By JAY REED
It's a pig! It's a plate! No, it's Barbecue Man! It's that time of week, when we join Barbecue Man and his trusty sidekicks, Slaw-in-Law and Rib-bin, as they stand up for the cause of true barbecue all around the world. This week, the adventure continues as they leave the foothills of North Carolina and make a whirlwind tour of four more barbecue joints in three nearby cities — in a single bound, naturally. Thank goodness the spandex in superhero suits is stretchy.
Our heroes left Shelby after a hard-fought Battle of the Bridges, still a little hungry but glad for a short ride in the Baked-Bean-Mobile (powered by used kitchen oil and natural gas, of course). We were headed for R.O.’s Bar-B-Q in Gastonia, just off I-85 North on the way to the metropolis of Got-Ham. R.O.’s had been talked up a good bit in various books and magazines that I had studied before the tour, but the chatter was less about the barbecue and more about the slaw. Slaw, however, is a very loose term. There is cabbage involved — I checked the ingredients to be sure — but the first ingredient listed was something of a surprise: ketchup. In Lexington-style barbecue, ketchup is often a part of the barbecue sauce, and the sauce is what holds the slaw together. So I wasn’t shocked that it was included, just a little surprised that it was the star. On the label of the tub I bought, I noticed that R.O.’s had broadened the definition a bit, and classified it as “sauce/slaw/dip” — that was a bit easier to swallow. It was great to dip saltines in, to slather on a bbq sandwich or burger — I even added some to a fresh slice of tomato — but slaw? I’m not so sure.
Next on the list was Kyle Fletcher’s Barbeque in Lowell, the next town over from Gastonia. Aside from the row of smokers in the back of the small restaurant, the one thing that set Kyle’s apart at first glance was the décor. Sports memorabilia was everywhere, including the ceiling tiles — there were even team decals on the chimney over the smoking shed out back. Most was North Carolina-focused, but there was a nod to the SEC. I spotted the Colonel and a maroon and white canine of some sort — the razorback, I fear, had been smoked. Coarse-chopped pork with outside brown had been the meat choice of the day so far, but it was time to eat outside the lines a little. At Kyle’s we went with the sliced pork, which turned out to be a section of loin with a visible smoke ring (a good sign) — tender, but still with some tooth to it. The hush puppies were decent, the beans had some personality, the onion rings were properly seasoned and crunchy-crumbly and a variety of sauces were available tableside. The slaw seemed to be a cross between the red barbecue slaw we’d had in Shelby and a traditional mayo-based dressing — our horizons broadened once again. The finishing touch at Kyle’s was the bowl of Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies for sale at the register. Comfort food from start to finish. Barbecue Man smiles.
Down the road just a bit, still in Lowell, was Hillbilly’s BBQ and Steaks — the original of three locations. From the outside it looked a bit like a re-furbished Western Sizzlin’. Inside, the first thing I noticed was the smell of smoke (the kind I like), drifting from the open pit visible set just inside the door. Slaw-in-Law, being a sidekick of some maturity, exercised his senior discount and we ordered both chopped and sliced pork, two kinds of slaw, Brunswick stew, and sweet potato fries. There was a sign spotted by Rib-bin (also known by his alter-ego of “Son”), which promised extremely large portions for a reasonable price, and we were not disappointed. Both versions of pork were good and smoky without the sauce, but the Hillbilly’s sauce selection was excellent. The red sauce was a little sweet and had a slight kick — great for dipping hush puppies. The mustard-based sauce was one of the best I’d ever had; we think it had a touch of honey. This was the first place we’d found Brunswick stew — probably because it was about a hundred degrees outside — but we were happy to have it in our air-conditioned setting.
At this point we had matched our previous record of four lunches in one day, but this was a day for record-breaking. I wasn’t sure if we would even eat the next meal I had in mind or take it home to share with the rest of the family (Sweet Tea and Hush Puppy had opted out of the trip) but I was too intrigued — and we had come too far — to pass this one by. So with capes flapping (or was it loosened belts?) we headed towards Belmont and Ranucci’s BBQ & Grill. Somewhere in my research I had seen a reference to a sandwich called the Porkasaurus. Just from the name it sounded worth the drive. And it was. Though the menu tempted me with other variations of classic sandwiches such as the Southern Philly (think pulled pork instead of steak) and the Texas Ruben, I stayed focused. The Porkasaurus was smoked ham, pepper-jack cheese, a pile of pulled pork that I’m pretty sure was three inches tall, and bacon on top of all that — they called it the “trifecta of pork.” It was a little hard to eat due to the sheer height, but we managed. We also managed to get a bite or two back to headquarters for sweet tea to try, along with some mac-and-cheese for Hush Puppy.
Lately it seems like all good superhero flicks come in trilogies, so there is bound to be another barbecue tour in our future. Next time join us — we’ll fly safely.