O M F G. As I'll be leaving the South for good in a matter of days and don't have finals during exam week it seemed necessary to hit some of the 'cue places I'd heard about but never got around to visiting. Naturally, I'd have to eat at all of them in one day. Mayhem ensued.
So, six stops, six trays, all solo, over 4.5 hours. It was intense. I'm in pain. But I think it was worth it.
Starting in Durham, I ventured to Chapel Hill to visit Allen & Son. Then to Mebane to eat at A&M Grill, then Graham for Hursey's, then Greensboro for Stamey's, then finally to Lexington for Barbecue Center and Lexington Barbecue.
My rankings and brief comments follow.
1) Stamey's - Perhaps the surprise winner, the outside brown, sliced was near perfect. A great balance of smoke and salt and just enough contrast between chewy exterior and firm yet still tender interior. Service here was also great. Super fast and super friendly. I also like that they serve pretty much only 'cue and no fried chicken, fish, etc. The Brunswick stew was an unnecessary, but surprisingly tasty addition to my fourth meal of the day.
2) Lexington Barbecue - A great product and really nice balance between smoke and texture. I actually thought the sauce was too overpowering for the meat and preferred the rendition of Lexington-style sauce at Barbecue Center. I ordered soft outside brown, coarsely chopped and it was really very nice. Had I not been so surprised with the quality and experience at Stamey's, Lexington Barbecue would've taken the prize. I could see craving either depending on the day. Also, despite the fact that this was my sixth meal and I was in terrible pain, I NEEDED to order the basket of hot, fried pork skin. These were super-duper porky. Like porkiness verging on gaminess. Best in small quantities or crumbled atop one's 'cue.
3) Barbecue Center - I really "got" Lexington-style 'cue here. The sauce was still NC-style, but the addition of tomato gave the sauce a freshness that worked well with the acidity and pepper. Here, I had outside brown, chopped. A really solid spot, no complaints at all.
4) Allen & Son - I had been to Allen & Son once before and sampled much of the menu with a large group. It was my standard bearer of NC barbecue until today. Allen & Son really ups the smoke, which I quite like, but at the expense of porkiness. The former three find a great balance between rub/seasoning, smoke, and natural flavor of the meat, not to mention texture/moistness. Allen & Son puts out a great and unique product, but I found it too one-dimensional today. Too smokey, too dry. I enjoyed eating it, sure, but it wasn't new heights. At first I thought it was because I had ordered outside brown, chopped, but my experiences at the other restaurants proved that the balance I was looking for could be achieved.
5) Hursey's - Taste-wise this was actually my least favorite. It was, however, a very unique product. Not much smoke at all, but the chopped meat--they don't do outside brown here--was unbelievably moist. Not watery, as in sitting in its own juices on the place, but as soon as it hit my mouth it just exploded with porky juiciness. If one could serve a pork roast with this same juiciness you'd have a hit. This was, however, not barbecue to me because the smoke just wasn't there. Think of it like a better version of Bullock's The slaw here was actually not good, perhaps the only objectionable side I had all day.
6) A&M Grill - All in all, not bad, but not that great either. I had the sliced barbecue--no outside brown here either---as the waitress informed me that this would be the best option. This was more like roast pork, also light on the smoke but not so light as Hursey's. It lacked the mouth-filling unctuousness that Hursey's provided and so lacked any defining characteristic that could've helped its standing.
On the drive home I was pretty much drunk off of pork fat. Still, I recommend driving east on 64 as opposed to picking up 85 and 40. A pleasant, farm- and church-filled drive, minus a few strip mall-filled towns.
I'm eating nothing but raw fruit and veggies until Friday. Seriously.