Hog Heaven – Intro to North Carolina BBQ

A few years ago, I took a road trip to North Carolina for my dear friend’s wedding.

It was there that I discovered BBQ.

Not the overly sauced, cutely presented plates of organic berkshire pork and local dandelion greens served at most NYC places.

I mean real down and dirty cooked in the backyard and served by a woman who watched you clean your plate bbq.

I learned about it at Hog Heaven.

I chose this place with the help of roadfood.com, the roadtripping foodie’s best friend. The eatery has won many regional awards for its hand chopped North Carolina pork barbecue. This ain’t your crockpot pulled pork.  This is carefully smoked pork butt  cooked for ages in a smoker with a special blend of spices, then hand cut to create a symphony of flavors and textures.  

In layman’s terms: It’s damn good. 



I can’t even tell you what a kick I got out of seeing that sign. 

 The decor is less than minimal – think school cafeteria – but clean and filled with the most tantalizing scents known to humanity.  Clearly, we over ordered.

Don’t worry – we managed to eat it all. 

Pork sandwich

Hand cut, so the pork shoulder is in small chunks, not mushy shreds.  Not a lump of fat nor a tough shred of meat among the whole sandwich.  Just sweet, luscious pork, positively vibrant with its pure, porky taste, soaking into the soft white bun. Add just a little of the spicy, vinegar based bbq sauce for the perfect bite.   


  Imagine the taste of corndog batter with the texture of French fries.  Corn French fries.  That’s really what they are.  Gently sweet, crunchy and creamy at the same time, these little bits of fried heaven were my favorite thing on the table!  Dip them in bbq sauce, hot sauce, or eat them plain.

Chicken and dumplings

 This is as if your grandma’s chicken noodle soup had the texture of velvet and the noodles were made of lard. Truly a standout. The savory, comforting flavor of chicken broth is like liquid gold. The dumplings are warm, doughy pillows that dissolve almost the moment they touch your tongue.  Unctuous and generously hand cut.  I miss those dumplings.

Baked beans

These beans are CLEARLY not canned. Toothsome and hearty, stewed with smoky bits of pork and lots of brown sugar.  Sweet, smoky, and salty, these beans are an outstanding partner for those awesome hush puppies.

I would recommend Hog Heaven to any Yankee coming down south for the first time. It’s not quite up to Allen and Sons standards, but it’s cheap, it’s fast, and its so amazingly delicious for someone who has never before had real bbq.

That weekend I went to the wedding…I guess my college friend and I BOTH found true love. 

My Favorite Season

Another look at a post that got eaten by the blog move time machine!

You might think, from this post’s title, that this post is about summer.  Or Hanukkah time.  You would be wrong.



It’s about this totally fabulous store called A Southern Season.  Located in Chapel Hill, NC, this privately owned store is Whole Foods meets Farmers Market meets Gone With the Wind.  It is the ultimate emporium for all things Southern, local, and of course, food related!  Acclaimed everywhere from The Food Network to the New York Times, this place  is any foodie’s DREAM!

Come down the aisles of this delightful store with me, won’t you?

 Cheeses not only from France and Italy, but from small producers all over the US – local foods reign supreme here.

Banana pudding.  Oh you have had banana pudding before?

No you haven’t.  If it was north of the Mason-Dixon line, you haven’t had it.  

Creamy, sweet, thick, rich…it would have been a challenge to eat more than the little tasting cup I got.  But  I would have risen to said challenge if we hadn’t headed next to the homemade candy section.  Truffles, peanut brittle, Jordan almonds, and chocolate galore. It was both beautiful and a diabetic’s nightmare.

I WISH we had not had lunch already.  Doesn’t this just sound like heaven?  “Plenty of mayo.”

 These people speak my language.

 Would that my mom’s name were Sally Belle and that she could make these.

 But that lady is more adept at fried latkes than fried tomatoes.

In store pulled pork demo!

Goyem gribenes.

Tender and umami-licious slow roasted pork.

Here we are with the lovely and charming Lisa, who cooked the pork and gave us restaurant recommendations.  She – like every person we ran into at A Southern Season(especially Don Smith) – was helpful, passionate, and well informed about the food she sold and the food scene in Chapel Hill in general.  I have NEVER had such wonderful service in my life – and all the while, the entire staff was stuffing free samples down our throats! How awesome!

We left with a bevy of goodies, including Route 11 potato chipsLowcountry Jerusalem Artichoke PicklesCarolina Cupboard pecan pralines and pimento cheese straws, and so many more delights I can’t even remember them all.

A Southern Season is a truly wonderful store supporting indigenous southern cuisine and local food producers.  The people who work there believe in the power of food, and the importance of this store.

 And I believe in them.

Jim’s Famous BBQ – Pork, North Carolina Style

If you walk into a parking lot and there is a portable pig smoker in the lot, go directly into the establishment to which the smoker belongs.
Even if it looks like a run down Applebees.
Jim’s Famous BBQ hasn’t received any James Beard Awards. It hasn’t been touted on any blogs, and even the Yelp reviews are middling. Yet, something about the pig smoker outside mixed with the senior citizens and men with trucker hats eating inside told me that this was some serious BBQ. People here don’t come out to eat for no reason…they can get this food anywhere. For them to come here, the BBQ might be sort of great…
 Chopped BBQ Pork with Baked Beans, Coleslaw and Hush Puppies
Next to Allen and Sons, the best pork of the trip. Though chopped a bit too fine (I prefer pork with a bit more chew), there is a full, rich flavor. It has that wonderful smoky taste – pleasantly bitter, like great espresso.
When pork is that fresh and pure, a bit of a harsh note is a good thing to mix up the tastes. The coleslaw is vinegary and the beans are outstanding – thick, sweet, and spicy with hunks of green pepper and caramelized onions. It is not too thick or goopy as baked beans can often be. The hush puppies are a little hard and dry, but the (unpictured) potato salad might have been the best side of my trip. Thick quarters of tender red potatoes in a very peppery, slightly mayonnaise-y dressing. It is just great with that tender, hot sauce laced pork. 
Full Rack of BBQ Ribs (Wet)
My mom and sister split this…
Guess they liked it. 
Plain old BBQ, served with a smile and (for North Carolina) quickly. Inexpensive but so satisfying. So glad I followed my own rule about seeing mobile pig cookers. 
One more fast rule: if someone gives you fries loaded with bacon and fried eggs…eat them.

Merritt’s Burger House

I have had hamburgers. I have had fries. I have even sat at a drive-in at Sonic. 
But never have I had a hit of nostalgia like I did at Merritt’s Burger House
 This drive-in in Wilmington, NC is the real deal, offering southern fast food since 1958. It’s the type of place where you pull up outside the restaurant and wait for someone to come take your order. Then you relax in your car before she comes back and clips a tray with your food onto the car window. The person who takes your order is likely a Merrick – it is still family run. Be prepared to wait awhile folks – yes, waiting is the theme of this Southern sojourn. 
But when the food comes, it is just exactly what you want.
 Diet Sun Drop
My dad became obsessed with this drink, which neither of us have ever seen up North. A very sweet citrusy drink, it was like a cross between Sprite and Fresca. Too sweet for me, but my dad wanted to buy a case before we flew home. 
Crinkle cut, frozen, slightly greasy. Salted and also brought with a shaker of salt on the side.  
 Merritt’s Cheeseburger
American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. I should have asked for ketchup, but I enjoyed it with some Texas Pete’s hot sauce just as much. Flattened, bun and all, on the grill so the burger was smashed together, a homogeneous brick of meat, bun, cheese, and toppings. 
 Hot Dog All the Way
Even better than Allen and Sons, due no doubt to the electric red hot dog – a flavor delivery system for salt, spice, and rich meat. 
Hush Puppies
Sweeter and markedly lighter than other ones we tried. These were almost glazed they were so sweet, and totally delicious. My favorites of the trip.
I know I haven’t said a lot about the food here. That’s because…you know how it is. You know that the burgers are warm and soft, not too salty or heavily spiced. You know that the fries are oily and fluffy on the inside, delicious when dunked in Heinz ketchup and stuffed into the burger. You know that drinking soda while lazily dangling your hand outside the car, soaking up the sunshine and relaxation is almost as tasty as the meal itself. 
You know this because you have experienced this. Probably not since you were a kid, but you have. You know all about it.
And you know you have to go here when you are in North Carolina. 
Merritt's Burger House on Urbanspoon

Smithfield’s – A Fast Food BBQ Stop

Who the heck goes to a fast food place on vacation?
Me. And you, if you know what’s good for you. How sad if you never got a double double from In-n-Out. Or a Blizzard from Dairy Queen
Or a plate of BBQ from Smithfield’s Chicken and BBQ
 Smithfield’s is a North Carolina fast food chain featuring classic southern dishes like fried chicken, hush puppies, BBQ pork, and sweet tea. It’s a fast food place, but more in the vein of Chick-Fil-A than McDonald’s – complimentary coffee, pristine bathrooms, and employees who refill your beverages. 
We aren’t in NYC anymore, Toto. 
Large BBQ Plate with Pork Coleslaw, Potato Salad, and Hush Puppies
This is where I could tell that it was a fast food place. This pork was a little dry and extremely mushy – it dissolved in my mouth unpleasantly, and was left a bit cottony by too much time steaming in a pile under a heat lamp. Lashings of the very vinegary and peppery hot sauce went a long way to helping the pork. The potato salad, on the other hand, was outstanding -mustardy, with a mashed consistency and an oddly sweet taste that doubtless came from pickled relish. It worked well with the clean flavor of the chopped slaw and the serviceable, if unremarkable, hush puppies. 
Banana Pudding
A plastic cup full of sweet, creamy, incredibly banana-y banana pudding was the perfect ending to this roadtrip stop.
Smithfield’s ain’t the best BBQ I ever tried. But it is undeniably where the locals eat – the place was packed the whole time we were there. It is cheap, it is clean, the service is unbelievably congenial, and it is such a kick to eat at indigenous fast food places. 
And even so-so BBQ in NC is better than the best BBQ in NYC

Allen and Sons – The Best BBQ in North Carolina

The last time I was in North Carolina, I was furious with myself for not going to Allen and Sons
After over a year of punishing myself, I finally can end the penance. 
I visited Allen and Sons this past weekend. 
 Allen and Sons is widely renowned for their pit smoked barbecue, Eastern North Carolina Style. That means that it is served with a spicy, tangy, vinegar based sauce, not the ketchup based red sauce to which I am accustomed. 
There is some debate as to which is the better/original Allen and Sons – the one in Chapel Hill or the one in Pittsboro, to which I went. When you go, remember that this is the south – there is a different speed of life than in NYC. Don’t go there if you can’t just relax and recognize the fact that almost every restaurant you frequent is going to have a rather lengthy wait time. Just use that time to drool over everyone else’s order and work up your hunger. 
 This is what you want when you walk in to a BBQ place – vinyl tablecloths, canisters of Texas Pete, and everyone around you chowing down on pork. You just walk in, order at the front desk (not a counter – really, it’s just a desk), and wait.
(and wait)
(…and wait)
 Large BBQ Platter with Chopped Pork, Coleslaw, Potato Salad, and Hush Puppies
This is the best pork I had the entire trip. Incredibly lean, but also juicy, it is tender without being mushy. It has a very deep smoky taste – for the first time in my life, I understand the big deal about Southern BBQ. The savory, almost bitter edge of smoke contrasts so well with the pork’s naturally sweet taste. Bathed in a clear sauce that is tangy and spicy, there is an acidic note that balances the pork, like the way that acid in Thai food counteracts sweet and meaty tastes.
Crispy bits of pork mixes in with other slick, juicy morsels of meat. This was mind blowing. The coleslaw is unremarkable to me, but the simple potato salad, vinegary and loaded with mayonnaise, is a decidedly lowbrow delight. 
 And these hush puppies, fried sticks of cornmeal dough batter, are like a hot dog-less corndog. Slightly sweet, crispy, with dense innards perfect for soaking up the spicy bbq sauce. Sound simple? Well, it is. Simply addictive. 
 BBQ Sandwich
Now, this is where the coleslaw works – on a potato bun layered with the pork and melting with the rich pork drippings. The bun practically dissolves into the pork, as it should – it is one glorious, mushy, meaty amalgamation of meat. The coleslaw adds a refreshing crunch and welcome peppery element.
Hot Dog All The Way
When you see an offer for a sausage topped with coleslaw, onions, and chili, you get it. You just do. This sausage was outstanding, with a great snap and savory spices like garlic and red pepper running through it. But topped with the coleslaw, mustard, hearty beef chili and coleslaw…it is a fantastic guilty pleasure.
And while visiting Allen and Sons might be a pleasure, nothing about it should make you feel guilty. It is family run, uses classic cooking techniques, and is very fairly priced. It also has the most revelatory Southern pork I have ever had. 
And I’m still mad at myself regarding Allen and Sons…I can’t believe I didn’t get a second sandwich.
Allen & Son on Urbanspoon

A Lunchtime Tour of Reading Terminal Market

When I found myself in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, I had a tough decision to make. 
No, I didn’t have to decide which child to give up(we can’t ALL be noble like Sophie, okay?). I had to decide where to have lunch, and in a town like Philadelphia, that is not an easy decision. Should I go for a cheesesteak? An Italian meal? A lunch in one of the city’s many fine restaurants? Ultimately…I made the best decision of all. 
 I headed to Reading Terminal Market, a huge indoor market with hundreds of food purveyors and restaurants serving everything from pizza to sushi to those famous Philly Cheesesteaks. 
 The building is gigantic and can be overwhelming at first, but it is actually well laid out. If you grab a map near one of the many entrances, it is easy to find the spots you want to try from the clearly labeled aisles. 
 And, despite it seeming like there were more people here than at Disneyland, there was ample seating – no need to hover over small children, glaring at them till they finish. 
Of course I do that…don’t you?!
 The first place on my list was DiNic’s pork . Everyone I talked to and everything I have read said that this place, specializing in roast pork sandwiches would offer me the gustatory experience of my life. 
 The line was long, and, as I have learned in NYC – if you see a line, get in it!
 Though the service was incredibly efficient, I was still dying looking at these pork roasts just sitting in the window…taunting me cruelly…
 The bread looked pretty damn great too. 
 There are any number of sandwich combinations you can order, but we went with the classic: Roast pork with provolone and sauteed broccoli raab. 
 The sandwich looked fantastic and tasted…well, quite frankly, it tasted a little disappointing. The pork was extremely mild, and though the cheese was sharp and gooey, the bread was exemplary (soft and dense with a light crust) and the broccoli raab was wonderfully garlicky with just a touch of bitterness, the sandwich was…missing something. It was a bit dry, and though it didn’t lack salt, it did lack something. This might be because I grew up eating French Dip sandwiches, but I REALLY think some au jus would have made this for me. 
 Undeterred, we headed to the Dutch Corner for some Pennsylvania Dutch food. These are foods that are derived from the Amish community that still thrives in Pennylvania. 
 Think hearty, fresh and porky. 
My three favorite adjectives. 
 There were several restaurant stands offering traditional Pennsylvania Dutch fare but we settled on Smucker’s Grill for a scrapple sandwich. Scrapple is(According to Wikipedia) “traditionally a mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour, often buckwheat flour, and spices.” The scrapple we ordered, topped with sharp cheddar cheese, was…
 Like romance on a roll. That intoxicating, that surprising, that totally delicious. The scrapple was crispy on the outside and positively airy on the inside, less creamy than melty. It was like a sausage flavored hashbrown, with the sweet taste of pork and a bit of spice from onions, peppers and other seasonings. It was steaming hot, and as my teeth crunched through the outside, strings of incredibly pungent and sharp cheddar cheese broke up the fatty taste of the scrapple. I took the server’s advice and poured a bit of maple syrup on it, and…of course…it was even better. I wish I could comment on the roll, but really…I can’t remember it. The scrapple and the cheese totally took my attention. This was outstanding and I can’t recommend it enough. 
 We hit up The Rib Stand next, mostly because my sister wanted BBQ.
 It didn’t look too impressive.
 But it tasted GREAT! Pulled pork was tender but not mushy, and though the taste was not as deep and smoky as I like, it was still delicious and cloaked in a sweet and tangy North-Carolina style BBQ sauce. On a soft roll, this reinforced my belief that I need some sauce on a sandwich. 
Stopped at Miller’s Twist next for…
 Some Smoky Cheesers. They are hot dogs filled with cheese wrapped in chewy, light, slightly sour pretzel dough. 
 When dipped in some nasal-clearing mustard, they might have been the best things I ate all day. 
 Of course, I didn’t get to try any of these. 
 Or any of the many fresh cheeses on offer.
 Or any of these awesome by-the-scoop pudding desserts. 
I did try some Peking duck, but it was a little greasy and salty for my taste – not enough crispy skin. 
Reading Market had a couple misses but far more hits. It was all extremely economical and made for an awesome lunch and shopping trip. And I didn’t even get to check out any of the seafood stalls or the other Pennsylvania Dutch stalls. And I need to get that pudding!
Guess I have to head back.
It’s a hard life, but someone has to live it.