The Great Barbecue Taste Off, Part I

Since no one cares about our intense work load, our cat’s toes, or our 1,000 mile sojourn last weekend, I will now deliver the initial results of our Great Barbecue Taste-Off. It’s good to know that at least a few people are interested.

We focused on barbecue in and around Durham, most of which is the traditional eastern North Carolina variety: slow-cooked pork with a lightly spiced vinegar sauce. Debate rages over exactly how to prepare it, and especially over the question of whether the pig must be cooked over wood. Our friend Paul, who gamely joined our efforts, is so insistent on this point that he spurns barbecue joints that don’t feature smoke pouring from somewhere on the roof.

But this is the kind of dilettantish fervor that we wanted to put to the test. (Sorry, Paul.) We didn’t want to be fooled by the charm of a run-down shack on the side of the road that no one had discovered, or swayed by Gourmet’s rave reviews of the painstaking efforts of an elderly country man who raised the pigs on turnips from his garden and chopped the wood for the fire himself. We wanted to base our opinion solely on a double-blind experiment that compared each barbecue side by side and where the only deciding factor would be the taste of the meat.

Considering that all three of us are humanities majors, we were quite proud of the experiment we devised. Even Paul, who confidently proclaimed that he would easily recognize every contestant, was unable to tell which was which. (The exception was the Q Shack’s pork, which we probably should not have included since it’s too heavily sauced and uses too much tomato to be classified as eastern North Carolina barbecue.)

Below are the results.

#1: Bullock’s (3330 Quebec Dr., Durham; 919-383-3211). With an interior that resembles HoJo’s circa 1985, big crowds of diners who probably wish HoJo’s would make a comeback, a gas pit, and rave reviews from people of clearly questionable taste, I didn’t expect much from this contestant. And there was also our own visit in May, which resulted in my firm declaration on this blog that “Bullock’s is just not my favorite North Carolina barbecue joint.” But Fred and I put this entry at the top of our list because of the moist flesh and the vinegary sauce with just the slightest overtone of sweetness. (Reviewers on Citysearch complain about the amount of vinegar Bullock’s uses, but it was a plus for us.) Not surprisingly, Paul wanted more smokiness, but this entry still came in a close second for him. And all of us loved the bits of fat in the meat. Some NC barbecue afficionados sniff at pit masters who don’t pick out the fat when the meat is chopped or pulled. But I cannot understand why a people raised largely on pork fat tossed into every vegetable dish would ever complain about such a thing.

# 2: Backyard Barbecue Pit (5122 NC Highway 55, Durham; 919-544-9911). The Backyard Barbecue Pit has everything you want in a real barbecue joint: smoke, wood, pigs roasting outdoors on a site that indeed resembles your country neighbor’s backyard, and a great review by H. Kent Craig, a true barbecue fanatic. (Craig’s review also offers a wonderful descripion of the restaurant and the cook’s process.) Had I been asked to predict a winner, this would have been it. But philistine that I am, I put this at #4. Paul and Fred catapulted the BBP into #2 by placing it at #1 and #2 respectively. All of us agreed that the meat was moist with hints of sweet, and Fred was particularly impressed by the fine chop. But I missed the fat that the pit master so carefully pulls out (see Craig’s review).

And here is where the experiment began to show just how ridiculous our whole enterprise is to begin with. I found the meat “not smoky.” Paul liked the “smoky” taste, while Fred called it “spicy” and “exciting.” Though I’d placed the BBP at #4, I had to confess that on another day the entries I’d ranked #2 – #4 might have been in a different order. The good news is that there really was no bad barbecue among our contestants. The bad news is that we are not as clever as we think we are.

#3: The Original Q Shack (2510 University Dr., Durham; 919-402-4227): Only a very petty person would criticize the decision of a friend who drove all day picking up barbecue for her taste test, which she would not even let him write about on his own blog. The Q Shack serves Texas-style barbecue, smoked over mesquite and hickory with a tomato-based sauce. As noted above, it was easy to spot in the lineup, but we tried to maintain our objectivity.

Still, ranking The Q Shack was another exercise in quibbling futility. I put it at #2, Paul at #3, and Fred at dead last. We all agreed that the meat was tender. Paul described it as the most “unusual” of our entries, while Fred felt its tomato-y sweetness should have disqualified it altogether. My own hillbilly prejudices came out in my evaluation, which noted that it came in second because there was “not as much fat as A [Bullock’s].”

(Our confusion in ranking this place is matched by my confusion over which Q Shack is which, and I will eagerly accept comments explaining its history.)

#4 (tie) Dillard’s (3921 Fayetteville St., Durham; 919-544-1587). The “Official Bar-B-Que of the Durham Bulls,” as their web site proclaims, this restaurant actually serves a South Carolina mustard-based vinegar sauce. I’ve never been there and have never sampled their fare at the Bulls ballpark, so I had no opinion going in. Including this place was undoubtedly a questionable choice given the different style of preparation, but again, since Paul was kind enough to spend an entire Saturday driving all over Durham buying barbecue, it would be petty of me to complain.

I put this entry at #3, while Paul and Fred ranked it #5 and #4 respectively. I suspected it was South Carolina cue because of its yellowish tinge and found it “smoky, spicy, moist” and less vinegary than I like. Paul described it as “mild,” but Fred’s assessment best summed up our reaction: “somewhat spicy” but “dull.” It was decent barbecue, but set against other entries it didn’t stand out.

#4 (tie) Hog Heaven (2419 Guess Rd., Durham; 919-286-7447). Paul, Fred, and I visited this restaurant over a summer workday lunch and were pleasantly surprised. Like Bullock’s, Hog Heaven doesn’t use smoke. The interior, resembling an underdecorated Chick-fil-A, invites you to sit down, eat your meal, and get out ASAP, although the service was friendly, fast, and helpul. I wasn’t sure how they’d fare in the contest, but I would have given them at least 50-50 odds on winning.

In our test, though, Hog Heaven came in at #3 (Fred), #4 (Paul), and #5 (me). Its biggest flaw was dryness, and like Dillard’s, its flavor didn’t stand out. Paul’s only description was “slightly better than B [Dillard’s],” while Fred and I agreed it was not as spicy or flavorful as some of the others. Inexplicably, Fred felt it had a vinegary aftertaste, while I complained about its lack of vinegar. By now, though, you should have expected that.

Notably absent in this lineup are J.C.’s Kitchen, which I declared was my favorite Durham barbecue last year, and the legendary Allen and Sons in Chapel Hill. We do plan to expand our efforts in a future post, but we’ve learned our lesson and won’t deceive our readers with false promises again.

6 thoughts on “The Great Barbecue Taste Off, Part I

  1. Great work. I think the high degree of deviation in your results was only a factor of your low number of inputs. In other words, I’m available increase the size of the judging panel. Just put the plane ticket in the mail, and I’m there.

  2. I've enjoyed your take on some of the local barbecue. I'll admit that I'm partial to Allen & Sons, myselfI checked out a Food Network show last week (Road Tasted with the Neelys) when I saw that they were in Raleigh checking out, among other things, NC barbecue. They chose a place called (I think) Old Time Barbecue. Despite the name the place cooked with gas. I was disappointed that the show left the impression that NC barbecue is cooked with gas. They also did not mention any sweetner, such as molasses, in the sauce to balance the vinegar.

  3. That is disappointing. I am also embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that most NC barbecue used sweetener, but that would explain the sweet overtones we noticed in some of our samples. Thanks, Joan!

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