My notebook and several articles of clothing still smell of hardwood smoke. I blame it on my buddy Tyson Ho. Last week we took a barbeque road trip to hit up a bunch of whole hog joints in North Carolina. Tyson, the man behind the Hog Days of Summer, never misses a chance to evangelize about Carolina barbeque, but the real reason for the pilgrimage was to pick up a cooker to replace the one stolen from in front of John Brown Smokehouse last month. Very few things cause me to leave the house before dawn. One is the Malaysian soup service at Curry Leaves in Flushing. The other is barbeque. So last Thursday morning found me standing on the corner at 4:15 a.m. waiting for Tyson to pick me up to begin the journey southward. Joining us were Tyson’s buddy, Matt Gelfand and Michael Rudin, a photographer and fellow barbeque enthusiast.
On the 10-hour drive down—thanks and praise to expert wheelman Matt—I learned quite a bit about whole hog barbeque. The most important fact being: in North Carolina the phrase “whole hog barbeque” is redundant. “A lot of people will say, ‘I went to North Carolina and asked the waitress what was on the barbeque plate’ and she looked at me funny,” Tyson, who I’ve come to consider as something of a Chinese John T. Edge, said. “That’s because there’s only one thing on it: barbeque. And barbeque is whole hog.”
“We are at the six-hour mark don’t eat too much at the first stop,” Tyson said. By the time we pulled into Burlington, N.C., I was delirious from hunger and lack of sleep. So much so that I was ready to try the buffalo chicken pita that some god-forsaken place called The Park touted on its roadside sign. “For me to eat it has to be cooked with wood,” Tyson said pointing to a stack of hickory outside the cookhouse at Hursey’s Bar-B-Q (1834 S. Church St, Burlington, N.C.).
Hursey’s is a local institution that started out with a homemade backyard pit in 1945. Four years later Sylvester Hursey and his wife, Daisy were granted the state’s first ever barbecue wholesale license. These days the entire operation smokes 1,200 shoulders a week over hickory coals.
It’s a good thing that we were warned not to pig out too much at the first stop. By the time we were done ordering the table was covered with plates: chopped barbeque, sliced barbeque, broasted chicken, hush puppies, and a rack of ribs, along with cole slaw, banana pudding, and cobbler. The barbeque itself had a nice tangy flavor with a good bit of smoke, but was quite honestly nothing to write home about.The culprit? Prechopping and presaucing the gives the meat a texture not unlike tuna salad. I’m gonna go out on a hickory limb here and say that Sylvester and Daisy would not approve. Frankly I’ve had better whole hog in Tyson’s back yard. The ribs—and remember in N.C. ribs ain’t cue—were of the steamed saucy variety shunned by barbeque geeks like myself. I literally took one bite and left the rest.
Soon we were on our way to Chapel Hill for our second stop, Allen & Son Bar-B-Que ,which Tyson characterized as a more of a “pie stop.” Set back in a gravel parking lot with plenty of greenery above and not one, but two weathered signs, this place looks the part. Before we even stepped inside I had the feeling we were in for a real down home treat. Plus, Tyson had been telling us that the place is consistently ranked in the Top 3 N.C. barbeque spots.
North Carolina is Pepsi country and Allen & Son was the only barbeque joint that offered Coke. Not that I cared. I was drinking sweet tea, to keep myself going as I was running on two hours of sleep. “We’re hitting a lot of joints,” Tyson warned. “If you have a sweet tea at every one you’ll need an insulin shot by the end.” I chose to ignore him. The most interesting thing about Allen & Son’s menu though isn’t the beverages, it’s the spelling Bar-B-Que and the cute little piggy. These are N.C. Barbeque Rules 2: it’s spelled “Bar-B-Que,” and 3, the cuter the pig the better the barbeque. Rule 1 of course being that barbeque is defined as whole hog smoked over hardwood embers and chopped and sauced with vinegar and hot pepper.
Unlike the finely chopped pork at Hursey’s, Allen’s barbeque preserved the integrity of the pig, with plenty of textural variety ranging from smoke-imbued shards to tender chunks of shoulder. There was even a clearly identifiable piece of loin in my plate. And all of it had a great hickory smoke flavor balanced out by the characteristic vinegar pepper sauce. For more heat there was Texas Pete Hot Sauce. Despite the name, this vinegar cayenne sauce was concocted at the Dixie Pig barbeque stand in Winston-Salem. “You gotta have Texas Pete. No other hot sauce is allowed in the state,” Tyson said thus codifying N.C. Barbeque Rule No 4.
The sides, crunchy hush puppies that brought to mind Southern falafel, and nuggets of golden-green fried okra were excellent. I don’t care what anybody says, I’m no fan of Brunswick stew. And Tyson wasn’t wrong about the pies either. My favorite was the chocolate, a dense confection with a brownie-like crust. As for the barbeque, not a scrap of meat was left on my plate.
By this time it was mid-afternoon so we decided to take a walk around Chapel Hill, but first we paid Mildred ‘Mama Dip’ Council a visit. She is the matriarch of a local soul food joint, where we were having dinner. After all, men cannot dine on swine alone. Our appetite sufficiently stimulated we took a stroll around the campus of North Carolina State University.
Soon we found ourselves back in the countrified dining room at Mama Dip’s. Before we ordered I spoke to Mama Dip about her favorite items. She must have seen my eyes glazing over as she prattled on about fresh vegetables. “You know I beat Colonel Sanders on the fried chicken,” she said with a chuckle. Our order consisted of fried chicken, fried catfish,black eye peas, lima beans, mac and cheese, okra and tomatoes, and collard greens. There were also sweet potato biscuits, to be eaten with butter and molasses. Mama dip wasn’t kidding about that chicken either.
We also ordered a specialty that the menu made sure to note was “really down home,”fried chitterlings. I was eager to try the pig intestines. When they came to the table they had discernible funk, that turned off the rest of the crew. Once I got past the aroma I rather like the crunchy fatty squiggles in their peppery batter. They were even better with a liberal dose of Texas Pete. Halfway through the meal, iwas starting feelkind of woozy. All the sweet tea was starting to catch up with me.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the North Carolina Bar-B-Que Pilgrimage wherein we meet the master pitmaster and I see the light.