Now Open: Nelson’s Barbecue

Gotta love the “Air-Conditioned” sign, a funny throwback touch.

Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending the grand opening of Nelson’s Barbecue, a wood-burning joint just off of I-95 in Lumberton.  Nelson’s is named after proprietor Andy Price’s dad, and the grand opening was a family affair, with his mom and dad, wife and kids in attendance.  It’s clear that Andy has set out to make everyone who walks into Nelson’s feel like a part of his extended family, and this restaurant means a lot more to him than just a business.  He’s been dreaming of opening a barbecue restaurant for 10 years and had a lot of help along the way from many of the people in attendance at the grand opening, from Congressman Mike McIntyre to Mayor Raymond Pennington to restaurant staff who stuck with Andy through a multi-year effort to get it off the ground.  The result is a family run business that employs 20 people in a part of the state that really needs the jobs.

Nelson’s Barbecue cooks its whole hogs in charcoal cookers, which puts them in elite company in a state that features 90-plus percent gassers (and probably 99 percent in Eastern North Carolina).  It’s a great way for a barbecue traditionalist/purist/fascist like myself to start the new year to see a wood-cooker open for business.
Nelson’s is a new restaurant run by a first-time restaurateur, and Andy and his employees readily admit that they’ll be tweaking their recipes in the months ahead.  Therefore, I encourage you to stop by soon and then schedule a return visit to see how this new restaurant evolves.  Their commitment to wood cooking is certainly a good start, and I look forward to returning again soon.  Until then, congratulations to the Price family for what you’ve already accomplished.

“New” Places for ‘Cue in Clayton, Durham, Lumberton

Within the last couple of weeks I’ve learned of three “new” restaurants serving barbecue.  It turns out only one of these places is actually new, but they were all new to me so perhaps they’ll be new to you too…

1) The venerable Durham institution Fishmonger’s, in business for nearly 30 years as a seafood market and restaurant, added barbecue to the menu a few years back.  I’d noticed the neon “BBQ” sign in the window a couple of times but never thought much of it.  As a restaurant known for oysters, shrimp, and other fresh caught seafood, I assumed their barbecue was store bought or from another restaurant.  Well, it turns out that Fishmonger’s founder and owner is a transplanted Texan from the Houston area, and he loves barbecue almost as much as he loves seafood.  He added his own gas-fired, wood chip burning smoker a few years back and turns out a wide assortment of barbecue, from Carolina-inspired pork barbecue with vinegar sauce to Texas standbys like brisket, sausage and ribs.  Their full BBQ menu is shown here.  I doubt they’re going to change their name to Porkmonger’s anytime soon but they seem eager to have more folks sample their ‘cue.

2) Food writer Greg Cox of The News & Observer reviewed Charlie’s BBQ & Grille in Clayton in a January 6th article.  Cox’s very positive, three-star review notes that Charlie’s is a place where, “Purists might turn up their noses at such an ecumenical approach to barbecue–not to mention that [owner Charlie] Carden uses an electric cooker to coax the smoke from chunks of seasoned hickory.”  Ecumenical?  Charlie’s menu includes brisket, Eastern, Lexington-style and even sweet Western North Carolina pork; chicken; ribs; and sausage.  Ecumenical indeed, and that always raises a red flag for me unless I’m in Kansas City or Texas.  However, it is encouraging that Cox’s article mentions the inspirational stint Carden worked at the rightly revered Allen & Son in Chapel Hill; Carden is clear that he never had any intention of setting out to duplicate Allen’s laser-like focus on vinegar-spiked chopped ‘cue.

3) Finally, the restaurant I am most excited to try: Nelson’s Barbecue in Lumberton, which opened just after Christmas (actually, on the 8th night of Hanukkah, I believe).  I’ll be sampling Nelson’s soon so will save the presumably juicy details for then, but I am encouraged that the owner, Andy Price, has decided to cook over a traditional wood-burning pit.  From what I’ve heard about Price from reliable sources, the guy cares deeply about NC barbecue traditions and knows what he is doing.  I have a sneaking suspicion that Nelson’s is going to be a must visit place for barbecue enthusiasts. We shall see.

Let Them Eat… Pork?: Barbecue French-Style

France has likely the world’s most revered culinary tradition.  It is country where just about everyone appreciates quality food and where bakeries, bistros and fine restaurants abound.  Thus, it must have come as a bit of a surprise when Lewisville, North Carolina resident Cap Anderson stumbled upon the following scene during a recent visit to Villeneuve de Formigueres in the French Pyrenees near the border with Spain.
According to Anderson, “The village was having a medieval festival featuring, you guessed it…pig.”  As shown above pork was cooked on a spit over coals laid right on the ground.  Not too dissimilar for early American barbecue.   And what was the side dish offered with the pork?  A stew of “potatoes, beans, onions, tomatoes from what I could see,” reports Anderson.  How do you say “Brunswick stew” en francais?

Sorry, Virginia, Brunswick stew was invented in France.

Back to the pig.  After it was cooked, the pork was pulled and sliced and placed on small grills to finish.  See more of Cap Anderson’s photos below.  And for any of you Freedom Fry-Focuses Francophobes, it looks like you need to give the French another chance!  Plus, French cooks have long been known for their use of virtually every part of the animals they cook, so perhaps there is a natural kinship between North Carolina’s whole hog barbecue traditions and those of the French.  Vive la France indeed.
You might be wondering how France’s take on Carolina barbecue tasted.  “We did not arrive in time to purchase tickets for the meal,” offers Anderson rather unhelpfully.  Oh well, I guess I’ll just need to check out French BBQ for myself…

BBQ Jew’s View: Bill Ellis’ Barbecue

3007 Downing Street, Wilson, NC
(800) 68-BILLS
Website
BBQ Jew’s Grade: B-
Porky Says: “Royally over-the-top all you can eat.”

The Prime Minister of Q
Number 10 Downing Street is the home of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister and the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Government.  But many folks in Wilson, North Carolina would argue that 3007 Downing Street is far more important.  For it’s at this address that His Majesty Bill Ellis has his castle.  Bill Ellis’ Barbecue is a several acre complex that includes a buffet restaurant, a separate drive-thru/takeout building, and an 18,000 square foot convention center.  But is all of this real estate an indication of the great food that Ellis’ serves or a Royal family-style way of distracting from significant shortcomings?  A little bit of both, in my opinion.

Across the country, it is not uncommon for barbecue joints to trade in braggadocio and hyperbole.   From “The best BBQ you’ll ever eat” to “Need no teef to eat my beef”, barbecue proprietors are known to boast about their product even–especially?–when it is squarely mediocre.  But for the most part barbecue joints in North Carolina refrain from the bragging game.  NC BBQ joints tend to be modest places run by modest people.  Thus, it is a little jarring to come across the sprawling cluster of buildings that is Ellis’ Barbecue.  Although I saw no boastful signs or other overt displays of arrogance, it is hard not to feel like Ellis’ Barbecue is trying to prove something that need not be proved.  (One gets the same feeling perusing their website, where Ellis’ Barbecue refers to itself as the “Microsoft of Barbecue,” whatever that means.)

In addition to the several buildings at Ellis’ Barbecue (described above), there is a fleet of dozens of trucks that might make the British Army jealous: 18-wheelers, smaller tractor trailers, delivery trucks, and even dump trucks all with Ellis’ logo emblazoned on the side.  Despite Ellis’ claim of “coast-to-coast catering” it is hard to imagine any occasion, other than an invasion of Redcoats, that would require more than a fraction of these vehicles be put into service.  That said, owner Bill Ellis does have a large catering operation, a thriving restaurant business and even his own hog farm, plus that convention center.  If anyone BBQ joint can come at all close to justifying a fleet of trucks this large, it’s Ellis’ Barbecue.

Dining like Royalty?
Is it relevant to begin a restaurant review with a few paragraphs that have nothing to do with the food?  Possibly not, but Ellis’ Barbecue is one of the very few joints in the state where the food can get lost in the surroundings.  That is largely because the surroundings are so memorable, but also because the barbecue is quite the opposite.  (This is in stark contrast to Wilson’s other famous BBQ joint, Parker’s.)  Ellis’ Barbecue offers a well-executed buffet dining experience with several side dishes that stand out as far above average, the pork itself is middle-of-the-road.  You could do just fine for yourself by wading through the buffet line and gorging on candied yams, delicately spiced sweet yellow slaw, tender collards, odd-but-tasty Brunswick stew, classic boiled barbecue potatoes, fried chicken, meringue-topped banana pudding, hush puppies, corn sticks, and many other dishes.  Most of these dishes are good, some are very good, and only a few (the from-the-can fruit cobblers come to mind) are subpar.

The chopped barbecue provided on the steam table is much too moist and a bit greasy, due to the pooled sauce and drippings in the pan, as well Continue reading

BBQ Jew’s View: (The Original) Parker’s Barbecue

2514  US Highway 301 South, Wilson, NC
(252) 237-0972
No Website
BBQ Jew’s Grade: B
Porky Says: “A tarnished shrine for barbecue fundamentalists.”

The Original
(The Original) Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson used to just be known as Parker’s Barbecue, and to most people it still is.  But a restaurant named Parker’s Barbecue in nearby Greenville, started by relatives of the founders of Parker’s in Wilson–who had sold to non-Parker family owners in the 1980s–gave (The Original) Parker’s reason to want to differentiate itself.  Hence the parentheses, and the confusing lineage.  But (The Original) Parker’s food is the opposite of parenthetical and far from confusing–it is straightforward, honest to goodness classic Eastern North Carolina barbecue… with one major caveat: they no longer cook on wood-fired pits.

Sticking to the Basics
There are two famous barbecue joints in Wilson.  One of them is as close to an amusement park as an old fashioned NC barbecue joint gets.  The other one is (The Original) Parker’s.  From the simple wide white ranch style building that has housed the restaurant in its current location since its founding in 1946 to the food to the waitstaff, Parker’s is all business.  The waitstaff is entirely male–hard working, always hustling, white apron- and white paper hat-wearing young white males.  The decor is sparse and simple–real wood paneling, tables lined up one after another, a few aging newspaper articles about the joint on the wall, etc.

Between the decor and the waitstaff, when you walk in the front door at Parker’s it’s easy to think you have entered a time warp back to the 1950s.   A basic menu and stark–even by BBQ joint standards–presentation of the food does nothing to make you think you’ve reentered the 21st century.  But why bother to live in 2011 when the barbecue was so good a half century ago?  Parker’s delivers on what it silently promises–good, straightforward Eastern-style barbecue and sides.

In my opinion, Parker’s whole hog, wood-cooked barbecue is not as jaw droppingly succulent as places like Grady’s and the Skylight Inn.  Parker’s pork is quintessential Eastern-style ‘cue: chopped fine, tender, lightly sauced and leaning toward the dry side due to the large amount of leaner meat from the hams.  It includes flecks of skin, though Parker’s is “cleaner” than places like those mentioned above.  I personally think Parker’s is a bit too dry and clean, and machine-chopped too finely, but it’s good ‘cue and seems pointless to criticize a place like Parker’s that delivers exactly the type of high quality barbecue it sets out to deliver.  (Well, except that they dropped cooking over wood pits in recent years, which is a major affront to history and tradition, and deserves criticism in my fundamentalist BBQ holy book.) To counter the dryness, I added quite a bit of the straight-ahead simple vinegar/hot pepper sauce (picture Texas Pete cut with a little more vinegar and your right on).  Another strategy is to mix the pork with the terrific, slightly mustardy but sweet yellow slaw.  The slaw matches the pork perfectly.  You’ll also be pleased by the plump, sweet hush puppies and dense, classic cornsticks.

If you want to upgrade from the “barbecue plate” of pork, puppies/cornsticks and slaw to the “barbecue dinner”, you’ll get to add a few selections  from among a small group of traditional Eastern-style sides: barbecue boiled potatoes, string beans, Brunswick stew and french fries.  If you order a combination dinner, you can sample Parker’s highly regarded fried chicken.  Or for a couple of bucks more you can order “family style” and get all you can eat ‘cue and sides, plus a couple of pieces of chicken.  Barbecue chicken, fried shrimp, chicken livers and a few other dishes plus desserts round out the menu.

Long live (The Original).  And maybe someday they’ll revive the wood pits?  A man can dream…

Wilber’s Barbecue

Wilber Shirley’s place in Goldsboro–the simply named Wilber’s Barbecue–is among the living legends of North Carolina barbecue joints.  It is also among the state’s best-known restaurants period, given its long history and prominent location fronting Highway 70 on the way to the beach (at least for those of us that still take routes other than Interstate 40 to the coast from time to time).  Hear from Mr. Shirley himself and get a behind the scenes tour of his wonderful restaurant in this nicely done segment from Time Warner Cable’s Around Carolina program.

Oh, and if you want to see another perspective on Goldsboro, you can watch this video instead.

Bridges Barbecue Lodge

Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby is high on my list of places I’ve never eaten but want to visit. Until that happens, you can get your fix of this legendary BBQ joint in this well-crafted video profile:

Breaking News at Allen & Son’s

On Friday I visited Allen & Son’s in Chapel Hill for the first time in months (the location north of town on Highway 86, not the unrelated and inferior Allen’s south of town).  As usual, not much had changed since my last visit: great food, friendly service, and prices slowly creeping toward $11 for a large plate yet somehow still worth it.  And then my jaw dropped.  As I perused the menu to decide whether to get a BBQ plate or sandwich I saw it, the first major change to the menu I can recall besides pricing.  A barbecue tray!

This may not sound like big news to you, but Allen’s has never before–in the 25-plus years I’ve been visiting–offered a tray.  It has always had a sandwich and a plate but never a tray.  But there it was, a recent addition to the carved in stone menu sitting in front of me.

The silver tray with a paper tray nestled inside: classy!

At many BBQ joints that offer a tray, “plate” means BBQ, slaw, hush puppies and fries and “tray” excludes fries.  Trays also tend to offer slightly smaller portions than plates, a nice feature for folks like me who often eat at more than one joint when visiting unchartered barbecue territory.  At Allen’s the regular plate does not include fries (though there is a fries added option), so the difference between the plate and tray appears to be quantity.  As you can see in the picture above, the tray offers plenty of food for a modest appettite, and is a couple of bucks less than a plate.  Next time I visit I’ll bring my postal scale and do a more scientific comparison between the two options…

Beer and BBQ on the 7th Day

Continuing this week’s inadvertent beer theme, I just learned of a new event taking place on Sundays in downtown Durham.  Fullsteam Brewery, purveyors of hickory-smoked Hogwash and a wide variety of other southern agriculture-focused “plow to pint” offerings, pairs up with Backyard BBQ Pit, a wood pit barbecue joint that cooks up the best ‘cue in Durham.  Each Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m.  (at least until further notice, so call ahead), the two businesses team up to bring you the succinctly named “BBQ and Beer Sundays.”  The BBQ and beer sabbath is held at 726 Rigsbee Avenue in Durham, Fullsteam Brewery’s world headquarters.

B’s on TV

WRAL TV recently profiled the famous B’s Barbecue in Greenville, NC.  The two minute video gives a good peek into the atmosphere of B’s, even if the reporter naively refers to the pit as an “oven.”  I still think that the Skylight Inn in Ayden, just outside of Greenville, is a couple of notches better than B’s, but no denying B’s is among the state’s best, and best known, barbecue joints.