A Lexington Sampling Tour (part two)

After a terrible night’s sleep in a pretty good hotel, I was ready for some more barbecue on the second day of my trip. I knew that my first stop was going to be a great one, but how would the second stop fare?

Here’s part one of this story, for those who’ve Googled here.

I left my hotel around 9:30 and drove to downtown Lexington to get my oil changed and get some exercise. I’d been through this city a few times before but never seen the downtown area. This is a great way to get some exercise on trips like this: get in a few thousand steps in the morning before it gets too hot. I visited a much-loved old grocer called Conrad & Hinkle, which has somehow survived in the shadow of national grocery chains for 119 years, and also stepped into a candy shop and enjoyed the window displays of a comic store that didn’t open until eleven. I was curious to stop in, but I was on a tight schedule. My destination later in the day was Grandfather Mountain, and since they were enforcing some social distancing policies, I had to buy my tickets earlier in the week for a set time and could not dawdle in Lexington.

So at eleven on the dot, I pulled under the shaded canopy of the mighty Bar-B-Q Center. I came here once before, six years ago (that long!), and absolutely loved it. This second trip didn’t disappoint. This restaurant opened in 1955 and has become an internationally-known icon of the local barbecue style. The pork is smoked just perfectly, tender and moist and just packed with flavor.

My only complaint was a very silly one: there wasn’t as much dip as I’d prefer, but there were, strangely, more than twenty packets of ketchup in my bag. I suppose that there are people who dip their hush puppies in ketchup, but even they would think this a bit much! But it’s hardly like the meat needs any sauce in the first place; it’s smoked just right. I think this blog is long past the point of needing to get more and more content. I’ve visited seven of Lexington’s barbecue restaurants now. Should the road ever bring me back this way, I think I’ll just come back here.

I needed to get a move on, and then I realized I’d made a dumb mistake in setting my itinerary. The week before, I had taken the time to phone the two open-on-Sunday restaurants that I chose to make sure they’d be open, and the Bar-B-Q Center had noted on Facebook that they’d be open Monday the 27th after taking a week’s vacation. But for some dumb reason, I didn’t double-check the hours of Rick’s Smokehouse. I just assumed they’d be open and they weren’t. At the time of this story, they are closed – hopefully temporarily – on Mondays and Tuesdays, with a sign out front saying they are having supply chain issues.

No matter, I said, because I passed literally three other barbecue restaurants on the drive between the Center and Rick’s, so I just turned around and went back to the nearest of the three, Kerley’s. I took a seat and then compounded my itinerary mistake by making two additional huge howlers. First, I pulled up the Barbecue Bros’ Lexington Big Board to see whether they’d featured this place. They did, and Kerley’s is ranked very low in their book, 13th of 14 Lexington restaurants. Since I seem to agree almost completely with Monk’s assessment of the Lexington places I’ve tried, only swapping his # 1 and # 2 around, that didn’t bode well.

Then I said to myself, you know, you’ve had red slaw three times in a row. You should order white just to mix things up. What was I thinking?

Sidebar: I always get very annoyed when I mention that I don’t like something and am told that I did it wrong or I need to give it another try. This often happens when you’re around devotees of certain sci-fi or fantasy franchises, but dog owners are the worst. If I mention that I don’t like dogs, nine times out of ten, some jerk will tell me that I just haven’t met the right dog yet and/or that surely I don’t mean their wonderful dog.

So I try very hard to not do that to other people. And strangely, most of the time, I don’t even get that urge to shove something down a disinterested friend’s gob, except and unless – and this is so stupid and weird – the subject is cole slaw. I’m sure many of you read that fine writer Mark Evanier’s blog. I’ve been following his blog for more than a decade, and every once in a blue moon, he’ll mention that he really can’t stand slaw. It’s not a recurring gag or anything, just something he’s mentioned from time to time.

And this does not make any sense. Millions and millions of people will mention in millions and millions of spaces that they don’t like this food or that and I don’t care. But somehow, madly, when Mark writes that he doesn’t like slaw, I invariably think to myself “That poor man. We’ve just got to get him some good slaw. If he doesn’t like mayo slaw, we need to get him some nice vinegar slaw or some of Charlie’s hot slaw or take him to Lexington to see how they make red slaw with barbecue dip.” Then I slap myself in the face and say stop being stupid.

I indulged myself subjecting you to that sidebar because if at any time in my youth I’d been subjected to slaw this bad, I’d never eat it as an adult. I asked for white slaw and they gave me a mammoth scoop of half-melted Miracle Whip with some flecks of cabbage in it. It was revolting. It contaminated the pork. I mentioned yesterday that I think the Lexington-style tray developed so people could balance a little sweet slaw with the meat, just as much as they’d like to share on the fork. But this was so foul I just wrote off the meat that was touching the mayo, like a cranky toddler whining that his hamburger steak “touched” the broccoli.

I see that I’m avoiding talking about the pork. Well, it was not at all greasy, which was very nice, but nor was it in any way smoky, which was not. Kerley’s building was constructed to accommodate an indoor pit with outside access, but there is no wood anymore. Economics have demanded they work on an indoor gasser instead, which is unfortunate.

I’d like to think that I’m neither a purist nor a snob; I enjoy plenty of barbecue restaurants that don’t use wood. North Carolina is absolutely full of fantastic barbecue joints. Parker’s in Wilson has been using gas for longer than I’ve been alive and it’s probably in my top five in the state. But Kerley’s meat just doesn’t have the power or the oomph that I want from a plate of barbecue. Good smoking technique can boost you up there and bring out a lot of flavor. If you’re not smoking, you need to be doing something in the kitchen to make that pork shine, and Kerley’s doesn’t do it. Even if I’d ordered red slaw, this would have been the least of the four meals I had on this trip.

I was a little discouraged, but I was full and under budget. I took I-285 out of town and then US-421 north to pick up the Blue Ridge Parkway. I enjoyed a great drive and some wonderful time outdoors at Grandfather Mountain. The massive detour for barbecue in Lexington may be a bit eccentric, but everybody should spend a little time on the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway. Take some family members and plan to stop at some of the trailheads and I bet you’ll have a really amazing trip.

Bar-B-Q Center
900 N Main St.
Lexington NC 27292

Kerley’s Barbecue
5114 Old U.S. Hwy 52
Lexington NC 27295

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