Last week (Sun-Sat)I took an extra week's vacation and visited all the heavily mentioned BBQ places in N.C. that are most frequently recommended and those that win most of the polls. I am not a barbecue expert and make no claim to be, and I will not attempt to rate these places on a scale, but will make quite a few comments about my experiences.
This encompasses the following places:
Pappy's in Banner Elk 9/12 lunch
Lexington Barbecue #1 9/13 and 9/18 lunch
Stamey's in Greensboro 9/13 dinner
Allen and Son-Chapel Hill 9/14 lunch
Bullock's in Durham 9/14 dinner
Moore's in Kenly 9/15 lunch
Mitchell's in Wilson early dinner 9/15
Bill Ellis in Wilson 9/15 LATE drive-thru
B's in Greenville 9/16 lunch
Skylight Inn in Ayden 9/16 lunch
King's in Kinston 9/16 lunch
Wilber's in Goldsboro 9/16 dinner
Parker's in Wilson 9/17 lunch
Keaton's in Cool Springs 9/17 dinner
Snappy Lunch in Mt. Airy 9/18 lunch famous PORKCHOP sandwich only--to die for
Ridgewood Barbecue-Bluff city, TENNESSEE 9/18 dinner
I took notes every time. First, some exceptions--I usually ordered plates--white bread isn't healthy and just masks the BBQ taste. Almost all the barbecue was chopped except Pappy's, King's and possibly Moore's (pulled)--oddly enough, almost all the 'cue was served about the same (no sauce or very light vinegar/pepper sauce on it)--I prefer to add the sauce(s) myself. I guess I chose well--I could not determine any major differences between them--they were ALL uniformly good--the portion size didn't vary much per dollar spent, but sometimes you get a choice of 2 or 3 sizes--if I was hungry, I got large--at Skylight, I got medium (see additional notes) Had combo with one dark piece of chicken at Parker's--it was not memorable as I was expecting, but barbecue was great.
The Ridgewood was the lone exception--their 'cue is sliced thinly, then warmed on a grill and (sweet,tomatoey) sauce added--I didn't like it that much. People still rave about this place,tho.
Sides-- slaw and some type of cornsticks or hushpuppies were the customary accompaniments. I tried to stay away from excessive fries for health reasons, and often would try to substitute something for them (e.g. beans). So I may have missed some great fries--onion rings at Bullock's were great.Best hushpuppies were at Lexington Barbecue IMO--many were small and crescent-shaped and were second best. My least favorite were the long, thin, overly crispy corn sticks (B's and one other place I don't recall) Bullock's served a large basket of pups upon arrival. The slaw was slightly different in almost every case--Lexington and Stamey's were almost identical--the pink kind. The rest were more traditional--whether sweet, white,vinegary, green or peppery--ALL were good, and I didn't waste any. Best beans were clearly Ridgewood (got a quart to go for 4.95)and Lexington was second.
Worst beans by far was Bullocks--had one bite--they were the strangest beans I ever saw--couldn't even identify them--kind of a cross between pintos and broad beans. Kinda mushy, too.
Service was usually good, even in the packed places. Only Keaton's on Friday nite was intolerably slow (took a solid hour to get my dinner after ordering at the front counter--table opened 10 mins later and 50 mins after sitting down,dinner arrived--that's easily the longest I have waited in 10 years plus) BUT Oh, momma--their chicken was so good that I would gladly do it again--only I would order 2 or 3 times as much chicken and take some home. Had long conversation with the waitress(Billie) at Wilber's--she was curious why I had ordered the beef plate rather than pork (it was the daily special and a slight change of routine.) Didn't like the beef as much--after seeing that I was taking stuff home, she brought me a generous serving of chopped pork to put in the box--I tipped her well.
I bought sauces at Lexington and Keaton's--the Keaton's sauce comes with a copied recipe to do it at home (a certainly in near future)I can't explain Keaton's chicken--it is marinated, but doesn't seem barbecued, but it has a unique flavor.
Only place I had great difficulty finding, even with Mapquest printouts was Ridgewood--saw the location on a big map, BUT the turnoff to 19E is not marked--you have to go through Bluff City to see it, not continue south on 11/19 until it becomes 11W. No signs for Ridgewood--make a sudden right onto Elizabethton Highway from 19E and Ridgewood is about a mile. Still, there was line outside 20 minutes after opening for Saturday dinner and no spots left except on side of the road. The locals know where it is.
I drove past Parker's 3 times at night at 8:45 or later because they turned their lights off by then--not at 9By 8:57, the door was also locked--i showed them the Jim Early book, told them I had come a long way, and asked them why they had closed early and turned their lights out. You know the rest. Bill Ellis drive -thru had pity on me at 9:05 (closed at 8:30)and sold me some dinner--they deserve a gold star for going the extra mile.
All things considered, I would say that Lexington had the overall best experience--food quality, price, hours, service, etc. Wayne Monk is often right there working the counter and his daughter was quite a gracious hostess to coordinate carry-out, etc. Carry-outs were packed well in hard plastic containers in case you have to bury them in a cooler, etc (I did on the way home)to keep the water out.
Desserts-- banana pudding was uniformly good--had peach cobbler at Lexington--cherry at Allen and Sons--latter was dark,baked more and heavy on cherries and quite unusual with a very thin crust, but good.
Got 2 fried pies (apple and peach) at lexington--haven't eaten them yet--the last ones they had and you have to ask for them--they also have Cheerwine soda which is a great accompaniment.Bread pudding at Allen and Son's is more like a heavy cake, but good--just different.
Moore's was probably the cheapest meal--they have 1.00 sandwiches on Tues and Wed--Skylight (very limited menu) was a close second-- but watch those 2 guys chopping away on a huge stack of pork behind the counter (I took a picture)-as authentic as it gets, so what they do, they do well.
Brunswick stew was best at Stamey's (thick and meaty)--OK at Lexington and worst at Moore's--more like thick, canned overly tomatoed vegetable soup.
Well, I think that covers most of the dining experiences. Now, you may have noticed in the list above that I covered 3 establishments in a very short period of time (3 hours and 15 minutes flat from beginning of B's to end of King's) I hadn't intended to visit King's, but when passing through Kinston just after visiting B's and Skylight Inn, I was still hungry and stopped in--they unexpectedly had a BUFFET with pulled pork, fish, chicken, etc on it--less than 6 bux for everything, so I bit-put away a full plate of 'cue, fish,slaw, sweet potato, 1 pup, green beans,lots of mashed potatoes and gravy,etc. Plus 2 desserts, banana pudding and lemon meringue pie and the ubiquitous iced tea (every meal)--so the third meal in slightly over 3 hours was the biggest one of all. That probably was some kind of record for me, so in the spirit of shameless gluttony and Chowhound self-indulgence, I am throwing down the gauntlet to see if anyone can top this. I did NOT get tired of barbecue in 6 days--others have reported similar experiences of twice-a-day 'cue for quite a while. But I didn't waste or take home anything from these 3 meals, and just wanted to see if maybe we can get a little contest going to see what is possible when one gets both hungry and inspired.
One thing I promised to mention--the manager at Keaton's (black) told me that someone else (white) was opening a competing restaurant with a similar last name and trying to convince people that they are related--they obviously aren't--but the new place will have to do up chicken in grand style if they hope to compete with the original. Keaton's is popular with locals and serves beer also.
Hope I didn't bore anyone with this lengthy account--it was quite a memorable and unique trip and the planning really paid off.
If I forgot anything, please reply and I'll do my best to clarify. But,remember, barbecue is subjective--the top places may do things slightly different, but they usually do it right.