Pit stop: a barbecue road trip across the American South

Pit stop: a barbecue road trip across the American South

by Chris Osburn 17 November 2015

Chris Osburn spends three weeks tasting his way around the best barbecue spots in America.

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Chris is a freelance writer and photographer, longtime blogger and avid foodie.

Chris is a freelance writer and photographer, longtime blogger and avid foodie.

Here comes American Thanksgiving, a day set aside to be thankful for what you’ve got… and eat way too much food. As an American, it’s an occasion I take seriously, the giving of thanks (and, of course, the eating part). Speaking of food, this year I’m feeling especially thankful for that most American of traditions, barbecue, and the opportunity to have a lot of it back in October.

Yep, I’m still rubbing my belly in satisfaction several days after returning from a 2,500-mile, three-week road trip across the American South. From the Hill Country of Central Texas to Pitt County in coastal North Carolina, I made as many stops as I could in a low ‘n’ slow sojourn to experience the best barbecue in America.

Talking turkey

Most of the meat I enjoyed during my trip was beef and pork, but there were some exceptions here and there. One notable contender for best bite was the smoked turkey at Hillsborough BBQ Company in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Super moist and tender with a subtle smoky flavour of hickory and oak, it was an especially fine version of everybody’s favourite seasonal meat. Like a number of restaurants I visited, Hillsborough BBQ Company does advanced orders of whole turkeys along with ‘all the fixin’s’ for T-Day.

Breakfast in Dallas

BBQ for breakfast? It didn’t seem to be such a farfetched idea in Dallas, Texas. At chef Dean Fearing’s eponymous eatery at the sumptuous Ritz-Carlton, the ‘Pig and grits’ (pulled pork, jalapeño, cheddar grits, poached egg and tomato gravy) was fiercely flavoursome, evidence that breakfast isn’t only the most important meal of the day, but also the most scrumptious.

I enjoyed another awesome barbecued brekkie during my few night’s stay-over in Dallas at chef Tim Byre’s outpost Smoke, at the stylish Belmont Hotel. His smoked brisket, cornbread hash with poached egg, green chilli rajas and onions did me right and ensured I was satiated and set for the day!

BBQ sides
A sampler of sides at Pulaski Heights BBQ
Stacking wood for the smokers

Great tastes

Just down the road from Hillsborough is the town of Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina. On UNC’s impeccably well kempt and historic campus is the Carolina Inn. Dating back to 1924, the hotel recently underwent a $19 milllion renovation. Swank digs for sure, and I was glad to have had a chance to lay my head there for a restful sleep.

But what really amazed me about the Inn was the fine food at its recently reopened Crossroads restaurant. Without doubt the best non-barbecue meal I had during my trip was at Crossroads, where chef James Clark’s interpretation of Southern fare using regionally grown, caught and raised ingredients wowed my palate. Highlights included sunburst trout with roasted apples, corn and Swiss chard with a cider moonshine reduction for my main and homemade sorghum butter pecan ice cream for dessert. Yeehaw.

The wood-smoked meat was certainly the star of the show at Pulaski Heights BBQ in Athens, Georgia, but I was equally impressed with the veg on offer. Unlike many barbecue joints, chef Chuck Ramsey makes his side dishes to complement his ‘cue rather than being another excuse for big, smoky, meaty flavour that merely manages to mirror the main course. Ramsey’s vinegar lime slaw, collard greens, squash casserole, smoked cauliflower, kimchi and more are all excellent accompaniments for a mega meaty chow down, but would equally please any veggie.

Points of interest

A few restaurants on my itinerary went so far above and beyond the BBQ call of duty to give their customers menu items of exceptional excess I just have to give them a mention. Those gratuitously great dishes are as follows:

– Pork rinds with Tabasco honey and blue cheese at the Swig & Swine in Charleston, South Carolina.

– Redneck Nachos (double fried potato chips – that’s crisps to UK ears – with white cheddar, pickled jalapenos, pulled pork and hot sauce) at Wiley’s Championship BBQ in Savannah, Georgia.

– Chicken fried ribs (double sided, thick cut ribs breaded, fried and served with white sauce) at Fox Bros BBQ in Atlanta, Georgia.