Monday, August 12, 2013

Westward Ho. The Other Half of NC 'Cue

The cannibalistic welcome at Smiley's!
 Last year at about this time, I undertook a one-day grand tour of the pre-eminent BBQ joints in Eastern North Carolina.  This year, I can’t match the range of that sampling, or be certain that I’ve covered the joints that are not to be missed. But I was able to procure a minor sampling of some of the well-known spots in Lexington NC in the course of two visits (one week, heading to Asheville; the next week, returning from it).  Now Lexington is renowned in ‘Q circles as the epicenter of Western Carolina barbecue, so I thought it was worth the slight diversion from the straight shot of I-40 to get a taste or three.  I must also admit that Western style cue has far fewer advocates here in the Triangle, so my familiarity with “the Best Western BBQ” is less certain than what I knew of the Eastern Circuit.  I’m sure I’ve missed some of the finest spots. Including anything and everything NOT in Lexington.
A brief primer: there are 2 primary differences between the Eastern and Western Carolina moieties.  1) Eastern style is usually (certainly not always) made from whole hogs, which are finely chopped into a smoky, slightly crunchy mix.  Western style uses only shoulder, and tends to have less weird bits in it - but it also features what is called “outside brown,” the caramelized bit of meat on the outside of the well-smoked shoulders (slightly resembling burnt-ends of brisket for you KC types and Trillin aficionados). 2) the REAL difference, the impermeable divide twixt East and West, is the sauce.  Eastern style sauce is plain.  It’s usually nothing more than cider vinegar and pepper, sometimes a lot of pepper, sometimes red and black pepper, every so often some sugar. But that’s IT.  Western style contains the either dreaded or beloved touch of ketchup, just enough to thicken the sauce (not make it gloppy, but think of the difference between vinegar and a vinaigrette) and add a tomato-y sweetness.  For Westerners, the sauce balances out the smokiness of the pork. For Easterners, it buries the pure flavor of pig under the cover of, well KETCHUP!  I’m not an indigenous Tar Heel, and I have no dog in the fight, so I’m happy to endorse either version.

My first trip was on a Sunday afternoon, which left me with exactly one option: Smiley’s, the only barbecue establishment open on Sundays in Lexington. 
Curb service at Smiley's!
One of the joys of Carolina is that a Sunday afternoon “dinner” will draw a diverse crowd.  
There are always a handful of folks in their Sunday best, fresh from their weekly worship. And a sizable crew that looks like they haven’t slept since they started tearing it up on a dirt oval track on Friday night that featured many a jar of ‘shine.  Saints and sinners, one side looking out for the other, all setting down to a Sunday dinner of ‘cue. This was certainly the scene at Smiley’s last Sunday.

As I seated myself at the table, my waitress handed me my menu and noted “We have chicken today.”  Which I took as a pretty good indication that I better get some.  Indeed, Smiley’s is celebrated for its smoky bbq chicken, as much as its pig, and it is our good fortune that they offer a combination plate.  A quarter chicken and a nice portion of ‘cue, with two sides. In my case, that meant the de riguer bbq slaw – a concoction of chopped cabbage dressed with that tangy, tomato-y sauce – as well as a mess of fried okra.  Where there is meat, there must be bread, and so you can get corn sticks, dinner rolls, or these highly enticing hush puppies.

As you can see, I am happy to recommend Smiley’s . . . 
Let me add that the chicken is not to be scoffed at, which is a rarity in a barbecue joint.  Chicken tends to dry out when subjected to the same treatment as a collagen-laden pork shoulder, but not Smiley’s. How they do it, I couldn’t tell you, but that shouldn’t stop you from eating your fill of it.

Fast-forward one week to the return trip to Lexington.  This time, I headed home and in a bit more of a hurry, so I didn’t stop for a leisurely lunch. But I did make sure to hit up two establishments to sample their wares. First, the Barbecue Center. More or less in downtown Lexington, the Center features a lovely diner banquet that almost demands that you  order a slice of pie.. 

  Alas, no pie for me, just a chopped sandwich and a pound of bbq to go

Then I make my way over to what may be the single-most celebrated spot in the Carolinas: Lexington Barbecue #1.

  As you can see it is HOPPING on a steamy, summer, Piedmont Saturday. As it should be, because this is food you want to partake of whenever the opportunity presents itself.  I am surely not the lone pilgrim to this heaping barn of an eatery, loads of folks passing through, or near – or far – from Lexington have descended on #1 to indulge.

Where they put the flavor in that pork at #1

So how does it all taste?? Here you have some highly representative sandwiches. The Center’s wrapped in foil, #1 in butcher paper.  You can really see the red slaw in the Center’s offering – but what is most notable about their ‘cue is how moist it is. 

 Drippy, in fact.  The juices dribble to your elbows as you gobble down the meat on a bun.  This isn’t a bad thing in a ‘cue. It keeps the flavor well distributed, as that drippy juice is mostly, yeah you guessed it, viscous pork fat.  (It might interest kind readers to note that I prepared for this bbq indulgence by going vegan for 6 days in between chopped pork! Maybe that gets me off the hook a bit).  

The sandwich from #1, though, that is another thing.  Yes, it’s moist, but the flavor.  Wow. It is a solid punch in the mouth of smoky, piggy boldness.  It is as good as any sandwich I’ve had on this dialectical peregrination, robust and delicate at once, rich but never cloying.  There’s a reason this parking lot is so jammed, and it ain’t the hype, it’s that pig.

The Leavings.
That’s it.  There is loads more bbq to be had in NC, but this is a very representative selection.  Then again, there are myriad styles yet to be toured, the ribs of Memphis, the briskets of Texas and KC, the rib tips of Chicago (I had a fair number of THOSE in the course of 8 years).  These journeys shall have to wait. I am still full.

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