This summer I took a road trip against which all future road trips may be measured. We were vacationing in N.C., only a couple of hours from Lexington, a small town well-known to serious aficionados as a barbecue mecca. With just a smattering of Googling, I was able to find nearly a dozen different joints available to serve my quest for variety and my hunger for good barbecue. But I only had one day to make this road trip. No way to eat at twelve places, is there? Maybe. I dug a little deeper and decided to make a priority list, based on posted opinions of other barbecue lovers. (See www.bbqjew.com. I kid you not.) With my research assistants in tow (Son and Paw-in-Law,) we headed off to Lexington.
As the coach of the research team, I called the plays. We would not order individually at every place, just a representative tray that we would all sample from. That’s how they serve it in Lexington, in little cardboard trays. Some sides would be ordered, depending on each place’s specialty. Moderation was the game plan for the day.
To avoid the obvious tourist look, a local lingo lesson was required. In Lexington, they have their own style of sauce that they call “dip.” It is similar to the spicy vinegar-based sauce common to eastern North Carolina, with a sweet dash of ketchup. The pork usually comes chopped or coarse-chopped, and I was advised to order some of the “outside brown.” That’s the portion of the meat closest to the outside as it smokes, giving it some crispiness and color. Lexington joints serve barbecue slaw, substituting the dip for the usual mayonnaise dressing. And though sweet tea is my drink of choice with barbecue, we were in N.C., so Cheerwine soda was an acceptable substitution.
Our first stop was simply called Lexington BBQ No. 1. Aptly named, most of the reviews I read did indeed consider it to be the best. It was a simple-looking place, with a row of smokers lining the back of the restaurant. Just after 11 a.m., the parking lot was already filling up. We ordered a large tray of chopped pork with outside brown, hush puppies and slaw, an order of beans, an order of pork rinds, peach cobbler and Cheerwine. The meat was really moist and tasty - the dip was not too spicy, not too heavy with ketchup. Barbecue slaw is not my favorite variety, but as the day went on it grew on me. The pork rinds were a very pleasant surprise – they were ginormous, and much more reminiscent of pork skin than what I normally see. (Is that good?) The service was excellent and the pork was, too. Their reputation was well-deserved. The temptation was to keep eating (we were definitely still hungry), but we stuck to the mission and sought out the next place.
Stop number two was the Barbecue Center. They offered curb service and had a big pile of wood outside, which is what I like to see as I approach any barbecue place. Again, we ordered a tray of chopped with outside brown, to keep the evaluations consistent. The meat was a bit drier here, but had a nice sweet taste. They brought out extra dip smoking hot in a little metal pitcher. It was a bit more peppery and savory than the previous samples. Son asked the blessing and requested that our meal be “somewhat nourishing.” I reckon honesty is a good quality for a prayer.
Smiley’s was the next shared meal, and we had a little variation here. I ordered coarse-chopped meat with extra skin thrown in. Unfortunately, they were out of skin. We also got cornbread sticks instead of hush puppies. They were not necessarily better, but it was a nice change. The meat at Smiley’s was very tender but a little less smoky than what we had tried in our first two trays of the day. (I was so focused on ordering skin, I forgot to request the outside brown.) The barbecue slaw was peppery in a way I liked. I commented to the team that maybe this was my least favorite so far. Paw-in-law wisely remarked, “The first plate at the smorgasbord usually tastes the best.”
Just down the street was Speedy’s, our final stop of the day. There were three of us, none undernourished, and only three lunches between us so far - but somehow we had managed to fill up. We ordered coarse-chopped again, with outside brown. The portions were huge; the meat was moist and full of flavor. (Okay… it was fatty, but in a good way.) The slaw was sweet with a spicy kick, perfectly complementing the meat, especially when enjoyed in the same mouthful. Paw-in-law again astutely summed it up: “Tastes pretty good for lunch number four.”
There were other places on my list, but good sense and aching bellies required us to pause, leaving plenty of joints to justify another trip for another day. Or two, or three. Moderation.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.