LEXINGTON, NC. — The town built its name on furnitures and barbecue. When the 1990s exited, they took the furniture business along, and Lexington became just a barbecue town.
Not just any fair-weather barbecue town, townspeople will proclaim, but “the barbecue capital of the world.”
This is a fine slogan for the Chamber of Commerce, but there are several reasons to consider that statement true.
- An estimated one in 20 townspeople is employed or peripherally works in the barbecue industry — roughly 1,000 people.
- Lexington’s first barbecue restaurant — a tent pitched in the center of town — opened in 1919. Today, the city has more than one barbecue restaurant for every square mile — 20 at last count.
- In late October, the town will celebrate the 27th year of “The Barbecue Festival.” They don’t specify a region or food product in the title; it’s just understood that this is the festival, no descriptors necessary.
The North Carolina Barbecue Society has published a guide called “The Barbecue Trail,” a curated list of 24 restaurants that 1) cook using wood (cooking with gas is sacrilege) and 2) have been in operation for 15 or more years. The only two Lexington restaurants that made the list were The Bar-B-Q Center and Lexington Barbecue. That’s where we were this evening, joined by friend and food blogger extraordinaire Anna Sowa (that’s her below, watching smoked pork being cleavered at The Bar-B-Q Center).
Lexington is the cradle of the Piedmont-style of North Carolina barbecue: pork shoulder, smoked low and slow with hickory (and occasionally oak), with a vinegar and pepper dip sweetened with ketchup. Hush puppies and red cole slaw complete the plate. The Bar-B-Q Center, run by the Conrad family, makes an extraordinary chopped pork plate, certainly the finest smoked pork I’ve had on this trip so far. A fair amount of chopped fat is incorporated, giving each forkful a slick, tender mouthfeel. Even more memorable is the fried pork-chop sandwich, a steam-softened bun holding a deep-fried boneless pork chop, topped with smear each of mustard and chili. How could anyone screw this up?
By the time we arrive at Lexington Barbecue, our fourth restaurant of the day, we are ready to cry uncle. But onward we march, though limiting ourselves to just one dish: coarse-chopped pork shoulder with extra “outside brown.” It bears a gorgeous brown sheen, its bark the fallen, delicious first line of defense against hickory and oak smoke (pictured at top of post). The only seasoning used is salt. Beneath the dark 1/16-inch layer of “brown” lay the white pork flesh, remaining inexplicably moist even after hours of cooking. A bit of chopped pork, a bite of coleslaw, together it is crunchy and velvety, bright and tart, the motif of liquid porky goodness throughout. It’s enough to convert agnostics in one bite.