The champion of the Observer Tournament of Food: Barbecue Edition?
Kyle Fletchers, in Lowell.
In a judging panels blitz of all four places in three hours, it smoked the competition.
We knew when we chose this years tournament food that barbecue would enflame passions. We knew fans of advancing teams would lord it over those whose favorites fell behind.
We knew readers whose brackets turned sour might curse our names and those of other voters. (Who are the idiots that are voting? emailed Kent. Im sorry nobody can make Charlotte a BBQ county [sic], wrote Carl.)
What we werent sure about was whether we could come up with enough decent barbecue within 50 miles to compete.
But we did.
Scott Verner, lifelong cue junkie, native Charlottean and a community news editor at the Observer, joined me and Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis, fresh from Memphis Barbecue Network judge-training class (read her take on the process at bit.ly/14CfYoi), to decide our winners.
In the first semifinal, a matchup of legends, Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge nipped Spoons with a tender and juicy sandwich ($3.50) on a day when Spoons cue ($6 per sandwich, but you get hush puppies, too) proved a tad drier than usual.
Still, you wont find more reliable versions within 50 miles of both classic styles Reds the Lexington-style that cooks shoulders over wood and sauces the meat with a well-balanced vinegar-and-tomato brew; Spoons the Eastern N.C. version that employs whole hog, chops it fine, doses it with a more vinegar-heavy sauce and tops it with mustard-tanged slaw. (Purvis calls it Saturday lunch at Parkers when I was a kid, citing the iconic Parkers in Wilson, N.C., site of her pig-spent youth.)
The second semi between a well-loved Gaston County place not as well-known in Mecklenburg, and a relative upstart was an easier call: Kyle Fletchers was perfect from tipoff to finish: Juicy meat (and lots of it for $3.09), a few nicely caramelized bits of outside brown (aka bark, aka the parts of the shoulders closest to the heat, here produced with just hickory and charcoal) mixed in, a choice of two sauces (vinegar-based and a more tomatoey one), a slaw moderately coarse made with mayo and barbecue sauce on a simple, not soggy bun. (And wow, did they heap it onto the bun! enthused Verner.)
Its not exactly Lexington, not quite Eastern; its its own thing and a remarkably successful one wed be proud to feed visitors.
Ive been twice now, says Purvis, and both times, I found myself surprised and delighted and wondered why I dont hear more talk about this place among the barbecue fanatics.
Bobbee Os served up pork remarkable in both texture terrific hunks and bits, nicely mixed and flavor an assertively seasoned version with plenty of crushed red pepper flakes throughout the meat. At $3.99 per sandwich, this was also a generous portion. Excellent flavor, said Purvis.
But the meat needed a bit of sauce for moisture this day and the sauce, a thickened, sweet concoction, didnt meld perfectly. (I would have loved access to some of the dip used while pulling it, instead of the table sauce.) Slaw doesnt come on this sandwich, and its better without (panelist Verner dubbed the coarse-chopped creamy mix Northern slaw.)
A few general tournament observations gleaned over the 700+ miles I drove during the tournament (and all in a 50-mile radius of Charlotte!):
• Factors in any barbecue place that increase the likelihood youre about to get good barbecue: the sound of chopping, audible in the dining area; the necessity of making a U-turn to get to the place; and a crowd has at least a 45-year span in age from youngest to oldest.
• Factors that decrease it: The use of regional sodas in items other than that-soda-over-ice (as in Cheerwine milkshakes or Sundrop slushes); the presence of fried chicken on the menu; and broken yard pigs (Purvis asks: If a place isnt caring for its decorative pigs, how much care can it be taking with its cue?).
• Verners biggest surprise: the range. To me, barbecue is natures most perfect food, ever since Harrells on Kings Drive introduced me to this sublime experience when I was 6. Ive tried many versions and thought I knew how varied they could be, just within North Carolina. But with the opportunity to try each one side by side, I was surprised at just how individual each places barbecue was not to mention the sauces and how much they differed from each other. Amen.
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