Starving and driving way too fast down I-85, we poured over the map. This had been a long day that started pre-dawn and included two flights, rental car hassles (thank you Avis), several hours in said lousy rental car and two client meetings. There wasn’t time for lunch, but finally our obligations were complete and nothing mattered but my crumpled map of the North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail. Seriously… there’s a map. I’m glad I found out because the Trail led me to righteous BBQ and a classic NC experience.
Barbecue means something different everywhere you go. In New England, it most often means hamburgers and hot dogs. When folks in North Carolina say barbecue they mean slow cooked pork, but after that the variations are many and people have strong opinions about what they like best. Despite their opinions, everyone spoke of Lexington, North Carolina as ground zero for chopped pork barbecue. Lexington Barbecue has been cooking on their pits since 1962, burning cords and cords of oak and hickory over the years.
Our waitress said her favorite thing was the “brown, lean, course chop”. At that point, we admitted to needing coaching. She didn’t hold our Yankee, barbecue bonehead status against us and explained that “western Carolina” barbecue at Lexington is sort of like carving a turkey for Thanksgiving. They only cook pork shoulder here and the meat is separated by type so you can choose what you want. Brown means an area of the shoulder that isn’t covered in fat and has had more smoke than “the white”. You can get lean or marbled meat. And the chop is just that… not pulled or sliced but cut course or fine. It all made sense now and we were believers.
The sauce isn’t what you find in the local Super Wal-Mart. Darn tasty, its vinegar based, thin and offers a kick. But, the barbecue is so unbelievably great; there isn’t much reason to put sauce on it.
The plate came with more regional staples, red slaw and hush puppies.
When we paid our bill, the owner was helping with the overflow at the front counter. If he didn’t tell us he appreciated our business six times, he didn’t tell us once. He asked us what we had for dinner and was clearly proud to be part of the institution that is barbecue in this part of North Carolina. It’s rare that you get to look someone in the eye like that these days. The food here was great, but Lexington Barbecue is much more than that. Like so many local places I check out on business travel, the food, the people, the atmosphere and the tradition creates a genuine experience that isn’t easy to find anymore. There is something deeper going on here speaking to truly traditional and original food with a sense of place and time all its own. To top it all off, when we asked about separating the bill into three credit card charges, he took a look at our check and with a great big smile said “how about $12.17 a piece?”. What a bargain.