Sunday, January 2, 2011

Good eats

My first attempt at enjoying some local North Carolinian cuisine, called barbecue, was rather disappointing.  From the parking lot, the place reminded me of a seedy strip club, or a sad cafe. Old Hickory did not let me down once I sat down to order, either.  The atmosphere was as depressing as most of the diners; that is to say, middle aged, overweight and quiet.  The server was friendly and helpful, but the food was lackluster. The fried food was too greasy and not fully cooked.  The meat was not dry, but it was not very flavorful, either.  A big BLAH.   This event happened shortly after my arrival, where my expectations were not so high, but I was rather excited to be eating "American cuisine" again after 18 months of going without.  Not to say that American cuisine is typically that amazing or healthy, but it is the food I grew up eating, for better or for worse, and I missed it.  I knew that there had to be better barbecue out there, so I knew the search must continue.

Growing up in Oklahoma, which is kind of Southern, kind of Great Plains-ey and kind of something else, there was a lot of barbecue; both the event, which we used to describe cooking outside (interchangeably with the phrase "cookout") and the food that emerged from said events.  As far as I knew, barbecue could describe baloney, beef, chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, pork, sausages, or vegetables.  My mom made "barbecue chicken" in the oven and smothered the meat with "barbecue sauce."  Apparently, in North Carolina, barbecue has a much more serious and specific connotation.

So far, at both restaurants which I have eaten barbecue, the definition of and description of "barbecue" is printed at the front of the menu.  It refers only to the meat, not the method, in which the beast (namely pork shoulder) is smoked slowly with local wood.  The accompanying sauce is vinegar-based, which distinguishes it from other schools of barbecue, such as the Memphis or Kansas City varieties.  Another commonality is that popular side dishes to accompany the meat are hush puppies, slaw, and something called "Brunswick Stew."  I am a fan of hush puppies and vinegar slaw, as these are the usual side dishes at a fish fry, where the local lake catches (in Oklahoma these are usually bass, catfish or crappie) are gutted, filleted, and dredged in a cornmeal batter and deep fried.  My grandma always included diced jalapenos in our hush puppies, so I prefer some heat with mine, whereas the North Carolina varieties seem to be a little sweeter.  Nevertheless, I found a hushpuppy or two an adequate starch for a pile of smoked meat, instead of a large baked potato or gigantic white flour yeast roll, which I was expecting from my Oklahoma eating days.  The cooling, crunchy vinegar slaw was a nice texture variant to the soft meat.  Ah, yes, the meat!

R&R restaurant served up a very tender, subtly smoky barbecued pork shoulder that was chopped, but not to smithereenes.  The two sauces, which the diner adds for herself, were a straight vinegar (at least I think so) and a vinegary sauce that reminded me very much of the Arby-Q, except not as thick.  One could experiment and try the meat as is, with one sauce, or with both.  I found both sauces were good, alternatively, and the meat was good just by itself.  The tea was freshly brewed, and the sides were piping hot.  Apparently the homemade banana pudding is "to die for," but if I am to try dessert it must be on a separate occasion with a cup of coffee, and not after enjoying a small pile of meat.

I don't feel I can begin to rate the barbecue on a scale, because I don't know how high or low the rabbit hole of the cuisine goes.  But, based on what I know of good food, this place earns a 3.5 out of 5.  So far, anyway.

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