UPDATE: SOUTH FORK HAS CLOSED
South Fork, easily the best barbecue place north of the North Carolina line, has closed. Blaine Cooper has packed up his custom smoker and is headed to Austin, where good barbecue is appreciated. It makes sense. Why would a true artist want to serve people who would rather have chicken fingers? The same thing happened years ago when the Golden Rule opened a branch in LongIsland, a true barbecue desert. People only wanted hamburgers.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
I saw that Southern Living had named South Fork BBQ in Harrisonburg the best barbecue place in Virginia — actually, the one bucket list barbecue place in the Old Dominion. Feeling a bit like Cincinnatus, I recognized the call of duty, and decided to take yet another road trip in my ongoing quest for good barbecue near Washington, DC. So I reached out to Jon Breul, my good friend and noted barbecue enthusiast. Harrisonburg is only 134 miles from DC by the fast route, and 126 miles by the most direct way — well worth a drive for lunch. Jon jumped at the chance.
Jon and I previously made a similar foray to the BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville. Garden and Gun had picked it (and the execrable Pierces Pitt Bar-B-Que in Williamsburg) as the best places in Virginia. It turned out to be bad enough to be in the DC proper. And I have tried almost every other barbecue place in Virginia about which anyone has ever said a kind word. As we drove, I was hopeful but far from optimistic.
The omens were positive, however. Traffic was virtually non-existent, and we got to Harrisonburg well before the noon opening time. After a long drive, a rest stop was in order, so we wandered briskly into a Walmart in the same shopping plaza as South Fork. We were stunned. The Walmart was incredibly open and light, and as clean as the proverbial whistle. Jon and I wandered around agog at the (sometimes) low prices. Fate led me to a 15 pack of Founder’s All Day IPA for $9.87 (!). You can read entrails all day long and you won’t find a more propitious omen than craft beer for 66 cents a can. After that, what could go wrong?
Oddly enough, nothing. South Fork opened and we entered a Spartan place enlivened by a cowhide on one wall and a large painting of the restaurant’s muse, JR Ewing, behind the counter.
The sound system was playing old Blues songs (NOT Neil Young!). A little Don Walser would be nice, what with the Texas theme. And there’s a blackboard menu.
They have several sauces: Austin, Memphis, Lexington, and Kansas City. They also have bottles of Texas Pete and vinegar.
All of the sauces were very well balanced — very similar, really — except for the Kansas City sauce, which was, as usual, far too sweet.
I ordered a combination plate — pork and ribs — with collards and red slaw. Intrigued, and feeling (I told myself) the critic’s obligation to explore the menu, I also ordered a small side of macaroni and queso.
Jon ordered a more sensible meal of a pork sandwich, red slaw, and cornbread.
The pork actually was very good. It had been tossed lightly with the Lexington sauce. I could taste the pork and the smoke, and the sauce enhanced the flavor. Jon agreed that it was on a different level than any other pork we had tasted in the region, and easily the best in Virginia.
Blaine Cooper, the chef/owner, gave us a sample taste of the brisket. He gave it from the lean end, which is a pretty bold thing for a chef to do, since the lean end is dryer and has less taste than the fat (or “moist”) end. The brisket was really good — tender, moist, and smoky, and with a nice crust. You could make good money selling that brisket in Texas.
The ribs, frankly, were not as good. They had been cooked pretty well, but the heavy rub dominated the flavor. It was a tasty rub, but it sort of elbowed out the flavor of the meat. Not really bad, and good by DC-Virginia standards, but not in the same league as the pork and brisket.
The slaw was very crisp and freshly cut, and was made sorta red by the addition of the Lexington sauce. I added some more sauce. It was very tasty. I think a finer chop of the slaw would make the sauce adhere better. The collards were okay. Jon really liked the cornbread, but I’m a bacon fat-iron skillet-no sugar guy. I used it for the pot likker, which was good.
The macaroni and queso was a revelation. Here’s a closer look —
Why doesn’t everyone use queso with pasta? The queso could be a little thicker to better adhere to the pasta — mainly so I wouldn’t have had to leave any in the container after the pasta was gone — but that’s like saying New Orleans could (conceivably) be a better food town. Yeah, but …. After one taste, Jon got some to take home.
Jon and I chatted with Blaine Cooper, the chef/owner, for a bit. He grew up on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico,* and opened up his shop in Harrisonburg a few years ago after a couple of years selling at a farm stand. He cooks the meat off-site — it must be nearby to retain the heat, flavor and moisture so well — in a smoker he designed himself. He’s working on improving his barbecue cooking and business model, and is looking to start another location. You will not be surprised to learn that I encouraged him to open a place in or at least closer to Washington. He said he’s looking into some pop-up opportunities in Washington. I’ll try to post advance notice here on the Blog.
Right now, South Fork is open from noon to 9:00pm Thursday-Sunday. He closes earlier if he sells out of everything, which happens. Don’t bother to drive to Harrisonburg Monday through Wednesday. Jon and I visited South Fork in the depths of the August monsoon season, when James Madison, the local university, was out of session, and Harrisonburg was dead quiet. In busier time he adds sausage to the menu. He didn’t have sausage the day we went, but I did see the contraption for encasing the sausage meat. It really made me want to return. That could be a while, what with a trip to North Carolina and another Pork-Athon in the offing. But that’s no reason you shouldn’t go right now.
*I reject the notion that space aliens are involved.