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.

Back to Bullock’s

Today marks the 21st anniversary of my graduation from Duke, and the 14th anniversary of Fred’s graduation from library school at Chapel Hill. We’re back where we started; we’ve returned to the scene of the crime; we’re on the old stomping grounds. And as a bit of a commemorative move, we went to Bullock’s for lunch.

When I was a student, my friends raved about Bullock’s, legendary in Durham for its barbecue. The place is your basic vinyl-boothed, gum-chewing-middle-aged-waitress, cleaner-than-average Southern meat and three, located off the intersection of I-85 and 15-501 in a forest of strip malls and warehouses. The decoration is circa 1985. There are photographs of Italy on the wall (perhaps because spaghetti appears on the menu?). But . . . .

Well, one thing has not changed in 21 years, and now I’ll put it in print: Bullock’s is just not my favorite North Carolina barbecue joint.

The barbecue itself is certainly decent. We both ordered the hand-pulled pork. The meat was tender, and the sauce is unique: spicy, rich, with a little more tomato and less vinegar than your average Eastern NC ‘cue. I’d characterize it as a cross between Buffalo wing sauce and the classic Eastern Carolina barbecue. (The sauce borders on Western NC barbecue, I think, though for once I will confess that I’m not yet well-versed enough in the difference to offer an opinion.)

Where Bullock’s falls down is in some of the sides. The black-eyed peas Fred ordered seemed to be canned, and so did the beets. The turnip greens were flavorless, even with salt, vinegar and Texas Pete added, and the collards were similarly unremarkable. And the Brunswick stew tasted as if the corn and lima beans were canned–the stew had that flat taste I associate with places that don’t use fresh or at the very least frozen vegetables.

The slaw, though, is a perfect complement to the barbecue, and I love its finely chopped texture with just the right amount of mayonnaise. And the hush puppies, though smaller and less crisp than I normally like them, are perfectly seasoned.

Still, J.C.’s Kitchen remains my favorite barbecue in Durham.

J.C.’s Kitchen

Today I went on an excursion to J.C.’s Kitchen on East Main Street in Durham. Much to my surprise, it’s actually the same location as Parker’s, a favorite haunt of Duke students desperate for good barbecue when I was in school there.

Mr. Parker was reputedly an ex-Army cook from WWII. He looked frail, ancient, and a little gray even in the mid-80s, when I was a frequent visitor to his restaurant. Most of his customers were black residents of the neighborhood and the mostly white students who went there for a little local color (in many senses of that word, not all of them so great). I like to think I went there because I was a Southerner and wanted Southern food, but I was in reality probably no better than any other student who showed up to be what they thought of as daring and edgy.

So here we show up 20 years later. This time I’m probably even more out of place in my business clothes. The building is the same. It’s been suspended in a state of genteel aging shabbiness, like a fifty-year-old woman addicted to plastic surgery. But it does have a fresh coat of paint and a new mural that reads, “The food is anointed and you won’t be disappointed.” Or something like that.

Inside the “new” owners have disposed of Mr. Parker’s plastic cafeteria-style trays and replaced them with styrofoam plates, set upon placemates printed with the “Footprints in the Sand” story. And there is a sense of holy wonder in the fact that Parker’s/J.C.’s Kitchen endures. The tea (iced, of course) is still like simple syrup and the barbecue doesn’t seem to have changed significantly–finely chopped, a little spicy, with no need for extra sauce (a rarity for NC barbecue, which can turn out dry).

Thank God for some stability in this crazy world.

Bare Butts and Barbecue

I have not forgotten this blog–have merely fallen headfirst into the vat of work, which this week has involved travel to Birmingham (the one in Alabama) and back.

Birmingham might be my second choice of places to live besides the ATL. It has some surprisingly progressive and funky elements (at least the parts I’ve visited). And it also has


in his bare-butted glory.

And barbecue, but I didn’t get any this trip. If anyone has information on the best barbecue in Birmingham, I would be deeply grateful.