Even though I have a tendency to issue caveats when talking about iconic American food like barbecue—I’m no regional expert—I would not liken the taste of North Carolina barbecue to roadkill. I will say that I like meat with more chew, bone-in preferably, so if I generalize this Southeastern state’s pulled pork style, it’s really just a pile of mushy meat, delicious mush for the most part. The key seems to be inclusion of many textures, fat and skin plus burnt ends, bark as some call it, to add flavor, interest, and moistness.
So, I ate the western style, more specifically Lexington style. What’s the difference? From what I’ve gathered in the east they use the whole hog, mince the meat finer, and wouldn’t include any tomato in the chile-flaked, vinegar sauce while in the west they use pork shoulder and a chunkier chop; the sauce might be more red. Wood-smoking is a dying art either way. Gas is taking over.
This is Lexington BBQ’s version on a small bun. I probably should’ve ordered a plate to assess the meat in its pure state (but Keaton’s chicken was already taking up precious space) especially since many would consider Lexington BBQ as the gold standard. It was kind of just a sandwich, frankly. Despite using wood—oak, to be exact—no pronounced smoke flavor was present. A love of consistent textures was apparent; both cabbage and pork were chopped to an unusually fine consistency until meat and vegetable nearly blended into one savory mass.
They did have the best hushpuppies—light and moist inside with a golden crust—we ate all weekend.
I never did get the banana pudding I was led to believe was a local specialty. They weren’t serving it on this Saturday. The warmed peach cobbler with a block of vanilla ice cream smashed on top was probably better anyway. (How good is banana, whipped cream, and ‘Nilla Wafers really? Tell me it sucks, or I’ll feel worse for missing out.)
Sunday is slim pickings. Not much is open. One restaurant listing their hours called Sunday Church Day. Day of resting and eating, in my world. Jimmy’s, far less populated than Lexington BBQ, saved us.
This time I got the plate and opted for coarse chop (sliced was also available) to really taste the meat. I’m a little hesitant to call this barbecue dry (though I wouldn’t be the only one who has said so) but the hunks with skin attached were far superior to the interior pieces. Here, you are served a side of warm sauce to dip the meat into and also provided with a house-made hot sauce in a squeeze bottle.
All the spice and vinegar, plus the slaw crunch, elevates the meal from a pile of mush.
I thought of hushpuppies as a french fry alternative but it turns out they’re equivalent to rolls. French fries are default and the roll or hushpuppies question must be answered. These weren’t as good Lexington’s, though the dryness was helped by a dunk in the sauce cup.
I will say that the waitresses at Jimmy’s were the nicest we encountered all weekend. I was curious about something called a skin sandwich, which turned out to be cracklings on a bun. They were out on a Sunday (yes, we already had a shopping bag full of cracklings in the car, but I wanted to experience freshly fried and put on a bun with hot sauce) but at least our server checked to see if they couldn’t scrounge something up for me to go. They couldn’t; no harm done.
I especially like how everyone’s giant Styrofoam cups of iced tea are constantly topped off, that they remember if you had sweet or regular, and you’re given a refill and a lid for the road. You can never be too hydrated.
Lexington BBQ * 10 US Hwy 29 70 S, Lexington, NC
Jimmy’s BBQ * 1703 Cotton Grove Rd., Lexington, NC