Here’s my contribution to this discussion: Allen and Son, in Chapel Hill, which I discovered during a recent trip. I loved it so much I went back the very next night. Indeed, if I spent more than a week in North Carolina, I believe I’d gain twenty pounds and have to start buying Lipitor by the case. But I’d eat very well.
I did a little research on the subject, so I may be able to flesh out Rail Paul's description a little bit. As I understand it, there are two basic schools of NC barbecue, both of which are steeped in ancient tradition: Eastern (which I tried), and Western. Both are based on pork. Pulled pork, or maybe chopped. One doesn't even need to say "barbecued pork." "Barbecue" means pig. The beast is traditionally cooked very slowly over a wood and charcoal fire, in a ceremonial process called “pig pickin’.” It’s treated liberally with a sauce that is based on vinegar , rather than tomatoes, with healthy doses of pepper and spices. I’m told that early Carolinians believed that tomatoes weren’t even edible, although I guess maybe that's an exaggeration. The Western style actually involves a little bit of ketchup in the sauce, but either way, it’s a thin, acidic, vinegary sauce that bears little resemblance to the thick, goopy red barbecue sauce that one buys in a Northern supermarket.
The pork is served with various side dishes, of which a few are pictured above. Hush puppies are deep fried balls of cornbread dough. I read somewhere that they were designed as scraps to appease hungry dogs that barked in the kitchen while one was busy preparing cornbread (“hush, puppies!”) The slaw in Eastern North Carolina (I never once saw the word “cole”) is sweeter and milder than we have in our Northern delis, and pairs beautifully with the rather acidic and peppery barbecue sauce. Apparently, the Western variant of slaw is somewhat zippier, as their sauce is correspondingly sweeter and milder. Finally, you’ll note some Brunswick Stew, which is a relatively mild tomato-based mush with onions, pepper, spices, and various meats and vegetables chopped in.
I’m no barbecue expert, but Allen and Sons did me right. The pork was tender and succulent without being at all soggy. It was just spicy enough, and just hickory-smoky enough for me. It had a curiously addictive quality, as one sometimes finds in potato chips that one just can’t stop eating, even though one begins to develop that curious cumulative sense of increasing acidity in one’s mouth. Fortunately, in the case of NC barbecue, one has the slaw and puppies to tone things down. These were ideally complimentary to the pork: the slaw offered cool to balance the pork’s hot acidic sear, and just a little crunch to balance the pork’s juiciness. The puppies had a consistency like that of falafel, crunchy on the outside (okay, a bit too crunchy… they could have been just a little fresher, but they were great nonetheless) and soft on the inside. They were wonderfully sweet. Add a little whipped cream or something and they almost could have been dessert. But sweetness was just what all that acid needed. Yum. I inhaled so much of this stuff so quickly that I’m a little embarrassed to think about it. Even the Brunswick Stew, which was the least essential component of the meal, was good, and it made me feel better to know that I was having some extra vegetables with my dinner.
The desserts, by the way, were delicious, and equally lipid-laden. Of course, I had to try at least five. The pecan pie and the bread pudding were most impressive. The coconut pie was widely touted, and not without reason. Filled with eggy custard, it was less coconutty than I had expected. Very tasty, but somehow not as suitable for the kind of high speed face-filling in which I was engaged. Only the chocolate pie was less than noteworthy, though it was still enjoyable. I also enjoyed a taste of a cherry cobbler on one of my two nights. This was sweetened only mildly, with good results, although I wish there had been more of the little crunchy bits in it, and more flavor in the rather tasteless ice cream.
We got our food to go, and I admit that my plating skills don’t do it justice in this photo. But it was absolutely delicious, and the perfect thing for dining alfresco on a warm Spring night among the Carolina pines. Eating in the restaurant would be great, too. It’s a pleasant, spacious place staffed by some of the nicest people who ever cut a slice of pie. Allen and Son Pit-Cooked Bar-B-Q: 6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, NC. 919-942-7576. Be warned: there are other branches of Allen and Sons, and some seem to feel they aren't as good.