North Carolina BBQ Tour with the boys of Namu Gaji (Part II)

*Last year, I was fortunate to join Chef Dennis Lee and Chef Jeff Kim of Namu Gaji on a whirlwind tour of the Carolinas to research barbecue for Lee's newest concept with Magnolia brewpub owner Dave McLean called Smokestack. Read the first part of the journey here

Stop #5 B’s Barbecue, Greenville NC (read about Stops 1-4 here)

We took a left on B’s Barbeque Road in Greenville, NC. Really, is there any greater sign of legitimacy for a barbecue joint than having a road named after your establishment?

In true barbecue fashion, B’s runs on their own schedule which means finicky hours and “roll the dice”  visits for barbecue tourists. B’s is open on Mondays, closed on Wednesdays. Want to call ahead and double check? You can’t. B’s has no telephones. 

A line of cars parked on the side of the two-lane road beckoned us toward the small white barbecue shack.  At 11 a.m., a line snaked out from the takeout window and the dirt parking lot overflowed with cars.  

The clientele at B's was a wonderful mix of locals- black and white, senior citizens and workers on their lunch break. Dressed in royal purple t-shirts, sisters Tammy, Judy and Donna McLawhorn hustle in perfect union, manning the takeout window and the line inside that stretched to the creaky screen door.  At B’s, the barbecue is smoked over Kingsford charcoals. The barbecue chicken tasted of 4th of July cookouts and the pulled pork came with an assertive vinegar sauce with flecks of red pepper. B’s also serves long skinny cylindrical straws of underseasoned masa in lieu of hushpuppies. Corn sticks. 

We ate carefully, knowing we had to stomach three more stops that day. The lunch rush gathered around the outdoor picnic tables and people talked of the day’s business over plates of barbecue. A cookhouse attendant came out to inquire into the health of a gentleman dressed in a civil servant uniform. Neighbors waved at familiar faces. The beloved B’s at the center of it all. 

Stop#6 Skylight Inn, Ayden NC

Next, we took off toward Ayden, North Carolina, the self-proclaimed BBQ “Capitol of the World." Picture small town USA with its gun stores, dusty antique shops with streaky front windows, open fields and dirt parking lots. Then, imagine a stately white dome rising like a Phoenix out of the rural ashes and you have the Skylight Inn. In case you miss the startling dome, a billboard proudly announces the Skylight Inn and its philosophy- “If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not BBQ.”    

In the dining room, a curious sound filled the air. Rhythmic steady pounding coming from the kitchen. Framed by the kitchen window, Mike Parrott, an imposing man with a goatee like Metallica lead singer James Hetfield, wielded two large cleavers, one in each hand.  He is the head chopper at the Skylight Inn. Headphones in, Parrott chopped whole hog atop a large cutting board with mesmerizing force. He tossed one cleaver to the left in one singular motion, slapping both cleavers onto the juice soaked cutting board. We called him the Barbecue Samurai. 

Parrott poured nearly an entire half-gallon of vinegar over the mound of decimated pork, seasoning with intuition and then returned to the concentrated pounding of the meat, blistered skin and all. We were so entranced by beat of whole hog barbecue that we had to be jostled out of our stupor once we reached the front of the line. 

There are two choices at the Skylight Inn- a pork sandwich or a pork plate with cole slaw and cornbread. We sat down to a plate of meaty hand chopped pork laden with bits of crispy pork skin and fat. The slaw was fresh and cold, crunchy and bright. The cornbread is a generations old recipe, pan cooked, doused in lard and pork drippings and cut into dense yellow squares. 

Lee took a bite of the cornbread. “This tastes like straight masa.” 

The pork at Skylight Inn was arguably the best on our trip thus far. Lee repeatedly took slow bites, examining the bits of skin and fat scattered throughout his pork plate, cataloguing the flavor into his cranial archive. 

Bruce Jones, owner of Skylight Inn.

Bruce Jones, owner of Skylight Inn.

Manning the front was Bruce Jones, second generation owner of the Skylight Inn. His father, Pete Jones also known as “The King of Barbecue” opened the Skylight Inn in 1947, the fifth generation of barbecue in his family. Jones works the front of house, industriously wiping down counters and tidying tables in his bright red apron. I approached him about seeing the pit. He told me we would have to talk to his son, Samuel. Once again, we were told to go "around back" where a pile of oak logs stood at the ready and a field full of collards hung in the backdrop. 

In the pit at the Skylight Inn

In the pit at the Skylight Inn

Inside, concrete blocks lined the pit, a similar setup of rebar laid over smoldering coals. A brick fireplace stood inside the cookhouse, red coals alight.  Unlike the chimney-like dungeon of Wilber’s, a small beam of light poured in through the open skylight. Concrete blocks created a primitive pulley and lever system for the lids that cover the pork during its 14-hour cook.

Mr. James, a 30-year Skylight Inn veteran (once the head chopper and veritable family member) stood back, taking a smoke break while Samuel obliged us in a discussion of his favorite subject. 

Mr. James

Mr. James

Dennis Lee, Sam Jones, Jeff Kim

Dennis Lee, Sam Jones, Jeff Kim

Consequently, Jones had just returned from a trip out west. Jones and the SF crew connected on kindred contacts. The food world became incredibly small inside that legendary cookhouse in Ayden. 

Jones began working full time at the Skylight Inn in 1998 but worked front of house before he could even reach the top of the dining table. He is the unofficial spokesperson of the Skylight Inn. Some call him the Prince of Barbecue and his no-frills cookhouse, traditional Eastern Carolina technique and family-bred work ethic made this encounter the pinnacle of our trip east. 

Jazzed from our run-in with Jones, we left Ayden and booked it toward Chapel Hill.  By this time, our meat consumption had reached capacity and we weren’t even finished yet. Lee broke out the apple cider vinegar, which we happily passed around the car, taking swigs to keep the meat sweats at bay. Pro-tip, y’all. 

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Stop #7 Allen & Son Barbecue, Pittsboro, NC 

Allen & Son in Pittsboro straddles the invisible line that separates Eastern Carolina barbecue from the Piedmont style found in Lexington. Opened in 1969, Keith Allen stays true to tradition. He still chops his own wood and cooks pork shoulders low and slow over a mix of wood and charcoals. 

We arrived during the calm hours between lunch and dinner and essentially had the place to ourselves. By this time, our appetites had waned and our pace, slowed.

The wood paneled walls inside were covered in Tarheel motif with baby blues and whites at every glance. Despite our decreasing appetites, we owed it to the trip to cover the table in food again. This time, it was a fantastically shreddy Brunswick stew (the best we had), the porkiest pulled pork and a smattering of fried stuffs-okra, hushpuppies, tater tots and fried pickles. 

At Allen & Son, Lee opened up about his kitchen philosophy, his early life growing up in a house full of female cooks (and fermented things) and how cooking, for him, is a personal act.  

In the 1960‘s, Lee’s aunt moved to Boston to open what is now the oldest Japanese restaurant in the city. Her move enabled his family, the Lee sisters, to emigrate to the US. Today, Lee’s mother owns Dahmee, a Korean, Thai and Japanese restaurant that helped to influence Lee’s own sensibilities. Consequently, Jeff Kim worked in those kitchens too. Those early experiences of family, food and tradition were what flooded Lee’s consciousness when the culinary itch claimed him. Today, Lee owns Namu Gaji with his two brothers, Daniel and Dave. 

As a chef, Lee is calm and deliberate, conscious with a slightly serious edge which I recognize as discipline. His laugh is infectious and when you have the privilege of hearing it, you feel as if you have accomplished something. Jeff Kim is cut from the same cloth which, I imagine, is why these two are friends. His demeanor is laid back and kind. Also, he was responsible for all the Cat Power we listened to while driving. 

The dining room at Allen and Son

The dining room at Allen and Son

Stop #8 The Pig, Chapel Hill

Our last stop in North Carolina was a last minute wild card recommendation. The Pig is a modern spot serving smoked meats and non-traditional offerings. No cookhouse or primordial pits. They do, however, make their own hot dogs, bologna and fixin’s and work with the Natural Hog Grower’s Association to use sustainable product. By this time, though, everyone was feeling porked out.

But, we ate anyway because we’re professionals. 

Porked out at The Pig

Porked out at The Pig

Stop #9 Scott’s Barbecue, Hemingway, SC 

The last day of our trip was reserved for a holy pilgrimage to one of the most revered  joints in the Carolinas. The boys were catching a flight home that afternoon, but we drove hours south nonetheless. A Carolina barbecue tour isn’t complete without a trip to Scott’s in Hemingway, SC.

Rodney Scott is the pitmaster here but was absent the day we visited. A quick phone call revealed Scott’s whereabouts- in San Francisco of all places. Southern hospitality did not escape Scott despite absence.  He readied his mother, Ella Scott (who founded the place with her husband Roosevelt “Rosie” Scott in 1972), for our visit.  The white house with turquoise paint detail is a beacon to barbecue enthusiasts serving some of the finest pit cooked pork. A dilapidated sign adorns the front and a church pew appropriately waits to give rest to the faithful. 

Standing on Hemingway Road

Standing on Hemingway Road

Inside, a woman dressed impeccably in a red jacket, black highwater pants and gleaming white socks and shoes looks up as we enter the screen door. 

“Are you...Keia?” 

“Yes, hi!” 

“Rodney said you’d be coming” 

She immediately walks to the back and prepares our barbecue plate. The charm inside Scott’s is endless- from the canned meats for sale to the old-school sodas and cheeky signs proclaiming the rules of the place. Not to be missed is the wallpaper sized smattering of newspapers taped to the wall. Press, accolades and praise, too numerous to count. 

Aunt Ann and Ella Scott at the counter

Aunt Ann and Ella Scott at the counter

We take our clamshells filled with pulled pork and chicken, along with styrofoam cups of baked beans, milky cole slaw and a sandwich bag of soft white bread to the picnic table outside. The pork from Scott’s barbecue is hand pulled, not chopped. So, the result is substantial meaty shreds of flavorful pork. Scott’s barbecue sauce is peppery and vinegar based, of course.  They are known for frying up the pig skins and serving it alongside the barbecue, usually given to those who ask. 

Before leaving, we strolled to the cookhouse where a few men were cleaning the pits for the afternoon.  Out back, the signature burn barrels of Scott’s, made of salvaged industrial materials, transformed the back area into a barbecue junkyard meets medieval landscape. 

As we wrapped our lightning fast trip, one couldn’t help but feel that we had stumbled upon sacred spaces, those places that eschewed the forward motion of time and instead clung to tradition, embracing live fire as a way of life. 

I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of the trip would be etched into the mind of my fellow travelers or how this journey would translate into Lee’s barbecue philosophy. All I knew was that we had seen and experienced things that would remain with us and that the people we had met on the road would be reincarnated into the new face of barbecue, Lee's own interpretation, backed by throngs of tradition.