My first assignment for UCity Magazine: Food. No problem, I say. I love food. Wait a second. It’s for an issue dedicated to guys? I barely understand how men function on a day-to-day basis, much less what they think of food. But it was recommended that I try out a guy-food haven on North Tryon Street: Old Hickory House. I recruited my boyfriend, Chris, to tag along. He’s always quick to critique my dishes, so I figured he wouldn’t have a problem sharing his male opinion. The restaurant itself is simple: It’s a windowless brick building between Famous Mart and Queen City Audio Video & Appliances. But there’s a woodpile out back – a telltale beacon for barbecue purists. It was a trio of barbecue-loving brothers – Bob, Gene and Ed Carter – who ran the business after the restaurant first opened in 1957 at the corner of Thrift Road and Freedom Drive. The restaurant moved to its current spot in the 1970s, and now cousins David and Kevin Carter co-own the restaurant, where they can be seen daily, greeting customers and preparing plates behind the counter. From the booth where Chris and I sit in the one-room dining area, we can see and hear the sizzling of the open pit where pork and beef soaks in the smoke from hickory wood. The wood pit gives the western-style barbecue an authentic flavor, Kevin Carter says. It’s a flavor that is rare nowadays among barbecue joints. The open wood pits have been deemed fire hazards and aren’t allowed in new restaurants, but Old Hickory House’s pit was grandfathered, David Carter explains. Other specialties include the slaw made in-house, barbecue beans, hushpuppies and Brunswick stew. Several of the menu items are family recipes, including the barbecue sauce, a sweet and tangy tomato-based sauce with ground-up pork and beef – and some spices here and there. “Nobody really knows the spices that go in them,” David Carter says. Barbecue plates range from about $7 to $10, and combination plates of beef, pork, chicken or pork ribs range from $10 to $18. It’s a no-fuss kind of place with laminated menus and white plastic plates. Wood paneling lines the walls, which are adorned with bullhorns and pictures of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Covered wagon lamps cast light over the booths. I shake my head as I watch Chris pile Brunswick stew on his Texas toast. I ask what he thinks. “It’s good,” he says. I think the nondescript response is a good thing. As Chris and I argue over whether western-style barbecue is considered tomato-based or ketchup-based, a waitress brings a bowl of Brunswick stew to Donna Cook, who has sits in the booth behind us. “This place is the only place that makes this stew the way it’s supposed to be made,” she tells the waitress. Cook has lived in the University area since 1963 and has been coming to Old Hickory House for about 20 years. She and her husband were regulars. He has since passed away, but she’s still coming. “It’s really nice to come back,” she says. “Every once in a while I come back for more than just food.” It’s the memories and the taste that bring her around. Other restaurants serve up watery Brunswick stew with chunks of tomatoes, she explains, but not here. Here, the stew is thick with corn and bits of hickory-smoked pork and beef. Here, they make the stew just like her Aunt Olene from Georgia used to make it. “How they do it, I don’t know,” she says. Chris is busy cleaning his plate, wiping up the remaining barbecue juices with his toast. He gives me a bewildered look when I ask if he wants dessert, but then he gestures toward a couple of spoonfuls of barbecue left on my plate. “You gonna eat any of this?” Officially guy-approved.
Want to go? Old Hickory House 6538 N. Tryon St. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday 704-596-8014