Why you should care
Because who doesn’t love some damn good barbecue?
This spring, the Vice food site Munchies asked a seemingly innocuous question. The response nearly broke the internet.
— MUNCHIES (@munchies) March 4, 2018
It was the sad meat stack that launched a thousand tweets — the latest in the war over barbecue that is much more cultural than culinary, argues Cooking Light Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis. “Of course, Southerners feel like barbecue is their birthright,” part of the reason the Brooklyn tweet was taken so personally, Lewis says. But it’s like a lot of other regional foods, in that “it will always bring up this good-natured ribbing because it’s regional … like arguing over college football. Then you’ve got that inherent rub of the North vs. the South, that old saw.”
Which is all fair. But in that tradition of competitive jerking, let’s submit a counter to Brooklyn barbecue: the much-beloved offerings of Allen & Son Barbeque, tantalizing North Carolina taste buds outside Chapel Hill since the ’70s. Painted cinder block and wood paneling cover the outside, the inside with square tables and kitchen cloth — the nonfussy hallmarks of barbecue. The owner, Keith Allen, can be seen in the kitchen, sweating away, and will stop to say hi at your table if you give him a wave, but don’t expect him to stay for long. When asked for an interview, he replied he was “pretty busy.” Could he take a call when he wasn’t working? “I’m always working,” the white-haired maestro replies cheekily.
Order the Bar-B-Que Tray ($9.50), which comes with slaw and hush puppies well worth the resulting food coma.
Allen is known to arrive as early as 4 a.m. to haul and split hickory, whacking away with a steel wedge and maul. A brick fireplace is its final destination, where the wood settles into coals. It’s a different raw material than the fires burning in Texas, says Texas A&M animal science professor Jeff Savell, who teaches a popular class on barbecue. “Most of it is post oak,” a common tree in the Lone Star State, he says, but regardless of regionalism, the important thing is to use a low-temperature but robust wood fire, and to make sure the smoke burns cleanly. “It’s the combination of the two that provides the magic,” Savell says.
On the table, the sweet tea, delivered in large mason jars, is a must. Simple is best here: Order the Bar-B-Que Tray ($9.50), which comes with slaw and hush puppies well worth the resulting food coma. The sauce is especially important because by itself, pork-based barbecue is “a blander food,” Savell says. Those seasonings complement the pork, he adds, while in a state like Texas, where beef is the norm, the sauce might not be quite as crucial. The North Carolina-style may have its critics too, from those who prefer the sweetness of Kansas City, the white sauce in Alabama or even (God forbid) the mustard base of South Carolina.
Sure, you would have to be a true die-hard to center a trip to the Tar Heel State around barbecue. But then again, this is no ordinary joint. Lewis has called the fixin’s here “the best sandwich ever,” and notes that the meat is a hybrid technique: a mix between the Western style of using smoked shoulders, and the Eastern sauce, a clear vinegar that soaks into the meat and gives it a nice puckering taste. “It’s right at the nexus between eastern North Carolina and western North Carolina,” Lewis says, fitting its geographic bearings along Interstate 40 too — the perfect compliment to any Eastern road trip.