Saturday, July 18, 2009

North Carolina blues

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen my parents... ok maybe more than a few, but at long last I planned the trip to visit them and my older sister and her husband. The last time I saw any of these people they all lived in California; then 3 years ago my parents retired and moved to North Carolina to be near my sister and brother in law. So I took my much need vacation and set out to cross this country to visit the south, the Bible belt, again the south. You know what I mean, not the south of California or the south of Italy... but the South, the land of Bubba; no liquor stores but ABC stores; no alcohol sales of any kind on Sundays until after 12 noon, and no hard liquor sales at all just beer and wine (I could use a drink just thinking about that) It’s how shall I say… a lot different from California.

While planning my trip, I started researching local food and restaurants. Of course me loving all Italian food, I wanted to see what was available, perhaps a fancy white table cloth restaurant, or a wood burning pizza oven restaurant with thin Neapolitan pizza would work. Ok a trattoria doing humble but real Italian food would satisfy my soul. Nothing, blank, zero. Oh don’t get me wrong, Burlington NC has Italian restaurants; they have a few, like pizza places that serve hush puppies, or Tuscan restaurants that serve Italian American food. Getting my drift? Yep those kinds of Italian restaurants, all of them trying to be their own version of the OG (by the way they have one of those there). Hmmm let it go I say to myself. Do what you always preach, go local and eat what the area is famous for. But just what is NC famous for food wise? I ask and am told it’s the BBQ: Eastern North Carolina BBQ.

I like BBQ, but what is eastern NC BBQ, and where do I get it? Seems Eastern NC BBQ is based on a thin vinegar sauce, slightly sweet, and spicy. No ribs here just pork meat. Ok got my full attention now. Sounds like I have a quest, a holy grail, a windmill to conquer. I’m ready, willing and able. I tell my folks that I’m in search of real eastern North Carolina BBQ. Great they say we will take you to a place tomorrow for dinner. Yum I can’t wait to eat local and my first taste of E NC BBQ (I might not be able to sleep). The restaurant they take me to looks the part, no table cloths, crowded, a long line for take-out. I’m truly looking forward to this. It even has a sign above the door that says God Bless YOU (that kinda freaks me out because I’m reasonably sure I will burst into flames if I pass under it). Seated and ready I dive into the menu like a best selling novel. Pulled pork, sliced pork, ribs, beef ribs, chicken (ok the last three sound kinda pedestrian to me). I order, hush puppies, sliced pork, pork rib, beef rib, and a side of mustard greens. Waiting for the food to arrive I check out the condiments on the table, a thin vinegar sauce, a thick sweet bbq sauce, and ketchup. KETCHUP? Hold on, what’s up with that? Maybe it’s for the fries? Food arrives hot, smelling good but sticky and sweet, hum red flag. Looks good but I’ve seen this stuff in BBQ joints in California, I tuck into my meal and must admit it’s good, real good, I use the vinegar sauce to thin out the sticky sweet sauce that coats my feast. Still doesn’t feel right. The mustard greens are great slightly sweet with the natural bitter taste of the greens, and some vinegar sauce to pour over, I could have made a meal of just those. The hush puppies are dry and not at all what I had read they were supposed to be. Dinner over I feel let down. Waitress comes by to ask how everything is y’all? Good I tell her, but I’m feeling duped, lied to, taken advantage of, hallow. So this is ENC BBQ? Hell I could get that in California.

The next day we meet my sister who is going to take us to a NC winery, just outside the town of Lexington NC. I tell my sis that I was disappointed with ENC BBQ. Well she says, Lexington is the most famous place for Eastern North Carolina BBQ. THAT’S WHAT I WANT!!! So we ask a local where the best BBQ in Lexington is, and she tells us. Armed with the 411 we race to the restaurant. Running a red light and 2 illegal u turns later we arrive. Parking lot is full with a lot of pick ups. We step out of the car and are greeted with the smell of burring oak, and cooking pig, beautiful pig, ah just let me breathe it in. We enter the place and are seated in a booth. Looking around I see food being served, looks and smells great. Yum this is it, my windmill! I order for the table, finely shredded pork, coarsely chopped pork, blackened outer pork, crispy pork skin, batter fried shrimp (gotta have some sea food). Game on, I tell my family. What seems like seconds later the food starts to arrive. Hush puppies that are crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. Crunchy batter fried shrimp with tarter sauce, and pork, lots and lots of pork. Good pork, tasty smoky pork, pork moistened with a thin slightly spicy and sweet vinegar sauce. Ah so damn good I don’t want it to end. Crunchy pork skin that with every bite you can feel you arteries harden just a little more. No sticky sauce, no ribs just mounds of differently chopped pork, smoky and wonderful. I want to stay for dinner and breakfast damn it. Oh and don’t let me forget the slaw, delicious. Shredded cabbage dressed again with that wonderful vinegar sauce. Gotta go back there next time I visit the folks.

So forget finding real Italian food here, and instead go native and have the BBQ. These people talk a little slower and have a southern accent that can be so thick you just nod your head pretending to understand what they just said. The people are nice, they’re humble, and they know their BBQ. Props to the good people of ENC and their BBQ. In the words of our governator, I’ll be back.

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