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