John Wayne’s Barbecue Riding Into the Sunset

Sad news from the heart (or at least one of the kidneys) of North Carolina barbecue country.  John Wayne’s Barbecue in Lexington is going out of business today after more than 25 years of serving up ‘cue, BBQ chicken, and much more.  See the full story in The Dispatch or on the WFMY News website

The Dispatch article notes that John Wayne’s is one of seven restaurants that sponsors the annual Barbecue Festival.  It will be interesting to see if another restaurant steps in to fill the void. 

I never had the pleasure of dining at John Wayne’s so I can’t comment on how much of a loss this is for barbetourists like me, but it sure is a sign of the times.  It always seemed like barbecue joints in Lexington succeeded no matter what.  The town has 20-some joints despite a population of just a shade over 20,000.  Given how hard hit the economy of the Lexington area has been over the years, dating back well before the current recession, it’s a wonder more joints haven’t closed their doors.  Tim Myers, the owner of John Wayne’s, says business is down about 30% from mid-2008.  Let’s hope John Wayne’s loyal customers find a new local joint to support.

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BBQ Jew’s View: Byrd’s Barbecue

2816 Cheek Road, Durham, NC
919.530.1839
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 Continue reading

BBQ Jew’s View: Prissy Polly’s

729 Highway 66 South, Kernersville, NC
336.993.5045
Website
Hours: Mon-Sat 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C+
Porky Says: “Polly has an identity crisis.”

 
 
 
 

Prissy Polly's: The view from my table

Pollyanna
With a great name like Prissy Polly’s, which made it into my barbecue joint name hall of fame, it’s tempting to be Pollyannaish about the quality of the barbecue.  The fact that the restaurant is named after the founder’s mother makes it even better.  But despite the great name, Polly’s suffers from an identity crisis.  And, leaving the name aside, the food they serve is just okay.

Trying to Do Too Much
Instead of focusing on preparing one style of barbecue well, which is a difficult enough task, Polly’s tries to serve both Eastern- and Lexington-style ‘cue and does neither especially well.  According to their own website:

“Originally Prissy Polly’s served only Eastern-style barbecue.  This caused a bit of consternation among some of the local folks, who were accustomed to Lexington-style barbecue. To please the taste of those who preferred Lexington-style, Prissy Polly’s began to offer both styles of barbecue.”

I have to give Polly’s a lot of credit for being bold enough to start an Eastern-style BBQ joint in the heart of Lexington-style territory.  And the Eastern-style ‘cue they serve is definitely the better of the types.  I can’t really blame Polly’s for caving to local preferences either.  Judging by the fact that they have stayed in business for 18 years and have a sparkling, large restaurant, adding Lexington-style ‘cue to the menu was the right decision. I simply don’t think their Lexington-style ‘cue is particularly good.

One, Two, Three Types of ‘Cue
Since Polly’s started out serving Eastern-style barbecue, let’s focus on that first.  The biggest problem with Polly’s Eastern-style ‘cue is that it is not cooked over wood and the lack of care shows in a lack of flavor.  Sadly, Polly has plenty of company in both the east and the west in terms of not using wood, but that doesn’t excuse them.  Leaving that aside, Polly’s Eastern-style BBQ is moist and has decent flavor, which is enhanced by a slightly too salty but quite good vinegar/pepper sauce that accompanies it, though it appears to be machine chopped and is a bit mushy.  I’d probably give their Eastern-style ‘cue a B- if I were grading it alone.  Polly’s Lexington-style barbecue fares worse.

Polly’s actually offers two types of Lexington-style ‘cue.  (Pay close attention, this gets a bit confusing.)  Polly’s original Lexington-style BBQ is called “Original Lexington,” and they have served it for years.  It features a rather thick, sweet dip that has as much in common with KC Masterpiece or Kraft as it does with traditional NC style sauces.  Recently Polly’s added another Lexington-style dip option, this one called “Traditional Lexington.”  The dip used for the newer traditional version is significantly better than the original recipe, as it is much thinner and more vinegar-based, though it is still too sweet for my palate.  The Lexington-style ‘cue was too heavily sauced in the kitchen and needed no added dip at the table.

First course: Eastern-style

Second course: Lexington-style

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BBQ Jew’s View: Lexington Barbecue #1

 10 US Hwy 29-70 South (I-85 Business Loop), Lexington, NC
704.249.9814
No Website
Hours: Mon – Sat 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
BBQ Jew’s Grade: A+
Porky Says: “This Monk serves heaven on earth.”

The Honeymonk
Whichever name you call it by–Lexington Barbecue #1,Lexington #1, Monk’s place, Monk’s, or The Honeymonk–this joint is absolutely one of the best in the state.  I’ve been here a half dozen times or so over a period of several years and the barbecue and sides have been superb every time.  Wayne Monk, his family, and the other employees who work at Lexington #1 run an amazingly efficient restaurant.  They crank out ‘cue and all the fixings in high volume without sacrificing quality one bit.  Whether you show up when the line is out the door, such as during the annual Barbecue Festival, or on a slow day at an off hour, Monk & company will dish you out some of the best ‘cue known to man, woman, or child.

 In lieu of a full review of Lexington #1, I am going to defer to the Michael Stern of Roadfood fame on this one.   See Stern’s recent review of Lexington #1 from his Roadfood.com website.  Stern is one of the nation’s premier food writers and his website and books are well worth reading if you’ve yet to discover them.  All I’ll add to Stern’s recent review of Lexington #1 is that some reason the draft Cheerwine tastes extra good there… especially when served to you by Wayne Monk himself at one of the counter stools.  Add it to your bucket list today.  And then get off your duff and check it off the list tomorrow.

BBQ Book Review: Smokestack Lightning

I recently read Smokestack Lightning and strongly recommend you drop whatever you are doing to buy a copy right now.  Although this book only includes one chapter on North Carolina barbecue (and it is a chapter shared with–gasp–South Carolina), it is one of the best books on barbecue ever written.  Smokestack Lightning–the title taken from the classic Howlin’ Wolf song–is in small part a barbecue guide book, in even smaller part a cookbook and in large part a sociological treatise on American culture.  Whichever part you’re most interested in, all parts of Smokestack Lighting are well worth reading.   

Author Lolis Eric Elie, who when he set out to write the book was the road manager for the Winton Marsalis Septet, writes in the preface: “Our thesis was this. Barbecue reflects and embodies all the important themes in American history and culture–region, race, migration, immigration, religion, politics.  Yet this art, so vital to our national identity was dying or at least endangered.  We were half right…  we were also half wrong.” 

In the introduction, Elie continues to explain the underlying purpose of the book.  “We know that barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense,” he writes, “and that it is a more appropriate metaphor than any other American food.  Barbecue alone encompasses the high- and lowbrows, the sacred and the profane, the urban and the rural, the learned and the unlettered, the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the reds, and the whites.  Barbecue, then, is a fitting barometer for the changes, good and bad, that have taken place in the country, and this book, ostensibly about that food, is really about the people and places and consistencies and changes that produce it.”

As the quotes above indicate, there are some pretty heady themes in Smokestack Lightning.  It’s a refreshing change to read a barbecue book that goes so deep into its subject–well past the hickory and mesquite smoke, well past the pork and beef, and straight into the marrow of American culture, history and race relations.  But despite all the serious themes that help carry the book forward, Smokestack Lightning stops short of being too serious for its own good and certainly is never dull.  Quite the opposite, it is full of rich storytelling and humor.  One funny anecdote has a relative of notoriously surly jazz legend Miles Davis’ trying to impress him by bringing him barbecue from his hometown of East St. Louis, where snoots are the specialty.  After traveling by plane with this carefully packaged barbecue treat for Miles, the only response the relative gets from him is, “Motherf*&ker, why you f%*k up my snoots?”

Smokestack Lightning was first published in 1996 and the second edition was printed in 2005.  It is not currently in print but it is available used on Amazon.com and other sites.  The fact that the book is a few years out of date only adds to the timeless nature of the stories, the people featured, and the splendid black and white photography by Frank Stewart.

Defining the Styles

“People who would put ketchup in the sauce they feed to innocent children are capable of most anything… [W]e, the Eastern North Carolina purveyors of pure barbecue, will not be roadkill for our western kin.” – Former Raleigh News & Observer columnist Dennis Rogers reflecting on a legislative proposal to make Lexington’s Barbecue Festival the state’s official celebration of BBQ (see more quotables here).

Back when he wrote for the N&O, Rogers carried on a funny, long-lasting intrastate feud with fellow journalist Jerry Bledsoe, who used to write for the now-defunct Greensboro Daily News.  Bledsoe took every opportunity to extoll the virtues of the Lexington-style barbecue served in towns like Greensboro, Salisbury, Lexington (of course) and other parts of the Piedmont.  Rogers, on the other hand, denigrated Lexington-style ‘cue any chance he got, instead singing the praises of the Eastern-style ‘cue served in Wilson, Greenville, Goldsboro and other towns east of Raleigh. 

But is the chasm between Eastern- and Lexington-style ‘cue really that large?  Although I will make neither side of the state happy by saying this, I think not.   I can claim to be fairly neutral on the debate, having grown up on the edge of the tectonic BBQ plate where Eastern- and Lexington-styles collide.  Now perhaps that just makes me totally unqualified to judge, but nonetheless below is a short summary of the two styles.  You’ll note that the differences are pretty minor outside of the cut of meat used.  Furthermore, it is not uncommon for joints to incorporate elements of both styles (e.g., Allen & Son in Chapel Hill cooks shoulders but serves them with a quintessential Eastern-style sauce).

  LEXINGTON-STYLE EASTERN-STYLE
Geography Burlington and west Raleigh and east
Origin of style Circa 1910s Colonial times
Meat Pork shoulders chopped, sliced, coarse-chopped Whole hog chopped
The Sauce/Dip “Dip” made w/ vinegar, hot pepper, salt, other spices, a bit of ketchup “Sauce” made w/ vinegar, hot pepper, salt, other spices, NO ketchup
Cooking Method Traditionally, slow-cooked over hickory/oak coals. This method is dying off but is more prevalent than down east. Traditionally, slow-cooked over hickory/oak coals. Gas and electric cookers are all too common, but a proud few still cook over wood.
Typical Sides Hush puppies or rolls, red slaw, fries. Hush puppies or corn bread, white slaw, boiled potatoes, Brunswick stew, greens, more.
Beverage Iced tea (sweet, of course) Iced tea (sweet, of course)
Best Virtue Orders of “outside brown” are divine Whole hog is the original American BBQ
Famous Joints Hursey’s, Lexington #1, Stamey’s B’s, Skylight Inn, Wilber’s

BBQ Jew’s View: Whitley’s Bar-B-Que

315 Beechwood Blvd (Hwy 11), Murfreesboro, NC
252.398.4884
No Website
Hours: Thu – Sun only
BBQ Jew’s Grade: C-
Porky Says: “Eh.”

Barbecue on a Sunday
As a devout BBQ Jew, I typically steer clear of BBQ joints that are open on Sundays.  They tend to be second rate, though there are some very notable exceptions to this rule (e.g., Lexington #1).  On this particular Sunday, I was driving back from a day of canoeing at Merchant’s Millpond State Park in northeastern NC, a place well worth visiting.  A few hours of paddling in an alligator-filled swamp had me hungrier than a crocodile, and my buddy and I were happy to find that Whitley’s was open on Sundays.

gator

This guy could put away a lot of 'cue.

Sauce Unfit for a Gator
Whitley’s offers an impressive looking Sunday buffet of barbecue, chicken, other main dishes, a wide variety of sides, and dessert.  However, at $14 a person–far and away the most expensive NC BBQ buffet I’ve ever encountered, and in rural Murfreesboro of all places–I hesitated.  Between the price and plans to check out a couple of other BBQ joints on my ride home, as well as my general distaste for eating ‘cue off a steam table, I chose to order from the menu.

Whitleys Murfreesboro (2)

The $14 buffet would've been good for $8.

The barbecue plate I ordered came with corn sticks, an Eastern NC delicacy with which I have relatively little experience given how common hush puppies are.  I was happy to get a chance to eat some corn sticks, though I found Whitley’s to be on the dry and unflavorful side.  Unfortunately, Continue reading