I had the occasion to drive back and forth through the Carolinas the last two weeks so I suppose I should chime in with my bbq rankings:
1. Brown’s BBQ, Kingstree, SC, a little under a half hour from 95 and north of town. Kingstree also boasts James Witherspoon’s plantation house which served as ‘an encampment for 100 British dragoons and a number of Tories,’ its name originating from an 18th Century search for the best lumber for British shipbuilding. I did not venture to Hemingway, SC, NE of Kingstree, which offers Big D’s and Kenny’s bbq and Home Boy Soul Food, but Southern Pee Dee River cuisine is unquestionably one of the high points of the East Coast, right smack in House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s congressional district where black roosters land by the roadside and not a mile goes by where you’re not reminded of Jesus’ love. Because eating in means that you can only get the buffet, don’t do as I did and eat Clyde Cooper’s at noon and pull in here to sample a sandwich at four. The $9 buffet features bbq pork, ribs, chicken cued, roasted and fried, meatloaf, offal, catfish stew (my favorite offering), delicious beef stew, Southern greens, sweet potatoes, etc. as well as classic pecan pie. The pork is a coarse chop rather than fine, but the sauce here is the best I’ve ever had and expect to ever have. Pee Dee sauce uses vinegar as the main ingredient in East NC fashion but uses mustard and tomato sauce in significant portions, and it seems that there was some sort of meat stock in ample evidence in Brown’s sauce. En route there was a small grocery store/ gas pump which had Pee Dee River Swamp Sauce as the only offering other than Kraft, exceptional and universally acclaimed upon my return, with a blend similar to Brown’s but without the presumed stock ergo not quite the same. I was looking for veggies at the small store to dine on after processing Brown’s but:
“Do you sell any produce?”
“No, there’s a place right up the road.”
“Yessir, just seven miles up the road.”
“I’m from NJ; seven miles is not right up the road.”
“I’m from DC, honey, and they told me this job was right up the street, but it’s thirty miles away from where I live. That was 10 years ago, and I’m still working here.”
2. Parker’s, Wilson, NC, right off 95 but a little tricky to find. All reports that Parker’s is not great are woefully misguided and it is with great difficulty that I don’t put them first. Snowbird motorists are well served to select a Wilson hotel from the NC Welcome Center coupon books, check in for layover and then fill an empty stomach here before venturing to the NC art museum in Raleigh first thing in the morning. I am one to believe that bbq should only serve bbq and do it well, but the decision to serve fried chicken here was made long ago to keep the groups of locals that meet here every night from going somewhere else for variety. Keeping the locals in volume away from the town’s other cue spots prompts them to offer a pork sandwich, a large side order, hush puppies, and a pitcher of water to the cash strapped for $3. A combo platter (my choice) where a juicy chicken breast is placed atop your pork goes for $7 and ‘all you can eat’ administered by accommodating waiters in white paper hats goes for $9. Great sweet tea which comes in pitchers, best Brunswick stew of the three examples on the trip, delectably moist hush puppies, mustard-based slaw and the best pork on the trip. East NC vinegar sauce on chopped pork is my favorite so this was quite an event for me.
3. Clyde Cooper’s, Raleigh, NC. The 70 year old lunch spot for people working in NC government with prices similar to Parker’s, the pork sandwich is wonderfully chopped with a layer of slaw that awaits your application of their pungent sauce. Also great hush puppies, good Brunswick stew, collards, tea, every seat taken, in a stollable downtown with street parking and free museums.
4. The GA Pig, Brunswick, GA. This was started 20 years ago as a stop on 95 (exit 29, Jekyll Island) that locals would drive to, so it doesn’t have the historical authenticity and geezer prices of the previous three but every detail has been attended to to give the atmosphere and food appeal to purists, especially the smell of the dining room with its long tables and rustic decor. It’s Brunswick, so the stew seems authentic, lightly seasoned to accent the taste of the ingredients. A heavy ketchupy sauce, tho, accompanies the enticingly fatty cuts of pork that await the hungry sojourner who must plan on healthier fare later.
5. Maurice’s Piggy Park, Columbia, SC. Local chain that basks in the glory of mustard sauce beneath the Confederate flag. The sauce is really good for turnup greens which are not for sale here, but spicy green beans are available.
1. O’Steen’s, St. Augustine, FL. The place had a long line outside as it often has so I took out a bowl of the Minorcan clam chowder with the locally grown dalil peppers. A real treat for any fan of Manhattan CC and worth a stop off 95 along with a trip to the art galleries near the winery, specifically Energy Lab with canvases by its founder Carlos Paredes and its next door neighbor, the Butterfield Garage which features Maribel Angel paintings.
2. Tony’s and Sons, Kingston, PA. Okay, why is this included and why am I there? I’m including a three day trip upstate to Ithaca and east of there the weekend before going south that Tuesday. Omelettes and hot sandwiches. The exterior is dilapidated deco with no references to sons, so I was unsure I was at the right place, but upon crossing the threshold to encounter inside the owner holding fort at the counter wearing his engineer’s cap in the three colors of Italy, I knew I was in the right place. I don’t get into political arguments frequently offline and wasn’t seeking out research on the pockets of the Giuliani electoral base in the post-anthracite NE PA urban centers, but after watching the BBC report on racial attitudes in this area, Tony’s is a hornet’s nest for people who want to go right to the story. Everywhere pasted on the walls are expressions of dissatisfaction with the Obama victory amid homophobic jokes about the Hon. Barney Frank and other musings. I overheard “there’s suddenly a lot of stolen cars turning up at the White House.” It makes you appreciate Ithaca once you get there. Many of the omelettes are named after people, including at least two doctors who may have performed successful operations on Tony. I was querying about ingredients of said omelettes and after some reluctant responses, Tony found his discursive form:
“Look, you don’t need to know the ingredients. Everything here’s good. Who is this guy, coming in here and asking me the ingredients?! He’s not from around here. You don’t know nothing, but you just walked in on the best Italian food anywhere! Order any omelette, it doesn’t mattah! As long as you don’t got no allergies.”
I opted for the Soprano’s omelette with an Italian hoagie to go, reportedly their only cold sandwich, which came on a fresh roll. The omelette was the best I ever had, incorporating tomato sauce and local sausage with a garlic doused toast. You can spend a month ordering omelettes in Lyon and not have it this good. I’m not saying Act Up shouldn’t pay Tony a visit, but I will go back for more omelettes during which I kowtow to Tony, ignore his political pronouncements and invoke the privileges of being a white guy with a deep voice.
Update: 2. (tie) Aloy's, Poughkeepsie, NY. Can't believe I forgot about this from that weekend. Pizza that evokes comparison to De Lorenzo's in Trenton and Mario's in the Bronx served by friendly staff with accents from the Abruzzo region. I'll make it a tie for second so that I don't have to change the numbers. Unfortunately the German Expressionism show is down at Vassar, but there's some Julie Mehretus up if you can't make it to NC and a Tintoretto. They also have a plaster model of Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise doors of the Baptistry, hidden in the stairway above the bathrooms, if you want to save yourself a trip to Florence.
3. Pasha Middle Eastern Foods, Daytona Beach, FL. Not to be confused with the chain further south. Good ethnic food is much in evidence on International Speedway Drive along with, without exaggeration, some of the best used book stores on the East Coast: Mandala on the Speedway Dr and Abraxas around the corner on Beach St. Mandala has a poetry section featuring New Directions offerings of the 70s and 80s which are out of print and half priced, which isn’t of course quite as good as it was when I walked in, and a large and well selected fiction and philosophy section to go with a radical section second only in my travels to Village Books in Tivoli, NY. The two stores have the best and second best selections of Kierkegaard I’ve ever seen used. I didn’t get whether the Pasha family was Armenian, Turkish, or whatever but I had the gooey Armenian cheese pita and the quality of the food could be passed off at a much higher price... Grocery items are pricey as I suppose its where you have to go for that in Daytona.
4. Mexican place in a small white building, South of Ocala, FL. I certainly should do a better job of noting the name and location of this eatery, but I note the fact that there are a lot of good Mexican places and promising bbq that I sort of wish I had saved room for in this area, which I traversed between Blue Springs National Park and the Margorie Rawlings home at Cross Creek via the national forest. Blue Springs Park is a must in the wintertime because the manatees congregate there for the hot water, which means you get to meet dozens upon dozens of these friendly creatures whose shyness is overcome by the need to come up and breathe oxygen. I think they were elephants who decided to swim away from predators when the continents were closer together.
There should be some attachment to a motorboat to keep them away from the propellor, their main foe here and now, but due to conservation efforts their numbers seem to be increasing slightly in recent years. Also there seem to be many more armadillos, which I like because they also look ancient. The Mexican place made me feel like I was in Mexico on account of kitsch nativity sets on sale and general disorganization, and a 14 year old son of the owner took me around and gave me his life story, apologizing for the fact that the meat shipment had not arrived yet, prompting me to ask for whatever the pretty cook was frying which turned out to be 5 delicious ham and corn empenadas for $4. The boy’s dad was from El Salvador so he opened a jar of Salvadoran slaw for me which was included with the sour cream and a gravy-like salsa picante.
5. Shangri-La at Mountain Gate, Oliverea, NY. If you drive all the way out here for Indian food you will get mountain scenery. There no light or sign at McKinley Hollow Road, so it’s the turnoff south of the better lit resorts on the main roads. I don’t know how much business they do in the winter but they gave us a space heater because the dining room hadn’t been heated.
6. Louis’s Lunch, Ithaca, NY. This is where French bread pizza got its start. The actual original is the Hot Truck which opens around 9pm NW of campus but this is north of campus and open during the day. I can report that French bread pizza is better when it isn’t frozen and there are two sides to the roll.
7. Tony’s Pizza, Crescent Beach, FL. I had been there a long time ago and was struck not by the food but how the pretense to being an Italian place was set aside in order to decorate the walls with framed excerpts from the Koran which promise eternal damnation for the uncharitable adjacent to a TV screen showing the really bad WB sitcom spinoffs. At this visit I confirmed that “Tony” was actually a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, and this time the TV featured closed-captioned Jerry Springer which could be seem in the background with a framed overhead photo of Mecca in the foreground.