North Carolina BBQ Tour with the boys of Namu Gaji

There are rites of passage in a food writer’s life. First travel assignment. First cover story. First pilgrimage to a food mecca. First full fledged meat assault. In my case, it was a serendipitous chain of events that afforded me the opportunity to join a couple of San Francisco chefs on a barbecue tour through the Carolinas. 

Here’s the short version of how it went down:  For my first trip to SF last year, a chef friend recommended I eat at a restaurant called Namu Gaji. I ate there on my last night in town and met the chef’s girlfriend who mentioned that her chef/ partner/love was headed to North Carolina to explore barbecue culture as research for a new restaurant concept. I boldly got an email address and then politely asked to tag along. Mind you, I had never met the chef in person. 

My email went something like this: “Hi, you don’t know me, but I live in Charlotte and would like to join you on your barbecue tour. I’m not a stalker. Can I come? Pretty please.” 

To which Chef Dennis Lee replied yes, much to my astonishment which brings me to a learned philosophy: You’ll never know if you never ask. 

What ensued was a whirlwind trip of the Carolinas, nine barbecue establishments in three days. 1,034 miles by car with two Korean boys from San Francisco. My very first meat odyssey. Baptism by smoke. 

Lee’s gustatory journey would be a study of whole hog barbecue, experiences he would use to inform his newest restaurant venture, a no-frills barbecue counter and brewpub with Magnolia Brewery owner Dave McLean called Smokestack. Lee would also travel to Austin and Kansas City before concluding his research.

Our trip began with a single shotgun to the head. The night before Lee and his street food chef (and best friend) Jeff Kim arrived, a young sow gave its life to furnish the unofficial welcome to the Carolinas. After a full night of service in SF, the two chefs hopped a red-eye to Charlotte and arrived bleary-eyed to a small house in Rock Hill.

I recruited friend and barbecue provocateur “Dan the Pig Man” Huntley for the party. Smoke billowed from the Pig Man’s smoker while folks milled about the charming front porch, sweet as the tea clinking in their cups. The sacrificial sow, shrunken and coal black, waiting patiently to be loaded into a large, rustic bread bowl.

Four men including Kim hoisted the hog to its serving dish. Inside, a table was covered pot-luck style with side dishes- pickles, macaroni and cheese, collard salad and a sampling of barbecue sauces in mason jars. 

The Pig Man in his butcher black apron, red-faced from the smoke and the giggle juice in his big-gulp sized mug, opened the onyx carcass with an audible crack. The pig, splayed open, revealed rose colored meat. No sooner did the boys take a seat, plates full, that the Mason jars came out. Moonshine. Handmade and potent. This brings me to another guiding Carolina principle- if Dan the Pig Man asks you to go out to his truck- always go. That is, if you like moonshine. Kim takes a sip of the ‘shine. Even with hints of vanilla bean, Kim’s face bunches into a pucker akin to a baby having its first taste of lemon.

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Lee, on the other hand, takes a shine to the ‘shine. His favorite is the original version, unadulterated and full-throttled. He returns to the mason jar throughout the evening, twisting the ringed cap to steal a swig. That evening, Huntley holds court in the living room, talking pig, fire and “frog eyes.”  We languish on the porch with budding chefs and Southern foodies, chatting up the weary travelers who are now fortified and washed in the blood, ready to dive head first into the land of pig and smoke. 

Lee getting indoctrinated into the the holy order of the 'shine

Lee getting indoctrinated into the the holy order of the 'shine

The itinerary for the trip was ambitious. Four stops on Monday and Tuesday and then a grand finale at the southernmost destination in Hemingway, South Carolina. 

Here’s the rundown:

DAY ONE 

A Hyundai Sonata pulls up to my home early Monday morning.  Dennis Lee steps out, reppin’ hard in his Namu Gaji hoodie and SF hat. A late night texting session with Chef Mike Moore of Seven Sows in Asheville leads us to our first destination, M&M Meat Locker in Hendersonville, one of the last vestiges of old-school meat markets. Coolers sit stacked outside the small butcher/packer. Residents of Hendersonville drop off their fresh kills  for processing and fabrication. 

We are met by Mike Moore and his cohort, fellow chef Elliott Moss. Moss opened the Admiral, a well-loved Asheville establishment years ago. He now hosts Punk Wok on Monday and Tuesday nights and is currently working on a new concept. On this day, he looks as if he has just stepped out of the 70’s with a knit beanie and oversized ombre sunglasses that are equal parts Jeffrey Dahmer and Ron Jeremy. Moss and Moore are close friends, brothers made in the kitchen.

The nature of their relationship is best illustrated by this SAT-inspired analogy---     Moore:Moss :: Lee:Kim 

Chef Mike Moore with his grandaddy's rabbit box and the tattooed meat temptress painted on the wall at Seven Sows 

Chef Mike Moore with his grandaddy's rabbit box and the tattooed meat temptress painted on the wall at Seven Sows 

Moore, who is as genuine and friendly as they come, schooled us in Southern foodways. He talked of his life experience growing up in Wilson, a small town in Eastern NC not far from one of our BBQ stops. Over a batch of local bourbon at his restaurant, Moore waxed poetic on Southern traditions showing us his grandaddy’s rabbit boxes while Moss talked of his youth growing up in Florence, SC. They would join us for lunch at our first stop. 

Stop #1- 12 Bones Barbecue, Asheville

12 Bones is a BBQ joint in the River Arts District of Asheville. The old, industrial locale belies the relative newness of the restaurant itself. The signs at the door offer explicit directions on “how to order”, a hallmark of old-school establishments. Our table was covered in barbecue sauces, a nominal clue toward the non-traditional nature of the place.The blueberry chipotle ribs were tasty, albeit new age. The pulled pork was good, not too smoky. The best part of the meal besides the collards and corn pudding (which was more like cornBREAD pudding) was the company.  It was equal parts respect and education happening at the picnic table under the awning. We never saw ribs again. If it ain’t pulled pork, it ain’t Carolina barbecue. 

     From left to right:Elliot Moss, Mike Moore, Dennis Lee, Jeff Kim

     From left to right:Elliot Moss, Mike Moore, Dennis Lee, Jeff Kim

Stop #2- Lexington Barbecue, Lexington, NC

The white building that is Lexington Barbecue stands in the same place it did  when Wayne Monk first established the restaurant in 1962. Locals refer to the place as “The Monk” or “Honeymonks,” after its founder.  A screen separates the kitchen from the outside. Smoke billowed from the smokestack and inside, Rick Byrd, a 27-year veteran cook shovels coals and tends to the full oven lined with pork shoulder, Lexington’s signature cut. We press our faces to the screen to watch. Byrd invites us “around back” where hickory logs are piled Jenga style. On his forearm, a tattoo reads “Hell hath no fury at all." Apt for man working in a Hades hot kitchen much of his life.  

He showed us his method pork shoulder gets a simple dousing of salt and pepper and is then placed onto the grates over hickory wood smoke. Byrd uses a simple piece of cardboard to keep the ash from traveling upwards. In the restaurant, polite women smocked like hospital nurses zip around the restaurant exchanging pleasantries and pouring refills of tea. Our server, who has never eaten a piece of pork in her life, took the order. Coarse chop barbecue, slaw, hushpuppies (which were definitely shaped like cat turds) and a pig skin sandwich.

Served between a soft white bun, that sandwich was crunch and smoke and fat and everything that is good in this world, save the carcinogens that boosted its character.  

“That’s going on my menu, ” said Lee. 

The coarsely chopped pork shoulder came in tiny cardboard boats.  On the table was quintessential North Carolina vinegar based barbecue sauce. But, this one had a touch of sweetness from the very Lexington addition of ketchup. Texas Pete, ubiquitous in the Carolinas, donned the table too. Collectively, we considered this our first true stop. 

Lexington was good. Many swear by it. We had nothing to compare it to yet, but later, it would occur to us that Lexington has it’s own thing going on. Pork shoulder. Red slaw (that’d be slaw with the ketchup-y barbecue sauce mixed in) and Rick Byrd. 

Stop #3 Wilber’s, Goldsboro NC 

Though we would travel farthest for our last stop in Hemingway, South Carolina, Wilber’s in Goldsboro felt far like time travel is far.  Church billboards and motor home parks dotted the landscape. The closer we got to Goldsboro, the more skeptical we became that Wilber’s would be open.  Every restaurant, it seemed, was closed for the evening or shuttered for good. 

Jeff Kim wondered aloud, “Is this place even going to be open?” 

My Google search said yes. We arrived after dark in rural Eastern Carolina, The neon sign was a beacon in the dark. If driving east wasn’t time travel enough, stepping through the door at Wilber’s was like a wormhole inside the wormhole. 

Linoleum red checkered tablecloths lined the tables.  Faded Air Force posters and athletic memorabilia covered the wood paneled walls. Our server, smocked in a navy blue apron and crisp white shirt, brought us a basket of hushpuppies for the table, Goldsboro’s answer to the bread basket. We ordered a plate of pulled pork, half a chicken, brunswick stew, collards and fried chicken livers. Also, tea with the best crushed ice, like Pizza Hut back in the day, right down to the red melamine cups. 

The barbecue sauce at Wilber’s was thick with black pepper, added with a heavy hand reminding me of a  Caribbean jerk sauce.  Chicken gravy came with the meal, a salty combination of chicken jus, butter and hot sauce which turned out to be a thinner, more chicken-ier version of a buffalo sauce. It made the chicken livers palatable. Our server, Keith Edwards had been working at Wilber’s for 26 years and had never left Goldsboro. He worked at the driver’s license office by day and weekend nights at Wilber’s.

Jeff Kim, sweet tea

Jeff Kim, sweet tea

On our way out, a quivering old man who intuited that a young lady with a funny haircut and two Asian fellas weren’t from around these parts asked me if I had met Mr. Wilber Shirley, the establishment's namesake. The word is that the long-time tradition of pit-style barbecue was grandfathered in by the people of Goldsboro. They’d been cooking whole hogs over smoldering coals for so long, the community wouldn’t have it any other way. The supposed agreement is that once Mr. Shirley dies, the restaurant must go to using gas. 

“That man right there is Mr. Shirley,”  said the man, pointing to the soda shop counter where a couple of men sat in swivel seats. 

I walked over to the slim owner, said hello and thanked him for the meal. He nodded, didn’t seem all that interested, but let me snap a picture. 

Mr. Wilber Shirley

Mr. Wilber Shirley

Upon leaving, we noticed smoke coming from the back of the building and asked to see the cookhouse. Edwards told us to meet him around back.

A bonfire burned in the dirt parking lot and a large pile of wood laid out under the open sky.  A young girl danced around the open fire, her father hanging in his pickup, presumably picking up or dropping off an employee. The cookhouse was small.  Inside, primitive boxes made of concrete were laid with rebar to create a “grate".  Certified kitchen, it was not. The concrete walls were covered in an eerie black slick, decades of hog cooks lacquered to the walls. A gas-mask, reminiscent of kamikaze fighters, hangs on the wall. Goldsboro’s solution to breathing easy in the cookhouse.

Just then, a ghostly figure passes through an enclave at the rear of the cookhouse, floating past the entryway. I assumed he didn’t want to speak to us. 

On our way back to the car, a voice called out.  It was the apparition, returning with a wheelbarrow full of pig carcasses. He asks if we'd like to see him start a cook. We circle back and watch him unload the bare-skinned, lifeless halves, split side down, onto the grates. After that, he will hold vigil for the next 10-12 hours shoveling coals from the bonfire outside, listening to the cadence of the fat drippings to guide him until morning. 

“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” I thought. 

In that small, greasy shack, I felt like we were being let in on a secret.  We left exhilarated, having just reached the core of Carolina barbecue. That energy carried us all the way into Raleigh, our home base for the night. We landed at The Pit just before closing time and grabbed a seat  at the bar.

In the smoky catacombs of Wilber's

In the smoky catacombs of Wilber's

Stop #4 The Pit, Raleigh, NC 

Ed Mitchell put this place on the map serving Eastern Carolina whole hog barbecue. Although a near life-size picture of him remained on the wall, it was evident that his soul had left the building. We sat at the sweeping bar and ordered from long menu, full of punchy Southern-inspired appetizers and a litany of barbecued items and entrees. 

Our bartender, though accommodating and pleasant (especially since it was so close to closing time) proved to be a tad green. 

“It’s barbecue, anyone can do it,” he said.  Clue number one. 

What followed was a series of “foot-in-mouth” remarks, peppered with gross unawareness and a splash of oversharing. Let’s just say he was not a 20+ year veteran the likes of Keith Edwards or Rick Byrd. 

Lee remained calm, polite even. 

“That place gives me,” Lee pauses, “perspective.” 

We left stuffed from a day of porky excursions and exhausted. Tomorrow was another pork marathon, beginning with B’s Barbecue.