I've just returned from a Southern Foodways Alliance field trip to eastern North Carolina, a region that's among the most important in the barbecue belt (note to followers of the western Carolina barbecue tradition: I said "important" not "best." Stick with me.)
While I'd love to carry on about the wonders of whole hog barbecue and vinegar pepper sauce, I'm guessing very few Seattle eaters are planning meat-centric trips to the other side of the country. So rather than bore you with recommendations you can't use, I figured I'd share a few nuggets of general restaurant wisdom I plucked from the adventure.
By cover, I don't mean the sign out front or a particular paint job. But an observant eater can glean plenty of clues about a restaurant's quality without stepping into its dining room. When chasing barbecue, the tip-off is the smell of smoke: It's the perpetual perfume at Wilber's in Goldsboro.
Whether the smoke is produced by wood coals or packaged charcoal, it's an essential component of decent barbecue. As food writer Fred Thompson told fellow field trip attendees, "if you don't smell smoke, keep going." On the other hand, the smell of smoke would be disconcerting at a vegetarian dumpling house - as would a Dumpster overflowing with frozen dumpling boxes or a Sysco truck. When crunched for time, read a restaurant first with your eyes.
I was initially skeptical of the barbecue served at Ken's Grill in La Grange because it was only served on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If Ken is so good at smoking hogs, I thought, why doesn't he do it every day? After tasting his pork, I felt foolish for questioning the special occasion schedule.
Constant availability isn't what defines great barbecue. In eastern Carolina, that distinction instead rides on smoke-tinged pork salvaged from every corner of the animal, chopped up with patches of crackly skin. At Ken's, the barbecue plate comes with a single pork rind sitting pretty as a potato chip: When the counterman saw me lunge for the skin on the order I was sharing with a friend, he wordlessly deposited another half-dozen rinds on our plate. "That's the best part," nodded another diner, who may or may not have signaled for the bonus gift. Best part of the pig, perhaps. But the best part of my trip was stumbling into Ken's on a Saturday.
Specials aren't just for moving inventory, as cynics sometimes assume. The best dishes are sometimes served infrequently because they require extra care, or because a restaurant rightly wants to preserve extraordinariness.
3. The customers aren't always right.
Turkey is an extremely popular order at Jack Cobb & Son, which might persuade a first-time visitor to try the smoked bird. Should you ever find yourself in Farmville, allow me to save you the trouble: The turkey's dry and dull, and refuses to waltz with the vinegar sauce. But the restaurant serves the best barbecue sandwich (chopped pork and slaw on a white bun) that I tasted after heading east from Allen & Son in Chapel Hill.
Barbecue customers have various reasons for preferring turkey to pork. Perhaps their doctors have warned them to cut back on fat, or perhaps a lifetime of pig pickings has left them searching for another beast to eat. If a Jack Cobb patron chose to eat nothing but unsauced turkey barbecue and pickles, that's surely his prerogative. But curious eaters shouldn't be swayed by the status quo. While there is good reason to worry about ordering a dish that a server doesn't realize is on the menu, it's folly to stick to the most popular items a restaurant offers.
According to the famous saying, hunger is the best spice. Expectations are surely the worst.
In his talk on eastern Carolina foodways, historian David Cecelski advised that a tiny Ruritan Club in Duplin County served the world's best fried chicken, but only from 3 p.m.-7 p.m. on Saturdays (see rule number two, above.) I spent the remainder of his Saturday afternoon talk daydreaming about the chicken glories unfolding a mere 45 miles away from my current seat, a reverie that only intensified after I persuaded a friend to drive us there during a session break.
You've probably guessed the punchline: It wasn't the best fried chicken in the world. It wasn't even the best fried chicken I had over the course of three barbecue-focused days in North Carolina (Beasley's Chicken + Honey in Raleigh and Grady's Barbecue in Dudley had it beat.) As much as I liked the sweet tea and rice with gravy, I left feeling disappointed and irritated, and the fault was entirely mine.
Very few fried chickens can measure up to "best in the world" standards. By definition, there's only one chicken on earth that merits such a title (I happen to believe it comes from Babe's in Dallas, but I'm willing to entertain counterclaims from fans of Stroud's, Price's Chicken Coop and Prince's Hot Chicken Shack, among other worthy contenders.) But that doesn't mean there's only one kind of chicken worth eating. Yet I forgot all those nuances while I was busy getting excited about The Pink Supper House. What could have been a perfectly decent chicken was ruined by my unreasonable expectations.
The question I should have posed before making the trip to Wallace, N.C. was not "am I willing to drive an hour for the world's best chicken?" (yes, obviously), but "am I willing to drive an hour to learn what someone I don't know considers a great chicken?" Here too, "yes" is the right answer. After all, the whole point of adventurous eating is not merely to tally superlative experiences, but to learn more about what other people eat and why. That's an expectation I don't plan to adjust.