On our way back from the beach, I dropped Nancy at the Raleigh-Durham airport for a short trip to Massachusetts to see college friends. I started driving to Picnic to get some barbecue, but Nancy called and announced that her flight had been cancelled. I returned to the airport and picked her up. With characteristically quick thinking, Nancy had rebooked to fly out of National Airport (in DC) that evening, rather than wait around the airport until evening to fly out of Raleigh-Durham. We had plenty of time, so we both went to Picnic for some barbecue.
The choice was Picnic in part because of some good things I’d read about it, because it’s open on Sunday, unlike most barbecue places in North Carolina, and because Picnic is on the Campaign for Real Barbecue’s list of North Carolina places that cook exclusively with wood.
Picnic straddles the Eastern and Western/Piedmont Styles, cooking whole hogs, as in the East, with a sauce (Pig Whistle, not to be confused with the Pig’n Whistle in Manhattan or the one in Denver) that includes ketchup, as in the West. For some reason, I had the impression that it would be mainly a carry-out place, but it turned out to be upscale place, sitting all by itself in an upscale neighborhood.
It had a hipster vibe: what I vaguely recall as hard rock music was playing, and there’s a full bar;
and a large blackboard that lists the various craft beers available and their provenance, and, Heaven help us, Watermelon Margaritas on tap. It also lists seasonal sides, desserts, and specials.
A couple at the next table a couple sat down and ordered a bloody Mary (she) and a Mimosa (he). Barbecue meets brunch.
Thrillist recently chose Picnic as one of the 33 best barbecue places in the country. Of course, they also chose the truly appalling Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbecue in Alexandria, Virginia as one of the top 33. Their list also includes some legitimately great barbecue places, so approach it with caution, but also an open mind.
I ordered a pork plate with greens and macaroni and cheese. Plates come with slaw and hushpuppies.
Nancy ordered a barbecue tray (pork and slaw), which Picnic calls a “boat”, and a side order of sweet potato casserole with spiced pecan crumble, as the menu describes it. Plates come with hush puppies, but Nancy refused them in no uncertain terms. I showed restraint and didn’t ask her to get them for me.
We agreed that he pork was quite good. It had been pulled, of course, and given a mixed chop. No skin was mixed in with it, alas, but it was moist. The pork was a little light on the smoke flavor, but, as I say, it was good, very good. The pork was mixed with a sauce that includes tomato sauce as the second ingredient — that’s a lot of tomato sauce, but, again, the barbecue tasted very good. What I would give to have Picnic in DC. It was good transition from the wonders of my Great Pitt County Barbecue Marathon, with Bum’s, the Skylight Inn, and Sam Jones Barbecue, all in one glorious day, to the grim realities of the Washington, DC barbecue desert.
The sides were a mixed lot. Nancy praised the sweet potato casserole as being not too sweet, although I always thought the whole purpose of sweet potato casseroles was to be too sweet. We both liked the cole slaw, which avoided the besetting sin of being overdressed. The hush puppies, however, were so light as to be insubstantial. Some people — eaters of steamed boneless chicken breasts — may think that light hush puppies would be a wonderful thing. But they just don’t have the right texture or taste. There’s no there there. Picnic apparently tries to make up for the lack of substance by serving them with butter, which is a good try, but which really didn’t work: they just weren’t real North Carolina hush puppies. The hush puppies appeared to have jalapeño mixed in, but I couldn’t taste it. And being so light, they were a poor vehicle for pot likker, whether dunked or crumbled. The macaroni and cheese was average, which meant I eagerly ate it all, but the collards were just okay, which meant I ate them all, if only to get to the pot likker. They could use a finer chop and a bit more side meat.
Picnic also sells brisket. While I often get a two-meat plate, which would mean trying their brisket as well as pork, I stuck with the pork. Ordering brisket in North Carolina seems like ordering pork in Texas — a fool’s errand.
Picnic is a good place, and if you’re in Durham, you really should try it.
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