alliance website for more great oral histories related to southern food and culture.

BBQ Jew’s View: Allen & Son Barbeque

Sign of the Shrine

Sign of the Shrine (photo by drinkerthinker from Creative Commons)

6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill, NC
919.942.7576
No Website
BBQ Jew’s Grade: A+
Porky Says: “You can take me now, I’ve lived a good life.” 

Preface: It’s no coincidence that we decided to make Allen & Son the subject of our first review. Years ago, Allen’s helped convince the Rib Rabbi and Porky LeSwine to worship at the temple of barbecue and it remains one of our favorite joints.

For The Doubters: Or Why You Shouldn’t Not GoYes, it has a Chapel Hill address. Yes, many Chapel Hill residents wouldn’t know a barbecue pit from a hole in the ground if Bon Appetit didn’t feel the need to explain it to them. Yes, the food is more expensive than most barbecue joints, even very good ones, and the prices keep going up. (Economics 101 teaches us that this is the law of supply and demand, and we are confident the invisible hand will take care of society’s best barbecue interests.) Yes, Allen’s probably gets a lot of press because the national media prefers to spend the night at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill than at the Econo Lodge in Lexington. But Allen & Son deserves every bit of the acclaim it has received; Keith Allen and his crew serve some of the best barbecue in North Carolina. And, at the risk of diving head-first into an empty pool of hyperbole, this means Allen’s serves some of the best barbecue in the world. Continue reading