When we were much more ravenous about collecting content, we often only had the opportunity to visit a distant restaurant one time and form an opinion on what might not have been a good day for the place. Earlier this month, we spent three days on the road eating barbecue, and one of my goals was to give a couple of restaurants another opportunity to amaze me in the same way that they’ve amazed so many other happy customers. It was a big success.
Our trip started in Asheville. We left our home in Chattanooga early one Wednesday morning, took in lunch at the soda counter at the Tinsley-Bible Drug Company in Dandridge TN, and got to Asheville a little after one. We spent the day shopping and enjoying the town, grabbed an awesome supper at Chai Pani, and generally regretted that jobs and opportunities didn’t lead us here in 2016. Maybe some other day.
On the other hand, Chattanooga is still a very affordable city, and Asheville isn’t. Prices are very high here since the landlords of this town are bloodsuckingly greedy, even for landlords. The most expensive meal of the eight that we sampled on this trip, by far, came at the celebrated, and terrific, Buxton Hall Bar-B-Cue, which was the only new-to-us restaurant that we visited. We got to share a couple of words with its co-owner, Elliot Moss, on our way out. Moss opened the restaurant in collaboration with Chai Pani’s Meherwan Irani in 2015.
Eastern-style whole hog is the centerpiece here, with some blisteringly good sauces, very tasty sides, and great servers that set out to make sure everybody finds something that they want. It was catfish for our son, and pork with both hash and rice and chicken bog for me. The server was thoughtful enough to double-check that I knew how much rice I’d be getting. Marie had a sandwich that she really loved, and had we wanted bourbon with our barbecue, as is often the case with cheffy places like this, we’d have been spoiled for choice. It’s a great, great restaurant, and maybe one day we’ll be back and try more on the menu and give it a few more detailed words.
In any barbecue road trip, mathematics and experience demand that there’s going to be one meal which doesn’t quite live up to the rest. This is going to sound deliberately provocative, but here goes: this was my third trip to Lexington Barbecue. The first two were very, very good. This one wasn’t. I haven’t been back to the Bar-B-Q Center, which I enjoyed more, because I come back through town with family members who need to sample the legend, and this time, the legend was having an off-day.
Still better to my taste than 99% of the barbecue around Chattanooga, the chopped pork at Lexington this time was greasier than I remember it on the last two visits, and the flavor was so much milder. It was pretty good, but Lexington should be better than this. Marie wasn’t impressed at all – she loved the style when I took her to Stamey’s the last time we tried a trip like this – and the kid just had a hot dog.
One big and terrible change has happened in North Carolina barbecue since the last time we were able to make a trip like this, in 2016. Several icons have closed. The original itinerary, when this trip was scheduled for November of last year, had us going to Jack Cobb & Son, which has shut. Then Marie moved into a new position at work that required a five-month “no PTO” commitment. We rescheduled to June, and then the replacement supper joint, Allen & Son, shut down. I said fine, we’d just go to Goldsboro and have Wilber’s. Closed down by the tax man. Fine, I said, we’ll go to Wilson and have Parker’s, because I don’t think that’s going anywhere.
Parker’s gets overlooked by the book-writing crowd, because they don’t cook whole hogs and they don’t use wood. And you know what? I don’t care. This chopped pork is hotdamned fantastic and worth more than just Plan D on trips like this. I freaking loved this meal. And the place was absolutely packed for a Thursday night. One of their managers was saying that their catering business has skyrocketed since Wilber’s closed and they’ve had to take on more staff.
Marie was also mostly very pleased, although these Eastern Carolina corn sticks didn’t impress her, and our kid had catfish again. But he tried the pork at each stop, and said that Buxton Hall was his favorite so far. We left and made our way to Greenville and ran into a monsoon, an ugly reminder of what had happened the last time we thought about driving around this part of the country. See, in 2016, we made our way here just after Hurricane Matthew had done its dirty work, and acted like a bunch of dumb, privileged tourists when we should have stayed out of everybody’s way while they dealt with rising flood waters. We wasted a lot of gas on that trip and learned an ugly lesson. But this time, things went a million times better.
We started Friday morning at the Skylight Inn in Ayden, but we could have started at any of about six other places I’ve never heard of before. Sam Jones sucks up all the publicity, and everybody in Greenville and Ayden is operating in his shadow. Our hotel was across the street from a huge place called Abrams BBQ and we passed at least three other restaurants on the way, including one of the other Parkers locations.
Marie likes Skylight Inn, but not nearly as much as I do. Our son thought the pork was pretty good, but he had the chicken and loved it. I’ve written about Skylight Inn twice before, and I’ll not better my original story, which is possibly my favorite on this whole 1603-chapter blog, so let’s just say this is my favorite restaurant in the world and move on to Grady’s.
My only previous visit to Grady’s, outside Dudley, I left thinking it was okay, but I must have come on a bad afternoon, because everyone else who’s written about Grady’s has been wild about it. This time out, yeah, they nailed it. This was absolutely fantastic.
The pork is moist, with just a little salt from the skins, and while the slaw is just empty calories, this was one of the best meals of the trip. It was just exploding with flavor, and didn’t need a drop of sauce. Marie agreed that it was a fine tray of pork – possibly better, to her mind, than the Skylight! – and our kid was likewise impressed, although the slice of cake he enjoyed was the real treat.
After that, we roared toward I-95, and raced to the Lowcountry. We stopped at South of the Border, which our son had never seen before, to use their restrooms and not spend any money, and then got the bragging indulgence of saying I had lunch at my favorite restaurant in the world and supper at my second favorite: Scott’s in Hemingway.
We’ve had Scott’s once already this year, in Birmingham (see the previous post), but the original location is a must-visit. We actually crossed paths here with a retired couple from our old stomping grounds in Kennerietta GA who were taking an eight-day barbecue road trip with their grandkid. Marie likes Scott’s even more than I do, and our kid, who had inhaled the turkey at the larger-menu’d Birmingham store, said that the chicken here was even better than Skylight Inn’s amazing chicken. Darn kid, always siding with his mother.
The second small disappointment of the trip came Saturday morning at one of our all-time favorite places, Hot Thomas outside Watkinsville GA. Everything was almost great, don’t get me wrong, but they drowned my pork in a little too much of their hot vinegar sauce, leaving the flavor of the pork struggling to get out. I should’ve ordered the hot ketchup-based sauce anyway; we’d had vinegar for two days already.
And the final stop, after dropping a chunk of change in Athens at Wuxtry on funnybooks – have I told you how disappointing Chattanooga is on comic shops? – was at Pulaski Heights BBQ. Another chance to right a wrong here: I’d visited Pulaski once before, on a full stomach, with some other, lesser restaurant’s far-too-greasy barbecue weighing heavily upon me. This time, I enjoyed a much better meal. The pulled pork is a little drier than I love it, but it still had very good flavor and the stew was fabulous. I should’ve given this very good restaurant another chance sooner. I always intended to, but with so many favorite restaurants around Athens and so much insistence on producing new content, it never happened. So there: Pulaski Heights is very good and anybody looking to sample barbecue around Athens, which everybody should, needs to swing by.
That wasn’t the very last stop of the tour, of course. We’re contractually obligated to stop by the Taco Stand every single time we’re in the Classic City. You can’t get great barbecue in Chattanooga, you can’t get non-superhero or non-Star Wars comics in Chattanooga, and you can’t even get a refried bean taco in Chattanooga. Sure, we love Mojo Burrito, but sometimes you just want the simple taste of home, you know?