CHAPEL HILL, NC. — Allen & Son is among our country’s elite barbecue establishments. To receive face time with Keith Allen, whose extraordinary smoked pork is rivaled only by his friendliness, is indeed an honor. Bestowing the term “living legend” is no hyperbole.
Malcolm Gladwell said that becoming an expert requires 10,000 hours of practice. How does 49 years translate? Allen is at the restaurant by 2 a.m. six days a week, lighting match to wood, shoveling coals into pit. When the restaurant is closed on Mondays, Allen is busy chopping wood. With no exception, every plate served to every customer here is cooked by Allen. He’ll sleep when he’s dead.
Now, about that pork. There is no seasoning, not even salt. The only taste is what their porky mommas gave ‘em. Shoulders are roasted whole, finished with a red pepper-flecked, fruit-tinged vinegar dip, the contents of which, Allen said, “you can stay up late at night thinking about it, left to your imagination.”
The plate arrives and, my God, the juices — when I press the coarse-chopped meat against my tongue, a sweet, milk-colored, liquid pork gold emerges, a swine wine every bit as intoxicating. Note the difference between this and grease, the latter of which there is none. Bits of fat glisten amongst the darker pork shoulder, its texture smooth on the intake.
Hush puppies are small enough to fool palates into believing they are wholly crunchy. Coleslaw is creamy, white, dotted with black pepper like poppy seeds atop a muffin. This is a sure sign we’re on the DMZ of the Piedmont and Eastern styles. We continue heading east, crossing into new territory.