Foodie Travels: Allen & Son Barbeque, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Allen & Son barbeque

Allen & Son Barbeque serves one of the best Southern meals you’ll find anywhere. We won’t back down from that statement at any cost. In a state divided by preferences over barbecue styles, Allen & Son cooks up some of the best pig we’ve eaten anywhere. The sides are also fresh. The tea is sweet and plentiful. And you can’t beat the homemade desserts, especially the pies. Oh, my, how we love the pies. As our waitress told us, “if a pie looks perfect it’s not homemade.” Well, it may not have looked perfectly symmetrical on every side, but it sure tasted perfect!

Allen & Son Blueberry Pie

This legendary eatery on the north side of Chapel Hill, on the left if you’re headed from Interstate 40 toward Hillsborough, greets you with checkered tablecloths and a simple dining room. When we see checkered tablecloths, we know we’re usually in an old-fashioned joint that focuses most of all on its food and service. And that’s just what we got at Allen & Son. We’d heard great things, and the place downright delivered at every turn. That started with sweet tea that was so dark we knew it had been steeped a long time, just how we like it, with plenty of sweetness, and a jug for refills just for our table.

Allen & Son tea

Of course we sampled the pork barbeque, as Allen & Son spells it, and it was chopped up in nice big chunks, meaty, seasoned to a perfect vinegary flavor and containing wonderful little pieces of crispy brown skin throughout. Our plate came with coleslaw, delicious hushpuppies and a soft, yeast roll perfect for cradling a few bites of pork.

We also sampled a cheeseburger, and we were blown away by it, so much that we dare say the Allen & Son burger is one of the top five we’ve had anywhere in the South! And we eat a lot of cheeseburgers. The meat was plentiful and clearly hand-pattied, something we expect of an all-time great burger. The cheese was melty. The bun was soft and big enough for the sandwich. And the toppings of chili, mustard and onions blew our tastebud doors right off! Pretty darn near close to burger perfection, that Allen & Son cheeseburger.

Allen & Son Cheeseburger

After our main course, we knew we were going to enjoy some pie. We just didn’t know how much. We ordered one piece of chocolate and one piece of blueberry, both with a scoop of homemade ice cream. There’s no doubt the ice cream was homemade, as it contained the little icy shavings characteristic of home-churned ice cream. The berries were fresh and flavorful. And the chocolate was rich and decadent. We savored every bite until it was all gone.

Allen & Son Chocolate Pie

Our service was fast at Allen & Son, and our waitress was quick to make suggestions to better our meal and our experience. We’ll be back here every time we visit Chapel Hill or pass by on the way east or west on I-40. Chapel Hill is a food town, full of amazing places to get a great meal, but Allen & Son just might be our favorite foodie stop of all. Don’t dare miss it if you’re anywhere nearby! It’s the definition of a #FoodieScore.

Allen & Son BBQ

Allen & Son Barbeque, 6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Foodie Travels: McClard’s Bar-B-Q, Hot Springs, Ark.

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As I’ve traveled this vast food nation of ours, I’ve noticed a striking response from many of the restaurants I’ve shared with other diners. Some folks seem to have a penchant for high-end restaurants in modern, museum-like spaces that serve expensive, “premium” food that barely fills the center of the plate. Others appear to prefer the cliché chain establishments that all have the same menu of good but unmemorable food, served very much in a cookie-cutter style.

McClard’s Bar-B-Q doesn’t fit into either of those categories. And that’s just the kind of spot I’m always seeking when I’m ready to sit down for a good meal anywhere across the country. Yes, McClard’s is part of a class of restaurants that is unique, iconic and customer-focused, all while serving delicious one-of-a-kind plates you can’t get just anywhere else. That’s also the take of a review on the restaurant’s website. Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham says:

“I am an actor and have made movies all over this great land. I’ve eaten BBQ from Kansas to Missouri to the Carolinas to Alabama, and McClard’s is the best, no doubt about it. I’ve eaten there many times and everything they make is so good, I just don’t understand why there isn’t a McClard’s everywhere I go.”

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I can’t disagree with those sentiments. I’ve enjoyed barbecue of all kinds (pork, ribs, brisket, burnt ends) from Texas to Kansas City to Memphis to Birmingham to the Carolinas, and McClard’s is right there in the mix for the greatest Q out there. We made a planned visit during a day at Hot Springs National Park, and my wife, Molly, and I found just what we were looking for when we scoped out the joint months in advance. (You’ll find McClard’s is listed by Thrillist as the must-visit restaurant in all of Arkansas.)

As we sat down and were about to order, it was a tough choice for me—chopped pork or ribs—until I saw a few plates coming out of the kitchen. I had the plentiful rib plate with beans and slaw. The ribs were incredibly meaty (an issue with other ribs that I’ve previously discussed on other posts), and the sauce had just the smoky-sweet flavor I’m looking for in a wet sauce. (Dry rubs are another ballpark altogether, and I like both.) The beans possessed a meaty taste and just a little bit of spice kick. Everything cooled down with the creamy coleslaw to round out my plate.

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Molly enjoyed a hearty, fresh cheeseburger and decided to add a tamale on the side. Now, it’s the first time in all of our barbecue experiences that we’ve seen a BBQ restaurant serve tamales. We were almost suspect to try them, but we love a good tamale. McClard’s is the spiciest, softest tamale we’ve ever eaten. For those who like a strong punch in the tastebuds, it’s a must-try.

That’s how I’d also categorize McClard’s as a whole. When you drive up and park, you smell the smoky barbecue as soon as your vehicle door opens. You spot the cooking pit out back. You hear the local crowd inside the dining room as the restaurant door opens. Folks around you are wearing Arkansas Razorbacks gear.

Maybe there is one thing on which I disagree with Mr. Abraham. McClard’s Bar-B-Q is certainly among the best I’ve ever had. But the fact that there’s only one location, established in 1928, is just fine with me. If there was a McClard’s on a corner in every town, it just wouldn’t be as unique, as special and as Arkansas. No, I love McClard’s just how and where it is. When it comes to great places to have a meal, it’s just what I’m looking for every time.

McClard’s Bar-B-Q, 505 Albert Pike, Hot Springs, Ark.

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Foodie Travels: Carolina BBQ, Spartanburg, S.C.

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I’ve savored barbecue from corner to corner of North Carolina, but South Carolina is a different story. I realized recently that I couldn’t name even one prime barbecue restaurant in South Carolina that I could recommend to a BBQ-loving friend. So, of course, we had to change that.

Earlier this year we came across Carolina BBQ—perhaps the most common name for a barbecue restaurant in either of the Carolinas (seriously, there’s one almost everywhere it seems)—and I added it to my #FoodieScore scouting list for the state of South Carolina. (We receive a lot of “you have to eat here” recommendations, and each one goes on a list that changes almost daily. Thank you for your great suggestions!) Luckily, Carolina BBQ is in Spartanburg, which is about a 90-minute roundtrip from our home in Shelby, N.C. And it just so happens to also carry Southern Living magazine’s endorsement as the best barbecue in the state of South Carolina.

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Normally, I’d classify barbecue restaurants into two categories, legendary dives and modern Q shacks. Carolina BBQ is almost a solid hybrid of the two. From the outside of the place, you almost get the sense you’re about to venture into a decades-old kingdom of delicious meats and sides. When you walk in the door, it feels like a new-age take on the old lunch counter experience, with bar-and-stool and booth seating available.

Then you hit the menu, and you continue to toe the line of old school and new school. Carolina BBQ plates a hearty assortment of Carolinas BBQ favorites. We’re talking pulled pork (always my first meat choice at a Carolinas BBQ establishment, and theirs was a nice mix of meaty and seasoned), sliced pork and half chicken, the stuff you read on the menu of an iconic barbecue spot. But keep reading because there’s also St. Louis ribs, beef brisket and smoked turkey, and that’s just the meat.

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The side dish lineup is strong, including creamy, thick, hearty mac & cheese, the biggest fried squash you’ve seen in your life, creamy and crunchy coleslaw, and quite possibly the best Brunswick stew I’ve ever eaten. For folks not familiar, Brunswick stew is a thick soup that usually contains lima or butter beans, vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes and corn, along with shredded meat and spices for flavor. A cup of Brunswick stew is the perfect warmup on a cold day, and I’ve eaten my share of it from my days living in Eastern North Carolina. Carolina BBQ’s stew will also delight folks who are more familiar with the term “chili” or “chili beans” due to its warmth, richness and spice kick.

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Of course, a restaurant’s barbecue sauce of choice is always a heady question, and that’s one place Carolina BBQ functions as more of a modern Q shack. There’s no one sauce to rule them all. You get three on the table. When I think of South Carolina barbecue as shared by the traveling experts, I think of a mustard sauce, and Carolina BBQ’s is a good one, with a solid influence of mustard but almost a smoky-sweet side to it as well. There’s also a “mild” sauce that, to me, had more of a kick to it. And finally there’s a Cheerwine sauce that tastes more like Cheerwine than any Cheerwine BBQ sauce you’ve ever had in your life. If you love Cheerwine, you have to try it first, especially if you’re not already drinking the soda by the same name, so you can tell the difference. The sauce is a ringer for the taste of the North Carolina-based soda that celebrates 100 years in 2017. I had to sample all three sauces in separate areas of my plate, and I couldn’t pick a clear favorite. They’re all good.

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My pork plate came with two sides AND four hushpuppies (so did my wife Molly’s savory smoked turkey plate, of which there was so much that she took half home), so we had plenty to eat without dessert. But how could we resist either the deep-fried brownie bites or homemade banana pudding? We went with the banana pudding, which is unlike most you’ll find in our part of the South. The pudding is sweet, light and almost airy, not heavy at all, filled with fresh banana slices, and all on top of a crunchy pecan sandie-like cookie base. When you dig in with your spoon, dip all the way to the bottom to get a solid crunchy bite of that cookie as you scoop up through the pudding, the bananas and the whipped cream. For someone who likes to get creative in the kitchen, the Carolina BBQ banana pudding is a delightful new take on the classic Southern dessert.

Carolina BBQ offers both the classics as you’ve come to love them and favorites with new twists—and we loved both angles—so I might have to create a new “hybrid” category to describe similar barbecue restaurants. One thing’s for sure: This Spartanburg Q shop has plenty of choices for you, and they’ll all come at an affordable price. We savored two plates, two drinks and dessert for $23. Not bad at all for a filling Saturday dinner!

Carolina BBQ, 7115 Lone Oak Road, Spartanburg, S.C.

Foodie Travels: Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn.

North Carolina has always been my home, but my heart for barbecue has always been in Memphis, Tenn. Unfortunately, until recently that penchant for Memphis-style barbecue only lived through the enabling of national brands that emulate the tradition.

No longer.

img_1183We recently spent a couple days in Memphis, “the pork barbecue mecca of the world,” as the history reads on the website for Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, the location of my first authentic Memphis BBQ experience. And what a baptism in barbecue paradise our dinner at “The Rendezvous” was.

Just a few blocks from iconic Beale Street, The Rendezvous is tucked away, the entrance off an alley in the city’s downtown. You know you’re close to the place when you catch the whiff of the pork aroma in the breeze between the tall buildings surrounding you.

Seeing the crowd, we expected a solid wait to savor the taste that accompanies the fragrance, but that was not the case. Almost as soon as our names went on the wait list, we were called to our table for two and our rendezvous with a barbecue masterpiece.

For me, the type of barbecued meat I order stems from the location where it’s prepared. In Texas, I had to sample the brisket. In North Carolina, it’s the chopped pork. In Memphis, and at Charlie Vergos’ establishment, I had to try the ribs, known for their dry-seasoning rub and signature vinegar wash to seal in the moisture.

Our waiter (more on the wait staff in a moment) smartly urged me to purchase a full order instead of the half size. And it turns out he wasn’t just trying to make a sale. For $3 more, he wanted to make sure I fully immersed myself in the foodie experience that is The Rendezvous’ ribs.

img_1196Pull-apart tender. Cooked to perfect doneness all the way to the bone. A seasoning that delights ALL of the senses. Ten meaty pieces, each more pleasurable than the last, until the final rib that makes you wish you lived in Memphis to visit for dinner at least once a week. That’s how I would describe the ribs at this “mecca” of barbecue.

In addition to sampling one of my ribs, Molly enjoyed an incredibly flavorful barbecue chicken sandwich, with a delicious smoky taste enveloped by a hearty, soft bun. And both of our main courses were accompanied by a side of wonderful baked beans and slaw, which offered a unique mustard base in lieu of the mayonnaise base that we’re accustomed to in our home state of North Carolina.

As heavenly as the food at The Rendezvous is, the price you pay also provides a front-row seat to a unique dining experience. The place has been a Memphis mainstay, just a short distance from the Mississippi River, since the 1940s, and you get the feel of an old-time eatery in the décor of the building and the presentation of the wait staff. Many of the waiters have served at the restaurant for decades, and you can tell from the smiles on their faces that they enjoy their jobs every night.

There are so many places in Memphis, Tenn., to experience “Memphis-style” barbecue, and specifically ribs. From our experience, I don’t see how any of them could top Charlie Vergos Rendezvous.

 

Charlie Vergos Rendezvous

52 S. Second St., Memphis, Tenn.

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Foodie Travels: Lexington BBQ, Lexington, N.C.

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When you’re in sight of a restaurant on a Friday night and see a full parking lot, that’s a good sign. When you’re walking toward the building and you spot a smokehouse with multiple chimneys and a rack inside with countless levels of fresh meat, that’s a good sign.
I’ve traveled across the state of North Carolina for years, often passing Lexington without stopping for a taste of their barbecue. On a recent trip, I decided I’d passed up the opportunity too many times, and Molly indulged me with a stop at Lexington BBQ, right off the old Business 85 in town.
We lucked out that we arrived just a few minutes before the Friday night dinner line started forming (and that was even after having to sit in terrible traffic on I-85 north of Charlotte). So we got to stroll right in and find us a seat.
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I started the meal with a Cheerwine on crushed ice. Then I followed with my favorite way to start sampling any kind of North Carolina barbecue: chopped sandwich on a bun with the slaw on the side.
Let me tell you, I’ve experienced North Carolina barbecue from the mountains to the coast. I’ve tasted all sorts of flavors and textures of barbecued pork meat. The thing that strikes me about my barbecue at Lexington BBQ is that it delivered a combination right in the middle of a western North Carolina style I’ve had many times (smoky meat without a mixed-in sauce) and the eastern North Carolina style I dined on when I lived in New Bern (soft pork with a vinegary sauce).
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I liked the combination, and I liked this eating spot. We could sense we were among the few non-locals in the place, and I liked that feeling. The place had an old-school feel to it: non-fancy, local art with barbecue themes hanging on the walls, and food served on disposable plates.
If you’re not a barbecue eater or have one in your group, maybe someone would enjoy the fish sandwich. Molly’s not quite the barbecue fan I am, so she likes when BBQ restaurants offer other options. Her fish sandwich was very good: flaky, fresh (and not greasy) fish on a soft and flavorful bun.
Lexington BBQ offered good food, good and efficient service, and a great local atmosphere. It’s the kind of place where strangers hold the door open for you. And we’d recommend it to you if you’re interested in sampling central North Carolina barbecue during your travels through the area.
Lexington BBQ
100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington, N.C.
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