A passionate first week in the Observers sixth Tournament of Food resulted in a few upsets, a few mild surprises and a few predictable advancements.
This years battle pits barbecue places within 50 miles of Charlotte. The idea isnt that Charlotte is the epicenter of N.C. cue plenty of places have a better claim to that title but to take a look at what we do have, and assess that.
Its also to clarify for the man who left such an impassioned voicemail I thought he was going to start crying halfway through a tournament confined to restaurants, and not for the yearly barbecue traditions such as Boy Scout troops or churches.
Those can be terrific, I agree (and sir, I have indeed tried rather a lot of them!), but the fare is just not available often enough to consider.
Those places we are considering packed plenty of punch into the week. We heard fans discussing matchups while eating, saw owners posting the bracket on counters and exit doors, and listened to voicemails lauding favorites and attacking opponents. Viciously. Its heartening, really.
Saddest moments of the week: Seeing the Out sign go up on the Red Bridges front door before closing, with people still pulling into the parking lot, and finding Midwood out of pulled pork two days in a row.
Lets take a look at the weeks action, in which taste (or flavor, including the degree to which each places sauce and slaw enhance or drown its meat), texture (or tenderness) and reader voting were weighed.
In these early rounds, obvious mistakes spurred most outcomes. I expect later rounds to be tougher, and the final to be a real nail-biter.
In an inside-Charlotte matchup of well-knowns, Old Hickory House beat Bubbas on the strength of its sloppily flavorful and served-hot pork, and pickle-y slaw. Bubbas pork lacked smokiness, and Eastern-N.C. style barbecue done without cooking the whole hog (Bubbas no longer does) seems to suffer in overall flavor as well.
Tiny Bobbee Os used big flavor to defeat the larger Queen City Q, which served up a sandwich with several tough pieces of pork, though it was generously portioned.
Kyle Fletchers topped Indian Lands plainer 521 BBQ & Grill handily with the smokiest-tasting cue (and one of the more generous sandwiches) in the competition.
In the clear upset of the week, 10 Park Lanes edged Alston Bridges by a margin not wider than a shred of slaw. The deciding factor: Texture. Though the Alston pork had beautiful, subtle flavor and was, for the most part, tender, it also sported a few just-plain-tough chunks amid its fairly-fine-chopped meat (and was room temperature as it was handed to me).
The bowling alley (!) handed over a nicely hot mound of cue that showed tenderness and variation. A key in the next round? Moisture. 10s bottom bun was soaked through when served; that cant happen again.
Midwood Smokehouse won over Courtneys of Clover with pork with good balance, beautiful bits of outside brown (also called bark) mixed in and a sauce that enhanced the meat.
In one of the more interesting battles of style, stalwart (and longest-running place in the tournament) Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge of Shelby defeated Q2U, a Lake Wylie spot. This was clearly a victory of texture, as the Bridges cue was moist without being wet, while the Q2U pork on this day proved a mite dry, despite its sweeter-than-most sauce.
Spoons, the only Eastern N.C. style, whole-hog-cooking place in the tournament, got past Macs Speed Shop with a sandwich of subtle flavor under the kick of its classic Eastern mustardy slaw besting Macs coarser chopped, drier meat that had several toughened strands this day.
Finally, Saucemans had little trouble with Belmonts Ranuccis, whose sauce overwhelmed the taste of its meat, while Saucemans delivered a solid, balanced, sizeable sandwich.
Vote on your favorites for the Final Four; well announce that next week.