By Jay Reed
Eats One Ate
When I left pharmacy school oh so many moons ago, I expected most of the lines on my future resume to reflect that scope of work in some form or fashion. Didn’t happen. I speak English and can teach, but I never guessed I would spend time as a teacher of English as a second language. I wanted to take some international trips, but never imagined actually living overseas. I always liked to eat, but would have never predicted that “food writer” could legitimately be added to my business card. But since the door of resume adjustment seems to have swung wide open, I have another title I want to explore: Barbecue Tour Guide.
On our summer trip to the North Carolina foothills last year, I took a day to eat my way through Lexington (a small North Carolina town known for its unique style of barbecue) with Son and Paw-in-Law in tow. They fearlessly submitted to my guidance not only in choosing the four restaurants in which we ate lunch that day, but also to my dictatorial control of the dishes we ordered. It must not have been too terrible an experience for them, because both were ready to hop in the car again this year for what turned out to be a six-restaurant five-city barbecue junket.
Our first stop was Shelby, N.C., for the Battle of the Bridges. From personal experience I was already familiar with Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, so I decided to start on the other side of town, at Alston Bridges BBQ. My first question, as you might expect: Is there any relationship between the two Bridges’? Reid Bridges, grandson of Alston, helped me get my DNA aligned. Ironically, despite having the same last name and the same profession in a town as small as Shelby (pop. 21,000), there is no family link. However, there is a shared history when it comes to cooking style. Warner Stamey, considered one of the Godfathers of North Carolina Barbecue, and brother-in-law to Alston, trained both patriarchs (as well as some other legendary old-time pitmasters) in what would become known as Lexington-style barbecue.
Now to the hog. Having learned from last year’s experience, I ordered a plate of coarse-chopped pork with outside brown. For the uninitiated (bless your heart), outside brown is that portion of the meat that is on the outside as it is being smoked, lending a bit more smoky flavor and texture to the occasional bite. (Don’t feel bad, I didn’t know what it was either, until I studied prior to last year’s Lexington tour.) The one plate was for the three of us to share, I should say — one plate per joint was the only way we could make it to so many places and still claim to enjoy barbecue at the end of the day. The meat came topped with Lexington-style sauce (or dip, as they say), a vinegar-based concoction accented with ketchup. I do prefer to sauce my own meat, but I was able to pull a few tender and flavorful sauce-less bites from the bottom of the pile and taste the pure goodness of the smoke. On the side was red barbecue slaw (sauce-based in lieu of mayo), a pile of hot and crispy tubular-shaped hushpuppies (traditionally served with barbecue in that part of the state), and tea with the proper amount of sweet. We also got a couple of ribs to sample, one of which Son just about finished off before the plate had time to cool down. Two ribs, three people — bad math on my part.
Next we headed across town to Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge. Folks in Shelby have their allegiances, but Red’s is probably the most well-known outside the area. When I lived in Asheville a work buddy who had grown up in nearby Cherryville told me about it, and I stopped by a time or two on the trip to Charlotte to see Little Brother. The Lodge has been in business in some form or fashion since 1946, and the second and third-generation Bridges’ that oversee it today have maintained an old-time feel in all the right ways: The waitress treated us like family, the décor is vintage but not run-down and they still cook their pork all night over hickory. Had I not been there before, I still would have felt comfortable — it’s that kind of place.
For comparison purposes, we got another large tray of coarse-chopped with outside brown, slaw, hush puppies and added baked beans this time. The meat was sauced here, too — I decided that must just be the way they do it in that part of the state — but this sauce was a little redder, a little thicker. That same sauce also added a bit more redness and a bit more tomato-ey flavor to the barbecue slaw. The hushpuppies were a tad bigger and came from a little sweeter batter. The tea was possibly the sweetest tea I’ve ever had in my life — the perfect complement to the tangy bite of the sauce. And they left a little pitcher of it on the table for me. How very nice.
From Shelby we moved on to Gastonia for slaw that barely fit the definition, Lowell for lunch three and four, and Belmont for a pork sandwich on steroids. Thankfully we had a little drive time to get ready for that next round, a tale to be told another time. And the winner of the Battle of the Bridges’? Me.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .