Barbecue is iconic American grub, and the various competing Carolina versions are defining elements in our edible identity.
By one account, the story of barbecue began when the earliest Spanish explorers saw Native Americans cooking game in a “barabicu,” meaning “sacred fire pit.” Spanish colonies were here before the English named this region for King Charles, so we’ve probably been barbecuing in the Carolinas since before we became the Carolinas.
The Que Stand in Harrisburg, on N.C. 49 across from the Town Hall, just 10 minutes east of UNC Charlotte, is a page from the latest chapter in barbecue’s long saga.
The location – shared space in what used to be a run-of-the-mill Citgo gas station convenience store – may not be University City’s most impressive venue. But The Que Stand’s humble location is consistent with barbecue’s traditional identity as delicious, unpretentious people’s food.
Some of the America’s best barbecue restaurants – Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City and Rolling Bones in Atlanta come to mind – are housed in gas stations.
Admittedly, it is easy to miss The Que Stand during the day. Most of us aren’t looking for a restaurant when we pull in for gas. It’s easier to spot at night, when they light the neon signs, including one that spells out “O-P-E-N” in red letters surrounded by flashing blue circles.
Fans have been growing in numbers since The Que Stand opened in June 2011. On a sunny afternoon this past week, sitting outside the restaurant in a ship-sized blue “Bigfoot” pickup with shiny lake pipes, Matthew Criso and Harley Bell, students at Hickory Ridge High, tucked into their favorites, a pulled pork sandwich and a barbecued chicken quesadilla.
“The food here, you can’t beat it!” Criso said.
Owner and chef Jerimy Black is a culinary version of golfer Bubba Watson: a gifted cook with little formal training. The Gaston County native studied computer science, political science and history at UNC Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College before taking a job with a dot-com firm that lasted almost a decade.
During the early days, when the going was rough, Black started working in restaurants to help make ends meet.
“I eventually began working with a national barbecue restaurant, and eventually helped them open sites around the country,” Black said. All the while, he was asking lots of questions and keenly observing in the kitchen.
After leaving the dot-com world a couple of years ago, Black and a partner decided to try something new: a food truck. But as they were researching the idea, fate and opportunity intervened in the unlikely form of the Harrisburg Citgo station.
With characteristic enthusiasm and high energy, Black told how he discovered that a Greek family originally built the station as a restaurant, back when Harrisburg had only a handful of eateries. In the back of the convenience store was a full commercial kitchen, sitting neglected.
“Why not open a real restaurant?” Black thought, and The Que Stand was born.
Plenty of signs still point to Black’s dot-com heritage. For instance, he doesn’t print a menu. Why do that, he asked, when you can have a menu on Facebook, Twitter and your website that is easy to update instantly?
Black’s barbecue style is a blend of different traditions. He cooks his barbecue “dry,” then lets customers add the sauce they prefer – Eastern Carolina vinegar-based, South Carolina mustard-based or Western sweet style.
He is proudest of his smoked chicken wings. He selects especially large wings, smokes them for flavor, then fries them to ensure a crispy texture.
“They are worth eating, nicely flavored,” said one customer. “Same goes for the fries.”
In addition to pulled pork and wings, The Que Stand also serves beef brisket, smoked turkey and chicken barbecue, burgers, hot dogs, “big rig” breakfast sandwiches, and a long list of side items, such as Mawmaw’s Mac Salad and Aunt Sissy’s Potato salad.
Two specialties are Brunswick Stew and barbecue quesadillas.
“You can think of Brunswick Stew as barbecue soup,” Black said. It has a tomato base and, in The Que Stand’s version, corn and a choice of meats. But Black never adds okra or lima beans to his version.
Barbecue quesadillas, a classic ‘only in America’ fusion food, are not original to The Que Stand, Black said, but he’s proud of his versions.
“It’s a good way to eat barbecue on the road,” he says. “You only need one hand, instead of two for a sandwich. The cheese helps stick everything together.”
If you want to sit down to enjoy the generous portions at The Que Stand, you can take a seat at the simple booths and tables, between banks of computers and video poker machines and the predictable aisles of convenience store shelves inside the Citgo, and watch through the big glass windows as the big rigs come and go out back.
Alternatively, you can order ahead and pick up a family-sized portion to take home.
Black remains an avid history buff. Asked what historic period he’d like to visit to set up a restaurant, he picked the American western expansion after the Civil War.
“I’d really like to learn the art of one-pot cooking.” Black says. “I keep trying to master biscuits in a Dutch oven, but I haven’t been able to get it right.
“But who knows?” he said with a characteristic wry grin. “Maybe my poor biscuits would have been great biscuits back then.…”