Let the Barbecue Begin

Winston-Salem, North Carolina (and environs)

Family Diner (7911 North Carolina Highway 68 North, Stokesdale, North Carolina; 336-643-8853) is killer, a serious revelation. It left me shaken and giddy, as you’ll hear in the following podcast (note: I was way too ecstatic to attend to things like recording level, so the sound’s pretty bad. But this meal was a watershed moment for me, and I feel fortunate to have emerged with even this damaged fragment). MP3 file

Note that Family Diner is just the name in the Yellow Pages. As best as I can determine, the restaurant has no formal name.

Could you resist stopping here?

The bill of fare

Ruby fries are not red. They’re fries in the style of a woman named Ruby —one among a daily rotating list of chefs (including Jimmy, creator of the eponymous burger).

But how can anyone eat food this great without swearing?

Teeth strictly optional. Food needn’t have texture to be great.

No need to wait till September 23; just scarf the chicken and dumplings.

On impulse, Tom Philpott (from Maverick Farms, who accompanied today) and I pulled over to check out a small, tidy rural fish store run by an old, kindly African-American man. His inventory consisted of a few bags of cornmeal and a dozen or two fish (not sure what kind) so fresh and clear-eyed that the fisherman must be a blood relative. The store had no fishy smell at all. I tried to hit up the owner for chow tips, but he directed us toward the sprawl. Finally deciding that there was just no use to be made of a large raw fish during a two-month car trip, I bought a bag of self-rising cornmeal and headed back to the car.

As we walked down the sidewalk, another mystical guide (see the “spirit guide” portion of report #7) appeared. A middle-aged white man in an orange baseball hat missing a quantity of teeth, who’d been in the store, had come out on the sidewalk and was yelling at us. Resisting the impulse to run, we hesitantly walked back and learned that he was asking what sort of restaurant we were looking for. We said barbecue. He sent us, with great authority, to Hill’s Lexington Barbecue (4005 Patterson Avenue, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 336-767-2184).


I loved the place, though their sauce is way too sweet for Carolina taste (being less doctrinaire, I wasn’t bothered a bit), plus it does seem hyperbolic of them to advertise as “The Original Lexington Barbecue” when they’re not even in Lexington.

Check out the feast we ordered:



Back row, left to right: string beans, creamed potatoes, fried squash, hush puppies. Front row, left to right: chopped barbecue sandwich, sliced barbecue with outside brown, (red) slaw, baked beans.

Before you read further, I need to bring you up to date on my unfolding knowledge of “outside brown.” The following is an article I wrote just after my last North Carolina barbecue trip:

Going Brown

As a food writer, I don’t spend much time contemplating my personal likes and dislikes. It’s my role to be a chameleon, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Malaysian fish head curry even if I’d privately prefer to be scarfing pizza. My goal is to appreciate things on their own terms. So I rarely order what I feel like eating; I order what I suspect the place does best, and aim to gauge the objective quality of foods that I may not subjectively prefer.

With that in mind, I must confess: I’ve never loved North Carolina barbecue. I’ll rave over it when it’s good, I’ll drive hours out of my way for a top rendition, I treasure my Lexington Barbecue T-shirt, and I can triangulate location without the use of maps, simply via subtleties in the vinegar/tomato balance. But to me, frankly, this style of barbecue offers few of the pleasures of barbecue to the south or west. There’s no sublime juxtaposition of crunch, chaw, and meltingness; it’s just a mass of uniform pork meat packed into a sandwich. This is, after all, ‘cue in a hamburger bun, and the best that can be hoped for, in truth, is a sloppy Joe with moist, well-chopped meat and a decent balance of sauce. That, plus tiny variations in smoke quantity and quality, is what differentiates great North Carolina ‘cue.

But then I found God. And God is Brown. Or, at least, He orders Brown.

Let me explain. I’d seen passing references to lesser-known ways of ordering Carolina barbecue but figured they were esoteric variations on the same basic thing, which I ignored in my efforts to immerse in the fundamentals. Nobody, damn them, ever gripped my shoulders and told me I was missing everything. I’ve read twenty jagillion barbecue books, and none of them explained that there is one, and only one, way to eat Carolina barbecue.

Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue was no exception. It mentions that “with outside brown” is a hip order in certain places. Again, it’s offered as a mere variation, like a soy milk latte. Wrong. Brown is the crunchy skin and the meat right near the brown crunchy skin. It is essential, and all the metric tonnage of Carolina barbecue prepared and consumed sans Brown is wrong and ungenerous and woefully incomplete —in truth, not quite really barbecue. Brown should never have been withheld; it’s precisely the thing I’d always found missing. Brown is crunchy and succulent. Brown is salty and smoky and deep. It is the yang to the yin; the prosciutto to the melon; the hot ironing and lemon juice that expose the invisible writing and make the paper convey A MESSAGE!

NC barbecue ordered with Brown is like your first taste of fresh-filled cannoli. No, it’s so much more than that. It’s like having a really great burger after a lifetime of Wendy’s. No, it’s like your first lasagna after the taste bud transplant. I’m struggling here, but stay with me. In one bite I went from appreciating Carolina barbecue in an intellectual food-writerish sort of way to appreciating it in an I’m-selling-all-my-belongings-and-moving-down-here sort of way. Genre utterly redefined, attention riveted, appointments dropped, cholesterol swelled, lapels stained, political party switched, Jesus Christ adopted as personal savior. Finally, I got it!

After the reverie of my first bite wound down, I expected to look up and find myself in utter harmony with the rapture around me. I, the big-city Yankee rube, had been ordering wrong lo these many years, but North Carolinians would now spiritually welcome me into their fold. To my extreme anguished shock, however, I seemed to be the only person in the room eating barbecue with Brown. Almost none of the locals were hip enough to know. THEY WERE EATING THEIR OWN FOOD WRONG!

The Buddhists say that a sure sign of enlightenment is a powerful urge to awaken one’s fellow beings. And this is how I know that Brown is Good: As I worked blissfully through my sandwich, I found myself noticing my fellow eaters who’d not yet found Brown, and pangs of pity drove me to wonder how I could show them the light. I asked a waitress why everyone didn’t order Brown, and she hemmed and hawed, and finally whispered, with some embarrassment, the answer:

If everyone ordered Brown, there wouldn’t be enough for all.

So don’t pass the word, OK? Save it only for those righteous enough to merit the Good News.

Armed with my new hip ordering strategy, I ordered sliced barbecue with outside brown at Hill’s. It looked great:

... but was actually pretty dry and unpleasant. Outside brown is not always, it seems, the hip strategy. The bits of non-brown barbecue were pretty great, though. And Hill’s regular chopped barbecue sandwich was tender and very good (even with that heretical sauce).

I should have ordered sliced regular, and not resorted to oustide brown. Live and learn. Anyway, the hush puppies were terrific (it’s becoming a ritual for me to deem each new hush puppy the best I’ve ever had, but that’s just evidence that the trip’s going well!).

Excellent, excellent banana pudding, with lots of meringue and ‘Nilla Wafers mixed in:

Looking for ‘Cue in All the Wrong Places
We had, er, some trouble locating a legendary barbecue place called Wild Hogs. Hear all about it in this podcast: MP3 file. Warning: This podcast is rated R for vulgar language and shocking accounts of lewd and deviant behavior.

Finally, on to Short Sugar’s (234 South Scales Street, Reidsville, North Carolina; 336-349-9128), a local legend not well known outside the area.

Short Sugar’s is, as you can see, super down-home, with open kitchen and open pit, and everyone involved talking and hanging out with you as you eat at the counter —plus lots of cross-talk with other customers. I vastly prefer this back-of-the-house ambiance, which is rare in North Carolina, though it suits barbecue so well.

We ordered a minced (their term for chopped) barbecue sandwich and a sliced sandwich. No fooling around with outside brown; we just took it straight. It was wonderful, coming with white cole slaw (places to the west add a bit of sauce to tint the slaw red) and intense hush puppies.

Like Hill’s, Short Sugar’s also uses a heretical sauce: Theirs is dark and sweet. The minced/chopped ‘cue takes to this sauce better, as greater meat surface area injects more smoky counterpoint. But sliced is great here, too. As Tom notes, it’s the perfect texture—super-tender but not stringy.

North Carolina Barbecue Joint Chowscape
Groove on some ambient sound at Short Sugar’s BBQ—punctuated by Tom and me trying to figure it all out. Listen with headphones for best effect. You Are (Eating) There! MP3 file