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Posts from the ‘North Carolina’ Category

Lexington BBQ & Jimmy’s BBQ

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.

Lexington bbq outside

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.

Lexington bbq chopped pork sandwich
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.

Lexington bbq hushpuppies

They did have the best hushpuppies—light and moist inside with a golden crust—we ate all weekend.

Lexington bbq peach cobbler

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.)

Jimmy's bbq side

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.

Jimmy's bbq coarse chopped pork plate

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.

Jimmy's bbq chopped pork plate

All the spice and vinegar, plus the slaw crunch, elevates the meal from a pile of mush.

Jimmy's bbq hushpuppies

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.

Jimmy's bbq counter

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.

Jimmy's bbq dining room

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


Price’s Chicken Coop & Keaton’s BBQ

I’m not going to blow your mind with any North Carolina revelations. I was only there for a weekend (with a jaunt to Virginia in the middle) and stuck with common knowledge (if you’re a Roadfood/Chowhound type) regional favorites. Frankly, that’s the way to go. Without naming names, Charlotte’s entry into “farm-to-fork” dining was a total dud (you tout so-called small plates but don’t allow sharing without a surcharge?) and the two revamped diners on the same block had service so misguided that it bordered on abusive.

Price's chicken interior

Ok, then, chicken. You will not go wrong with fried chicken, especially not at Price’s, a takeout counter always lined by bodies, ordering, waiting, pondering…ok, I was the only one really scrutinizing the menu, both on the outside window and the ancient version covered with computer-printed price addendums above the cashier ladies’ heads. Everyone else knew exactly what they wanted.

Chicken coop chicken

I settled on a half chicken mixed (dark and white meat) with default tater rounds (I forgot to ask for hushpuppies, the favored starch in these parts) and coleslaw, regular coleslaw, unlike ruddy, spiced version I encountered at barbecue joints. The skin was thick and crispy enough to hold up hours later (this was just for pre-dinner nibbling) and seasoned primarily with salt and a good deal of pepper, nothing fancy.

Price's chicken coop gizzards

Chewy gizzards fried fresh on the spot are an ideal snack to gnaw on. I felt like I wanted to dip them in something, though. Maybe a few shakes of vinegary hot sauce would’ve been right.

Keaton's bbq signs

Now Keaton’s is a whole other bird, fried and sauced. About an hour north of Charlotte, the roadside bunker sits miles and miles into fields, legitimately in the middle of nowhere Pre-internet, how did word spread about these far-from-hubs eateries?

Inside, it feels like a big rec room that happens to have a counter and kitchen attached. The wood-paneled walls are filled with faded prints, latchhook art and clippings of long-deceased owner, Burette Walker Keaton, many with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. According to one of the guys waiting for his takeout order who was pushing the limits of the posted no shirt, no shoes rule mumbled something in a hard to decipher manner (I think I have the Northern version of that affliction) about how he always had a cigarette while cooking.

Keaton's bbq dining room

There was also a sign banning photography of staff members. The room was not this empty, I just waited for the opportunity between tables turning to quickly snap a shot lest I be targeted as a rule-breaker. (I’d already shunned the sweet tea and couldn’t risk appearing like even more of an outsider).

Keaton's bbq beverages

If one person orders sweet tea, they will be given an entire pitcher. Sure, the ice takes up a lot of room in the ubiquitous giant Styrofoam cup (standard issue at every casual restaurant in the region) but that’s still a lot of sweet tea. For the record, the sweet tea at Price’s hit a new high in sugar content. I’m not convinced there was even an ounce of tannic leaf-derived refreshment in that syrupy blend. I ordered a bottle of Cheerwine just because I could. A little of the cherry red soda goes a long way, but it sure is pretty.

Keaton's bbq plate

I was expecting a sweetish, tangy barbecue sauce but the red stuff was more complex, peppery with a little kick. I did order hot. There was a vague jerk vibe, too; maybe allspice was at play. I had been wondering if the fried skin+sauce would approximate a Southern version of Korean fried chicken, but no, not really. The saucing rendered the crispy skin secondary. It wasn’t as superfluous as dousing shell-on crab a la Singapore, which I’ll never understand, but the beauty of the frying process does get mitigated once soaked in warm liquid. This was good chicken, but I missed the crunch. That’s the spicy slaw I was talking about above–and a slab of mac and cheese.

The pop-pop of shotguns rang out in the thicket of trees across the street from the parking lot. I have no idea what was being hunted, but at least it gave more credence to the camo and guns crew that had been dining inside Keaton’s.

Price’s Chicken Coop * 1614 Camden Rd., Charlotte, NC
Keaton’s Barbecue Chicken * 17365 Cool Springs Rd., Cleveland, NC