BBQ ROADTRIP!!! : Bum Restaurant – Ayden, NC

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Quick! Name one of the top 3 greatest Heavy-weight boxers in history. You might mention Mike Tyson, or Evander Holyfield, and you’ll definitely mention Muhammad Ali. Especially the latter as he spent most of his career calling himself the greatest. Poor Joe Louis. 12 years reigning as world champion. 25 successful title defenses (Ali had a mere 19). To this day there has not been a similar dominance in any weight division.

Unfortunately for Joe he was neither as well spoken or good looking as Ali.  Hence why none of us know about him. I feel the same way about Bum’s Restaurant in Ayden, NC.

Ayden is a mecca for whole hog lovers. For decades the Skylight Inn has held the platonic ideal of swine cookery. Their familial cousin Lathan “Bum” Dennis cooks hogs in the exact same fashion and fails to get the same cred for no other reason than Skylight Inn exists in the same town. For God’s sake they’re not even on the North Carolina BBQ Society Trail!!! This last part is particularly irksome to me because Bum’s barbecue is really really good and there’s plenty of other joints on the Trail list that taste like ass and are coasting on their reputations.

Aside from my urge to root for the underdog, Bum’s really is very good. The pork is not hacked to a tuna fish consistency, juicy, and lightly smokey with lots of little nuggets of crispy skin. Their side dishes are easily the best in the state. No exaggeration there. This is real country eating here filled with soul feeding vegetables. Eastern Carolina corn sticks and pork rinds are available to add just enough crunch.

And the fried chicken. Oh the FRIED CHICKEN! Eastern Carolina whole hog BBQ is usually paired with fried chicken. Traditional giants like Wilbur’s, Parker’s both serve fried chicken with their hogs. Bum’s chicken beats them both. I’m all down for great whole hog, but when you got great whole hog and finger licking fried chicken – oh my….

A proper banana pudding topped with warm southern meringue finishes off the meal.

As you can see I have a particular affection for Bum’s. As practitioner of the art and as a traveled eater, I find it an utter travesty that Bum’s is never mentioned when talking about top BBQ joints in North Carolina. The NC BBQ Society Trail list is a wonderful tool and there’s other sources which basically name the same big name spots. But do yourself a favor, many of those big names are for tourists – Bum’s is for those in the know.

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Best Kept Secret in Lexington-Style BBQ

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Peru has over 4,000 varieties of potatoes. Like most of the world, the Peruvians also enjoy fried foods. So in the course of one of the oldest civilizations in the world, how did they never invent the French Fry? It seems like a fairly logical result – Potato + oil = awesomeness.

In Western North Carolina, whole skin-on shoulders are cooked over hardwood embers for hours until the flesh is meltingly tender.  In the process of doing this, skin exposed to the heat continually renders fat and becomes deeply flavored with hickory and soul-echoing crunchy. So how does one serve such a culinary delight? An item that can only be crafted by time and hand fired wood heat? Well they don’t. For the most part the skins go into the trash!!

Now this isn’t the end of the world but it does seem very very odd. It’s like peeling the crust off a pie and throwing it out so that you can eat the filling. Interesting enough, when you head down to South Carolina, skins are definitely a menu item. In certain places in the Palmetto State, there is a limit on how much skin you can take.

The best kept secret when eating BBQ in the Piedmont region (Greensboro/Winston-Salem area) is to ask for some of the crispy skin. It’s not likely that they’ll charge you as it’s going in the trash anyway and you’ll be enjoying perhaps the best thing off the pit.

How to order BBQ in Western North Carolina

One of the more bizarre attributions given to Asian foods is somehow the idea that we like putting oranges in our food. The criminally disgusting “Orange Chicken” found on Chinese takeout dives all over the country would not be consumed by any self-respecting Chinaman. These days any jackass wanting to make something “Asian” will invariably add oranges to the mix. McDonald’s even jumped on the stereotype by placing mandarins into their “Asian” salad.

Fairly similar is the perpetual menu item in generic BBQ places around the country. Carolina pulled pork will always be on the menu. Of course pulled pork is almost nowhere to be seen in North Carolina!! Now I’m sure there has to be some joint somewhere in the state that does a pulled pork sandwich, but I’ve eaten BBQ from Ayden all the way to Lexington and not a single big name joint offers their pork pulled. In Eastern North Carolina you can have your BBQ hog anyway you’d like just so long as it’s finely chopped.

In Western North Carolina located up in the Piedmont Triangle (aka “Lexington Style”) you actually get a number of choices on how you’d like your pork served. Think of Western NC BBQ like espresso drinks. While it’s all the same espresso and milk you can order a doppio, cortado, cappuccino, viennois, au lait or latte and basically receive a different drink. Now here’s my guide to helping you order BBQ like a pro.

THE CHOP – Remember Carolina BBQ is not pulled it’s chopped or sliced.

  • Chopped – This will be the default they’ll give you if you can’t decide. The pork is minced fine and dressed with the house dip (Lexington BBQ has “DIP” not sauce). The vast majority of your Carolina brethren have grown up eating this and it’s pretty much the standard order.
  • Sliced – If you like your pork white and lean this is your cut. It’s slightly drier and is a favorite among the older folk who don’t want to pay money for fat. It comes from the picnic portion of the shoulder
  • Coarse Chopped – As the name implies, the pork is not finely minced and you still get some meat texture. I personally like this one better. More so because by ordering this, you’ll ensure that your meat is freshly chopped. Places that do fine chopped will sometimes put their meat in this blender like machine called a “buffalo chopper”, it’s awful as the meat dries out quickly. To avoid the dreaded buffalo chopper, order the coarse.

BROWN or WHITE?

  • White – North Carolinians don’t tend to like their BBQ too smokey. Thus many places will focus on providing the soft interior parts of the smoked meats where the flavor is not intense. If you don’t specify brown or white, you’ll likely get white.
  • BROWN (sometimes called outside meat) – This is the “bark” of the meat. The exposed flesh that gets the most amount of love time with those hickory embers. The flavor of this is intense and slightly drier. Not everyone likes it, but if you’re a fan of smoked flavor, this is it.

So best success you’ll want to get  a tray of Course Chopped outside brown. This earns you instant Carolina cred.

Western Carolina BBQ – Don’t Order the Sliced BBQ

Hill's Lexington BBQ - sliced & chopped

Hill’s Lexington BBQ – sliced & chopped

Plain steamed white rice is the bedrock of a Chinese dinner. It is warm, filling and really bland. The intention of this dull starch is to be canvas in which more seasoned proteins and vegetables are painted on. The rice itself has a very specific intention and the eaters of the cuisine would not have it any other way. There is no desire to cook it in chicken stock, or add secret herbs and spices to it. So imagine how a Chinese person would feel, if you went to their favorite restaurant and ordered the white rice and wrote a bad review about it for being bland.

In the life of eating, most foods can be divided up into one of two camps. That which sustains and that which enhances. For foods that sustain i.e. foods that we eat twice a week or more, we seem to demand a certain level of pejorative qualities to it. Elements of dryness, blandness, single dimensional flavors etc. In West African nations this comes in the form of the pounded yams or cassavas known as Fufu. In Austria, dinner comes in the extremely not sexy boiled beef dish called Tafespitz (delicious btw). In Mexico chicken is boiled until it’s dry as a board, pulled and then sauced to add moisture back for tacos.

In a recent blog post, a writer visited Stamey’s BBQ and upon the recommendation of the waitress got the sliced BBQ. As I write on tomorrow, there’s several different ways you can order BBQ in Western North Carolina. Our writer was extremely disappointed in how dry it was. How could the “best” that the waitress recommended be so underwhelming?

When we’re visiting these “shrines” of BBQ, we’re expecting eyes rolled back, breath stopping, nearly sexually gratifying bites of food. For much of the country, BBQ is pretty much this way. It’s sweetly sauced, complexly seasoned and piled high. In North Carolina, BBQ is ingrained in life. No one makes special plans to eat BBQ any more than one would plot out a trip to get meatloaf. State citizens eat BBQ twice a week or more. It’s at highschool games, quick lunches, dinner etc. Thus the tourist and the citizen are starting at different points. One is seeking an experience and one is seeking sustenance.  That which sustains life vs that which enhances life.

The Sliced BBQ is a holdout of an aging population. This older generation grew up in a generation that doesn’t value fat as much as we do now. Many BBQ joints in Georgia and South Carolina take pride in serving non-greasy BBQ which is a marked difference in what we enjoy now. We love fat so much that a local favorite BBQ joint actually collects all that grease and sells it as a separate menu item named “master fat”. When this older generation gets a white lean piece of meat, they see value and prefer it. This is why many joints in South Carolina and Georgia will smoke the leaner hams for BBQ rather than shoulders.

Western “Piedmont/Lexington” Carolina BBQ smokes only whole shoulders. Within a whole shoulder you get two primal cuts – the richer dark butt and the more white meat picnic. The sliced BBQ comes from the picnic which is not as tender or fatty thus giving older folk their preferred cut. I wouldn’t call it inferior BBQ just as it’s senseless to call boiled white rice inferior rice. It has a specific audience and intention. For people who are traveling around the state on a BBQ tour, I’d recommend that you skip it and just get the coarse chopped. If you’re open minded about trying what others enjoy, it might be worth your while to order it.

BBQ ROADTRIP!!! : Hill’s Lexington Barbecue – Winston Salem, North Carolina

Hill's Lexington BBQ - Banana Pudding

Hill’s Lexington BBQ – Banana Pudding

See all the Food Porn HERE

In New York City, Charles’ Country Pan Fried Chicken makes the city’s best tasting fried chicken. I also don’t eat there very often. While the chicken is amazing, it’s all the way up in Harlem and in a particularly dodgy area to boot. The staff tends to be indifferent to your presence and you need some effort to get them to stop talking on their cell phones to take your order. The space is also very cramped. Needless to say if it was up to my wife, we would never go there.

So the “best” BBQ experience is the sum of its parts. They have TV shows in which they do bIind taste tests to determine who has the best hotdogs/BBQ/Pastrami etc. That’s all fine and good on an entertainment level but it’s not terribly practical.

I will say that of all the Western/Piedmont/Lexington style BBQ in North Carolina, I enjoy eating at Hill’s the best. For one it’s definite a lot nicer looking than most places. Hey even serve you on plates and trays not made of paper! Not that I really care about that but it sticks out. It’s not as pretty as Stamey’s in Greensboro but it’s nice. Winston Salem as one of the major cities in North Carolina is oddly well served by top BBQ spots. Charlotte for example doesn’t have much BBQ to brag about. The University Triangle area really only has Allen & Son’s a destination spot. I’d throw in the Pit but as Big Ed is no longer there, I’m unsure of its current quality.

Is everything about Hill’s the best? No. I actually enjoy the hush puppies at Little Richards more. But Hill’s hush puppies were very good PLUS they got North Carolina’s best banana pudding. Banana pudding is the state’s signature dessert and I’m not sure how Hill’s does it, but the entire custard wafer mixture is just perfumed with banana essence. I tried getting dessert over at Little Richards but they don’t seem to offer it on a regular basis. Even my wife loved the pudding and she hates pudding. I honestly can’t think of a better dessert than a warm custard. It’s definitely not the prettiest dessert but there’s something very proper and regal about it.

The one thing I really liked about Hill’s was they mixed in the outside brown into your BBQ without you asking. In the western part of the state, you can order your BBQ in a myriad of ways. One of them is getting “outside brown” which is the part of the shoulders where the flesh was exposed to the smoke during the cooking process. I’ve been to plenty of BBQ joints in which none of the bark was mixed in and you just had bland inside flesh. Unfortunately for me, I tend to forget to specify I want some bark mixed in. The fact that Hill’s just mixes it in without asking is definite plus. Just to sample everything I got it chopped and sliced. Both were very good.

Hill’s claims to be the “original” Lexington barbecue. This does not mean they think they originated the style, they’re taking credit for coining the name “Lexington-style BBQ”. The vinegar-tomato sauce is largely a creation of the city of Lexington, soon it became the signature style of the Piedmont Triangle. People now continue to call Piedmont area BBQ to be “Lexington-Style”. Hill’s has long left the fairly small city of Lexington to serve the larger Winston Salem area.

They’re also open on Sunday which is an important thing to note if you’re going on a BBQ roadtrip. Many places down South do not. So If you have a Sunday itinerary, they’re a great resource to have.

After dinner they were nice enough to show me their pits in the back. Now the cooking for the day was long done but the lingering hickory smoke just hits you like a heavy-weight boxer! A few wood chips in your charcoal grill is a very pleasant smell. But these guys burn through truckloads of hickory wood and that concentrated pungency is needed to get through that dense meat.

As noted above, I have and will continue to sample many different North Carolina BBQ joints both Eastern whole hog and Lexington-style shoulder. Everyone has their little niche and there’s many who do a great job. Others have their standard pick for the “Best” in Lexington BBQ. Names like Honey Monk’s are legends for a reason, they’re really really good. For me though, I still pick Hill’s as my favorite Lexington style joint.

Country Barbeque – Greensboro North Carolina

Our State Magazine, a publication devoted to promoting the state of North Carolina as a great new article out on Country Barbeque in Greensboro. This as you all know is also home to the legendary Stamey’s BBQ where the folks also studied their craft. Read the entire piece HERE 

It’s not trying to be anything more than a great local joint serving regular people like you and me.

The restaurant draws mostly working-class folks dressed in worn jeans and stiff work shirts. Although a few businessmen in white collars and sharp ties do roll up their pressed sleeves to the elbow, a proper precaution before digging in. When the plates, trays, and sandwiches arrive, knowing customers reach for Tony’s barbecue sauce, sweet and tangy with a ketchup base.

 

While the Lexington style BBQ does sound delicious. The deferentiating factor here seems to be the extremely tasty sounding tenderloin biscuit – a country-fried tenderloin in a buttery biscuit. Dear lord I wish I had one right now.

Frank retired about 13 years ago, but he still meets his former coworkers at Country Barbeque for breakfast once a week. It’s a tradition they’ve followed for decades. Frank’s favorite is the tenderloin biscuit, a cut of chicken-fried pork as big as a man’s palm between a biscuit large enough to lock your jaw.

 

“Every Thursday I look forward to that tenderloin biscuit and having a genuine conversation with all those guys,” Frank says.

 

Frank may have retired and his work routine may have changed, but those tenderloin biscuits are a constant. Customers rely on those Country Barbeque constants — tenderloin biscuits, trays of chopped pork, sandwiches served in deli paper, squeeze bottles of sauce — to give them comfort as everything else around them changes.