Central North Carolina can be pretty numbingly suburban, the red soil and tall pines notwithstanding. It's hard to find much to hang your enthusiasm on. But finally, after many a trip (I have relatives there), I discovered North Carolina barbeque. I'll never leave the state unhappy again.
If you know anything about barbeque, you know it's done differently in every region where it thrives, and every area swears they do it the RIGHT way. In NC, BBQ means pork. Slow-cooked pork, pull off the carcass (not cut!) after cooking for a day. When served as a sandwich, it's put on a soft bun, topped with a vinegar-based sauce and often topped with cole slaw. When done by a master, this is stuff that will slide down your gullet more satisfyingly than anything you've ever had. Savory, spicy and deeply flavorful. Sensory bliss.
I don't just like NC BBQ because it tastes good. I also relish how it's practiced by independent restaurants of long-standing and little pretension, beyond a pride in their product. The places known for it are on the old side, smallish and have fiercely loyal patronage.
I've managed to hit three of the most ardently praised. My first experience was Stamey's in Greensboro. Stamey's has been in business since 1930 when Warner Stamey founded it. It's now in the hands of the third generation. There are a couple branches around the city; the one pictured is on High Point Road and replaced a drive-in that had considerably more charm (see below). They still slow-cook the barbecue over a pit of hardwood hickory coals. And you can get one of these great sandwiches for $2.75.
In Chapel Hill, I visited Allen & Son, a small house-like structure with a humble set-up inside. Allen & Son seems to provoke great debate among BBQ devotees. Some insist it's the best joint bar none; other says it's criminally overrated.
Me? I liked it fine. The sandwich was better, more subtle than Stamey's. I just sensed for artistry going on, more integrity. The sides were great, too, and North Carolina Sweet Tea goes just about perfectly with this stuff.
My final visit was to an unlovely, roadside dump called Backyard BBQ Pit in Durham. Easy to miss, easy to pass by as nothing special, it was as good as the better-known eateries above and in some ways my favorite. Why? Because the guy who makes the BBQ, a past master named Lloyd Lewis, is right behind the counter. Because he's unfailingly polite as he serves you. Because he's there to make sure his food is being enjoyed and takes an interest.
The interior is basic and unfussy. Almost ugly. People write on the walls and their graffiti is left intact, giving the room a bit more personality. And the food is friggin' great! One thing that amazes me about NC BBQ is how its served on these lackluster hamburger buns. It's a brave choice. The makers know it's not about the bun. They just need something to hold the great-tasting meat.