How do you cure a barbecue hangover, the kind you get when you’ve spent Independence Day cooking about 50 pounds of pork butts over coals and hickory, and eating far more than your share of it (not to mention brisket)? Why, you use the classic hangover cure: hair of the dog that bit you.
That’s how I found myself on July 5, driving down to North Carolina. I was also on my way to the beach for a two-week vacation. The paraphernalia of two wonderful grandchildren is such, these days, that one 18 wheeler cannot hold it all: we had to take two cars. So I drove down, and took an extra day at the suggestion of the greatest wife in the world, Nancy. I was inclined to go to Ayden and double-check the Skylight Inn, Bum’s Restaurant comparison to make sure that Bum’s is still the best Eastern North Carolina Style Barbecue in the world, but once I checked the motel rates, I headed to Durham to continue working my way through the Campaign for Real Barbecue list of places in North Carolina that still make barbecue properly — cooking with wood and wood only. I appreciate the craftsmanship which wood demands, and I especially appreciate the extra dimension that pork fat dripping onto coals gives. That took me to Hillsborough, and the Hillsborough BBQ Company.
Hillsborough is no longer a typical Southern mill town. It lies in the shadow of Chapel Hill, Duke, and the Research Triangle. Money has come to Hillsborough, enough for the town to change its name from Hillsboro back to the colonial Hillsborough. (I’m surprised they didn’t add an “e”.) And the Hillsborough BBQ Company is not a typical, old school Southern barbecue place.
It sits in a tiny commercial strip next to a former textile mill building that now houses offices, from all appearances. Hillsborough offers a wide-ranging selection of craft beers, some wines, and lots of cocktails. There are new hardwood floors, hand-laid stones out front, and a smiling hostess at the door. It’s high tone, which is not necessarily reassuring in a a barbecue place. Our State magazine recommends that old school barbecue purists park in the gravel lot out back, go in the back door, and enter right by the pit. What could be more reassuring than to see than that they cook over a pit — a pit designed to Lexington Barbecue pit specifications, no less — over wood coals with pork fat dripping down on the coals and perfuming the meat. That way you see right off that they’re cooking honest barbecue. Bless them.
I ordered a pork plate, which comes with either 1/4 pound of meat or 1/2 pound. I asked for “a small plate”: this was a hangover cure, not another bender. The plates come with hushpuppies, of course, your choice of white, yellow, or red slaw, and one side. I chose collards, which is brain stem activity for me, and the yellow slaw, dressed in creamy mustard, which the waitress had recommended.
Now, take a look at that plate. That is a lot more than a quarter pound of barbecue, enough more that I assumed that there was a plate with a pound of barbecue on the menu that I had missed, and that the waitress had taken a look at me and decided that for me, a half pound would be a small plate. I approached the prospect of paying a few dollars more with equanimity. I’m a Calvinist when it comes to receiving more barbecue than I had ordered. But no, that is what they give you when you ask for 1/4 pound.
The pork was very good. Very good. It was tender and moist, having been tossed with a light vinegar and pepper sauce. You can add more sauce, either an Eastern North Carolina sauce or a Mid Western sauce.
The Eastern sauce had the perfect vinegar level, but leaned light on the pepper; however, it was a good, straightforward sauce, with no distractions. The Mid Western sauce was very sweet, the sort of sauce you would expect in the Midwestern United States, not the North Carolina Piedmont. Go East, young man. The pork itself had an excellent pork flavor, and what I considered a light, mostly oak smoke flavor, but then I’d just eaten a ton of my very smoky barbecue the day before, so I’m probably understating the extent of smoke flavor.
The hushpuppies arrived in battalions. They tasted good and had a nice crunch. The hushpuppies were good in themselves, and, when broken, helped sop up the delicious and nutritious pot likker from the good collards, to which I had added pepper vinegar.
The slaw was a disappointment. I was expecting that delicious, tangy yellow slaw you get at Parker’s. Instead, the slaw had a rougher cut and too much dressing; and the dressing was much more creamy than mustardy. I should have ordered the red sauce.
Hillsborough BBQ Company is one of the relatively new places that make real barbecue, the new generation of True ‘Cue. Their pork is very good, and I’ll tell our goddaughter, Amalia Marmolejos, about Hillsborough. She’s starts college at Chapel Hill in the Fall (on a Morehead, no less!) I’m sure she’s been concerned about getting good barbecue after the loss of Allen and Son. Not to worry. The rest of you should try it, too.
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