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Carolina BBQ roadtrip II (Parkers, Wilburs, Skylight Inn, Gradys, Smithfields)

dwkayak | Aug 15, 201612:16 AM

Approximately 45 years ago, my mom and dad and I drove from Landover Hills Maryland to Jacksonville Florida for a family reunion. I was 9 years old and still have such fond memories of that trip. On the way down, we pulled off the interstate for lunch in Wilson North Carolina and ended up eating at Parker’s BBQ. I am almost certain it was then that I fell in love with Carolina BBQ. Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve taken several BBQ road trips and a year or two ago posted reviews from one such trip here on Chowhound. Now, having taken yet another such trip, I will do so again.

This trip was against an unpleasant backdrop as I was traveling from Atlanta, where I now live, to Knoxville to take care of some issues with my mom who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (dad has long since passed away). The trip to mom’s would be a bit more than 3 hours driving straight, but I instead turned it into a mini-vacation (or at least a minor respite from less pleasant things), driving into and through the Carolinas, and stopping for lunch and dinner at various BBQ restaurants that I had either enjoyed previously or had read good things about and wanted to try. So here's what happened, and my commentary on the food.

Day 1 – I had hoped to eat at Midway BBQ and also at Cannon’s (both in South Carolina) on my next BBQ outing (i.e., this trip). Unfortunately, because I left on a Tuesday, I wasn’t able to put Cannon’s on this trip‘s itinerary as they are only open Thursday through Saturday (strike 1). I decided that my first stop would instead be Midway (in Union SC). Having skipped lunch and getting a later start than I had wanted, I was ravenous, but that was all for the better as I had hoped to try several items from their menu. I had heard so many good things. Finally I arrived, but as I pulled into their lot, it seemed oddly empty. My heart sank as I pulled up to the entrance and read the hand written sign on the door “Will return next week” (strike 2)! Major major bummer!! I was hungry as a bear, and was so looking forward to that ‘cue (and the hash and a couple of other items). So far as I knew, I was out in the middle of nowhere with no good food options but too hungry to go on without something, so lunch ended up being KFC.

I still hoped to get some good BBQ though and decided to juggle my planned itinerary a bit and have dinner at Wilbur’s in Goldsboro (approximately 4 hours away). On my previous BBQ trip, I had a really good meal at Wilbur’s (it was the best of that trip - my review is still on the Chowhound board somewhere) and had wanted to go back. I knew I would have to hustle to get there before closing, but my mapping program said I could do it so off I went. However, with each passing half hour, my program added a few more minutes to my ETA. At one point it seemed as if all hope was lost, but then, unexpectedly, the program told me that an alternate route had become available and it would save me nearly 30 minutes. Yay!! I finally got in the area but the exit I needed to take was a bit odd and I went past it before I knew it. No worries I thought. I’d just go to the next exit and turn around. Well, things just went downhill from there. The highway I was on (bypass 70E) was apparently somewhat new and so far as my mapping software (iPhones “Maps””) knew, didn’t exist. The display showed that I was driving through the woods, and all the program would tell me was “proceed to the route.” It seemed as if the BBQ gods were conspiring against me. But still I was hopeful. I still had about 25 minutes to get there before closing and I didn't really need my program to tell me to turn take the next exit and hightail it back to the one I missed. Well, as it turned out, the next exit was something like 10 miles away and when I got off, there was no turnaround ramp to get back going in the opposite direction. Instead, I ended up on some other highway that also went for quite a few miles before any option of getting off. My mapping program was still useless but I thought I could probably circle back on another road and get to the right area and maybe get routed back to Wilbur’s a few minutes before they closed. I soon realized however that it was not to be. Time had run out (strike 3). On my way in to town, on the mystery highway, I had seen a billboard for a new Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N-Bar-B-Q that had opened in Goldsboro. I checked the web on my phone and saw that they were open late (till 10PM as I recall). So off I went. Although I am somewhat leery of chain BBQ restaurants, I had read a number of good reviews for Smithfield’s and vaguely recall having had a good sandwich many years ago at another location.

Smithfield notes – Brunswick stew was good but not, to me, a destination stew (e.g., if I lived in the area, I would rather eat their stew than a McD’s burger, for example, but wouldn’t go out of my way for it). It was unappetizingly pale and rather monotone (put some green beans or corn or tomato in there). The hushpuppies had some nice crunch and had just a bit of sweetness which I like (I often dip my hushpuppies in sugar to make them more sweet – sort of like a churro I guess). The BBQ was shredded, moist, had decent flavor, some pre-existing heat and a fair amount of tang which I attributed to vinegar. Actually, for just a second, I thought the meat might have been bad but it was just something about how the vinegar flavor was interacting with the meat. After I had a couple more bites, I got used to it and thought it was pretty decent – not great, but decent. I had slaw on my sandwich. It wasn’t particularly sweet (which I usually like in a slaw) and didn’t provide much crunch. The bun too was a weak spot in my opinion as it quickly became soggy when I added more BBQ sauce and hot sauce. Another weakness for me was that there were no greens on the menu; the sides were beans, stew, slaw, potato salad. All-in-all, I thought it was just OK. I drove to Wilson and went to bed.

Day 2 – I had planned on eating at Bill’s for lunch. Bill's has been a competitors of Parkers for some time and over the years, I had read a few comments which made me think it might be better. Plus, I believe that they have an all-you-can-eat buffet, and I really love BBQ buffets. Just before lunch, I stopped to get some gas. Across from me was an elderly gentleman who had the look of someone who really knew his BBQ. I asked if he was local to the area (he was) and if he had an opinion on Parker’s vs Bill’s. He told me that a few years ago, he would have said "six of one, half a dozen of the other" but things had changed. Bill apparently died not too long ago and the restaurant is now being run by 2 or 3 relatives. I’m not sure exactly what he meant but he said that it was a bit of a “scandal” around town (my interpretation was that there was a power struggle or something) and that the food had suffered. Maybe I shouldn't even mention that because I have no knowledge one way or the other beyond what this guy told me, but it was enough to dissuade me from Bill’s and to return instead to the BBQ I had imprinted on so many years ago, Parker’s. I am so glad I did. Wow, I really loved this place. Even apart from the food, I love the ambience. I walked in the door and was immediately seated. “Waiter” seems especially appropriate terminology at this place as they have a large, sharp-looking staff that literally seems to be hovering around the door waiting for something to do for you (seat you, take your order, clean your table). They really hustle; lots of energy here. I told the server that I wanted to try some fried chicken, Brunswick stew and, of course, BBQ pork, and he steered me towards the most cost-effective way of putting that together (this place is very much a bargain, so no matter how I put that list together, I would have left feeling like I got my money's worth). I had an option of two sides. The only one I wanted was slaw, but I decided to add some boiled potatoes as well. So here’s the review. The sweet tea was perfect for me (not too sweet, not not sweet enough, but just right). It sounds like a minor detail, and I guess it is, but I also like the kind of ice they use (the small loose stuff that you scoop out of an old school ice machine). I also really like the diminuitive little pitcher they bring it out in. I loved my fried chicken wings. I always like fried chicken wings, but these wings exceeded my expectations. Not at all greasy, nice and meaty, and lots of flavor...and so good with hot sauce (I think it was Texas Pete). I just wanted to try one and thought that the cue would be the highlight, but I liked the chicken every bit as much as the pork. And what about that pork? What can I say…it was just perfection. More finely chopped than at Smithfield’s. I didn’t have the sandwich so I can’t comment on the bun. As an aside, when the server brought my food out, he asked if I thought I had enough meat (we had discussed how much I should order shortly before). I said something like “Maybe, I’ll let you know.” A minute later, he brought me out a bowl with more meat for no extra charge!! So it was effectively all-I-could eat even if not advertised as such. This pork also seemed like it had vinegar mixed in but it was better integrated into the meat than at Smithfield’s (so much of this is opinion and obviously a function of one’s own taste). I believe that some pitmaster’s apply vinegar to the pig as it cooks, while others mix the vinegar in with the chopped meat afterwards. Perhaps Parkers takes one approach and Smithfield’s the other. I really don’t have any idea, but I did think the vinegar was perfectly incorporated with the meat at Parker's. The sauce at Parker’s was a typical eastern Carolina sauce. It’s a simple thing, but I thought that their’s was very nicely done. Perhaps most surprising was the boiled potatoes because really, that sounds pretty ho-hum, right?....but oh my gosh were they good. They had a very nice flavor and a really good texture (not mushy or mealy or grainy) that was uniform throughout. That is to say, as I bit down, there was this soft yielding resistance all the way through. I was impressed by this as I would think that just boiling a potato would lead to a potato that was more well-done on the outside and less well-done towards the middle. But these potatoes were just perfect. The only thing I didn’t care for particularly were the corn sticks. Just not my thing I guess. OK, what else? The yellow color of the slaw was initially off-putting to me, but the slaw was actually very good. It was a bit sweet, but also had some vinegar mixed in and was a perfect complement for the BBQ. I felt the Brunswick Stew was fairly average (actually, I don’t remember much about it so I guess I was neither impressed nor disappointed to any great degree). All-in-all, I thought Parker’s hit it out of the park.

Later that day, I tried once again to go to Wilbur’s. Again however it was not to be. My mapping program took me to an empty lot. With little time to spare before closing, I drove a bit further and ended up in a rather seedy neighborhood where I pulled over to consult the web on my smartphone. After just a few seconds however, I saw a young lady kind of approaching and hovering near my truck. She was obviously selling something but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t BBQ (Strike 4). I put it in drive and headed back to Wilson where I had dinner and a Margarita at a fairly decent Mexican restaurant.

Day 3 – From my base in Wilson, I made the 45 minute drive to Ayden for lunch at the highly-vaunted, indeed iconic, Skylight Inn. I’ll try to be a bit more succinct from here on out. The sweet tea was on the verge of too sweet (for me) but good enough. The chicken (BBQ not fried) was a surprising treat, apparently grilled and then soaked in a thin, somewhat sweet BBQ sauce. The corn bread was OK, but very dense. The cue itself was finely chopped and somewhat unique on account of the crunchy bits (I think this is what people call "outside brown") that were mixed in with the meat. At first I really liked this, but partway into my sandwich the novelty wore off and I came to feel that these crunchy bits were more of a distraction than anything else. Some people really like them though so like most everything else, take my opinions with a grain of salt. As noted above, the meat was chopped more finely than anywhere else I ate on this trip. In my recorded notes, which I am listening to now (about 2 weeks after the fact), I compared the texture of the meat to chunky peanut butter, and to something that had been pre-digested. I also felt the slaw was substandard. It was somewhat sweet but didn’t seem to be dressed up with any other seasonings (e.g., salt, celery seed) and it too was so finely minced that it seemed a bit airy, and also watery (I would guess that the more finely it is chopped, the more cellular membranes are disrupted and the more cabbage juice leaks out). Several styles of BBQ sauce were served. They were all OK but I can't say that any of them knocked my socks off. The most successful offering was the pineapple cake (not upside down cake, just a regular cake with frosting). I don’t believe this is a daily item, but it was quite exceptional so if they have it when you visit, go ahead and get yourself a slice. All in all, I’m glad I visited this place but don’t plan on returning.

Day 4 – Finally got to Wilbur’s. As I think I mentioned earlier, I had eaten here once before and really loved it, but this time I wasn’t as impressed. The place is a bit dingy (e.g., faux wood paneling on some of the walls, heavily lacquered knotty pine on the ceiling, an old-style grooved letter board on the wall to list menu items…it kind of reminded me of Mel’s Diner from Alice). The office is oddly juxtaposed with the restrooms which you get through by going through some swinging saloon-style doors. The paint on the wall is chipped off where the swing doors bump into them. I also thought the AC could have been working better (or the thermostat could have been turned down a bit). But what about the food and drink? The tea was very good. The Brunswick Stew was kind of ho-hum and had too many mushy potatoes. It would have been better if there was a something in it to give it a little texture. The cue however was very nice, and that’s the main thing I came for. It seemed to have a little more fat than some of the cue I had had elsewhere, and I felt that this really helped bring out the flavor. I thought it was quite successful. There were a few pieces of outside brown in the cue but not enough to be a distraction as I thought was the case for Skylight Inn. The slaw was respectable but not quite sweet enough for my tastes. Like everywhere else I recall, Texas Pete was the hot sauce. I had some green beans which I’m pretty sure were just mushy canned green beans with too much sodium and a few strands of BBQ thrown in. The limas (or were they butter beans, or is that the same thing), and tomato slices were also not worth eating (and I didn't save for a bite or two).

Day 5 – I had tried to visit Gradys on a previous trip but I didn’t have their hours right and they were closed. So on this trip, I gave it another shot. I went for lunch on a Friday. There was a bit of a line but all in all it didn’t take that long to get to the counter and get my food. For me, the tea was a bit too sweet. The boiled potatoes were OK, but I wouldn’t get them again. They didn’t have that nice yielding resistance that the ones at Parker’s did. It tasted like they might have had a bit of butter in there but I’m not sure. The collards were cooked perfectly, but they had a bit of a dark flavor if that makes any sense (maybe it’s a bit of bitterness) which I attribute (perhaps incorrectly) to more mature rather than young plants. I wasn’t too crazy about the cue. They seemed to have as much diced skin mixed in did The Skylight Inn, but it wasn’t cooked to a crunchy cracklin’ type of texture, but rather, just seemed like some spongy, chewy, skin. I spit most of them out and didn’t even finish my cue.

Day 6 – I returned to Parkers, partly because I enjoyed it so much the first time and partly to do a test-retest reliability check. I was concerned that maybe I had just tired of BBQ and associated food items, and that that had contributed to my less than stellar reviews of some of the places listed above. Once again however, I really enjoyed my meal at Parkers, and now, 3 weeks later, typing this in Knoxville TN, I am really missing it and longing for more.

If you made it all the way through this, congratulations (or perhaps I should offer my sympathies). I did not intend to be so wordy.

Carolina BBQ & Chicken,
Skylight Inn BBQ
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