The champion of the Observer Tournament of Food: Barbecue Edition?
Kyle Fletcher’s, in Lowell.
In a judging panel’s blitz of all four places in three hours, it smoked the competition.
We knew when we chose this year’s 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. “I’m sorry nobody can make Charlotte a BBQ county [sic],” wrote Carl.)
What we weren’t 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 Spoon’s with a tender and juicy sandwich ($3.50) on a day when Spoon’s ’cue ($6 per sandwich, but you get hush puppies, too) proved a tad drier than usual.
Still, you won’t find more reliable versions within 50 miles of both classic styles – Red’s the Lexington-style that cooks shoulders over wood and sauces the meat with a well-balanced vinegar-and-tomato brew; Spoon’s 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 Parker’s when I was a kid,” citing the iconic Parker’s 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 Fletcher’s 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.)
It’s not exactly Lexington, not quite Eastern; it’s its own thing – and a remarkably successful one we’d be proud to feed visitors.
“I’ve been twice now,” says Purvis, “and both times, I found myself surprised and delighted – and wondered why I don’t hear more talk about this place among the barbecue fanatics.”
Bobbee O’s 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, didn’t meld perfectly. (I would have loved access to some of the dip used while pulling it, instead of the table sauce.) Slaw doesn’t come on this sandwich, and it’s 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 you’re 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 isn’t caring for its decorative pigs, how much care can it be taking with its ’cue?).
• Verner’s biggest surprise: the range. “To me, barbecue is nature’s most perfect food, ever since Harrell’s on Kings Drive introduced me to this sublime experience when I was 6. I’ve 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 place’s barbecue was – not to mention the sauces – and how much they differed from each other.” Amen.