Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Barbecue or banana - split decision

Nothing fancy but good BBQ. Photo by Judy Wells.
Lexington is the self-described "Barbecue Capital of the World" and after cruising uptown, we, a group of 10 travel and food writers, headed to our first encounter with North Carolina's famous smoked pork.  As we walked into the Barbecue Center a couple walked out who had just driven 96 miles to eat there. Pretty good reference, I'd say.

"Try the banana split," they said.

Pigs outside like this one and inside, too, abound.
Like a typical BBQ "joint," the Center is basic inside and out - lots of pig pictures and statuettes, booths, tables, counter stools and diners of all ages pigging out.

Service is swift and before you could say "Cheerwine," the ultimate liquid pairing, we had hefty cups of it and our barbecue was on the way.

Cecil Conrad shows off one of his smoke ovens.
The Center began in 1955 as an ice cream and milk product store a few blocks away, but as winter weather deterred customers they began smoking pork shoulders to supplement the income. Owner/manager Cecil Conrad's uncle bought the restaurant spot in 1961, His father bought it six years later and the family business has thrived ever since.

Today, each week they sell the meat from 100-150 pork shoulders cooked slowly over hickory and oak embers. No rubs here, just a bit of salt. Shoulders put in one of the three inside smokers at 5 a.m. are done by 3 p.m. No automation here  either; strictly manual labors of love.

Lexingtonians like vinegar with their barbecue; vinegar-sauced red slaw accompanies the vinegar, ketchup, water, salt and peppers-based sauce or "dip," in the local parlance. So do hush puppies, lots of them.

Barbecue plate.
My "plate" came piled with rough chopped pork shoulder, red slaw and fries. I could have opted for sliced, chopped, brown (outside cuts) or mostly white meat plus a variety of sides.

Crisp, hot hush puppies.
Baskets of piping hot hush puppies were never allowed to empty.

Didn't measure the whipped cream but there's about 4 pounds of ice cream.
We thought we were full until the subject of the famous banana split arose. Six of us shared the towering monster with its three to four-pound vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream base (a bargain at under $8!). It was like trying to decimate the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

The best we could do.
We lost. Two-thirds were as much as we could manage.

No one we met in the next three days asked how we liked the barbecue (it was excellent), but they all wanted to know how we did with the banana split.

If you come alone or with only one or two others, you'll have decide, barbecue or banana split.

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