A Lexington Sampling Tour (part one)

Marie wanted a few quiet days to sip tea with her mother, and I wanted to drive fast along curvy mountain roads. So we packed our masks and said our goodbyes and I decided that I could find something to eat as well. I’d been through Lexington NC three times before but never really stayed to linger. I wondered whether any of the town’s famous barbecue restaurants were open on Sunday…

Since the nation went into its halfhearted attempts at lockdown four months ago, I’d thought about writing something here, but it just got too depressing. Most of our favorite restaurants shut down, some of them permanently, and while we mostly eat at home, we get carryout from some of our favorite Chattanooga places each week. We hope that Zarzour’s and Acropolis and Mojo Burrito and Crust Pizza – which just opened its doors again for takeout only this past week – weather this all right. Remember to tip generously, readers. If you can afford a meal from a restaurant, you can afford to tip well.

We’ve been working from home and finally agreed to use some of our built-up PTO. Marie and our son went south and I went east, first to Cherokee NC, then along the amazing and wonderful Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, then across freeways to Lexington. I decided I’d pick four restaurants, hoping for two that are open on Sundays. I found four with Sunday hours, one of which – Smiley’s – I’d visited when I blew through town four years ago. I picked the two that I ended up choosing blind, without reading any reviews. I’m glad I did that; as you’ll see when I write the second half of this story in a few days, plans got changed on me the following day and after I made a course correction, I glanced at a much-loved and valuable resource while waiting for my food, and didn’t like what I read.

That much-loved and valuable resource is, of course, the indispensable Barbecue Bros, who have visited fourteen of this city’s barbecue joints. Now that I have finished my four meals in town, about the only point that I’d disagree with my learned friend Monk on the meals I had is his silly notion that Cook’s BBQ is located so far out in the sticks that it reminded him of the film Deliverance. I’ve seen that movie; it doesn’t play out in a suburban cul-de-sac. It is, nevertheless, an incredibly strange place for a restaurant. You’d expect the spot to be filled with a two-story house with a garage and a basketball net and instead there’s a restaurant with a big parking lot and a leaky air conditioning unit.

I was reminded of stumbling upon Kinorhook Bar-B-Que in Eatonton GA many years ago and being pleasantly amused that the place sprung up before modern zoning laws were enacted. But those were different times; seven years ago, I could enjoy a few minutes talking with Kinorhook’s delightful owner about his prep and his story. These days, we wear masks when we speak, and we speak as little as necessary.

I was very, very hungry when I got to Cook’s and so I ordered a large tray. In the restaurants around the Piedmont Triad – Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, and their suburbs – the tradition is to give you a paperboard boat filled on one half with chopped pork and dip and in the other half by slaw. I expected a large tray to just be an even-more-filled boat. At Cook’s, you get two boats. This is astonishing value for money, easily enough for two people to share, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the pork as much as I hoped. The smoky flavor that we look for in good barbecue was here, but it also felt greasy to me.

Mind you, I’d been in the car with minimal breaks for nine hours; what my body needed at this time were a couple of apples and five thousand steps, not a mountain of meat. It’s possible this was not the best time for either me or the restaurant to work together.

So anyway, I boxed up most of my food, enjoying the red slaw and the little pearl-shaped hush puppies more than the meat, as I looked for possible hotels. I found a place, walked up and down the hallways, and left about seven and hoped for the best. In my long experience, barbecue tends to taste best earlier in the day. Fortunately, Backcountry Barbeque came through and gave me a more satisfying meal than the first one I tried.

This was a much better meal in every way. Well, the little pearl-shaped puppies were about the same, but I liked the slaw and the meat here quite a lot. The meat tasted smoky and flavorful, and the dip did not overpower the meat. I think that the tray style developed this way so that happy eaters can mix both on their fork, with a little sweet slaw to balance the pork. Backcountry could move to Chattanooga and I would eat here all the time.

My server wasn’t sure when the restaurant opened – “it’s older than me, and that’s all I know!” said the girl in her mid-twenties – but Monk did the heavy lifting for me and nailed it down to 1984. I suspect the building is a lot older and housed a restaurant before them. The patterned brick tile floor looks like something from the early sixties. Over the last 36 years, they’ve built up a big crowd that loves the place. The current social distancing rules mean that quite a few people had to wait outside, and the servers were constantly moving tables to meet the needs of the situation.

I enjoyed the second stop more than the first, and I was fairly sure I would enjoy my next stop even more. But first I had a terrible, terrible night’s sleep ahead of me. I’ll try to get part two of this story finished for you soon. Until then, stay safe and stay well, everybody!

Cook’s BBQ
366 Valiant Dr
Lexington NC 27292

Backcountry Barbeque
4014 Linwood-Southmont Rd
Lexington NC 27295


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