I wanted to end the trip — my three day Tour de Barbecue — with some especially great barbecue for my last barbecue meal before going on to the beach and shifting my culinary gears to judging the 2020 World Shrimpburger Competition (See the winner here.) Naturally I went to the Skylight Inn.
I’ve blogged about the Skylight Inn a couple of times (see here and here), and I’ve blogged about the Jones family and their other restaurant, Sam Jones BBQ, eight or nine more times, including the time Sam survived a brush with Florida Man. The Jones family is barbecue royalty. Years ago, the National Geographic declared that the Skylight Inn had the best barbecue in the United States (and hence the world). Those of you from outside of Eastern North Carolina can take that up with the National Geographic.
The Skylight Inn has noble architecture.
The building certainly produces a better product than any other domed building in the United States. The Skylight Inn also ensures that customers wear masks and keep six feet apart. The tables in their separate indoor dining room are a good eight or nine feet apart. That is, the actual diners are at least six feet apart, at least unless the diners are really, really big. Which can happen.
Enough about that. To the food. I ordered a barbecue and barbecued chicken plate with slaw and potato salad. I ordered the chicken mainly as homage to my nephew Jimbo Tanner, the Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Expert. Jimbo usually eats chicken.
Let’s start with the pork, up there in what deceptively appears to be a small tray. You want to fluff it a bit, as it comes packed very firmly in that tray, and I like to loosen it a bit and let it breathe. It tasted — it always tastes — sensational. Think of adjectives that describe the ultimate pork barbecue and insert them here. One thing I like about the Skylight Inn is that they fine-chop the crisp pork skin in with the meat. It adds both texture and a wonderful layer of flavor. This is as good as barbecue gets in Eastern North Carolina, and, some folks would add, that means the world. I’m staying out of that fight.
The pork always comes with their very good slaw and their signature cornbread. It’s very dense — I imagine that they don’t use any wheat flour at all. I just love it.
The barbecued chicken is very good. Most of the breast meat was moist, and it had a nice touch of smoke. The chicken was lightly covered with a bland sauce that really didn’t add anything. It was sufficiently messy to prevent me from eating with my fingers, but that’s about it. The potatoes in the potato salad weren’t overcooked, but they came over-dressed.
The bottom line is that the Skylight Inn pork is great, wonderful, superb. There is no better order — few better orders anywhere — than the large barbecue tray, with pork and slaw and cornbread. That is, unless it’s two large pork trays with slaw like the big hungry guy at the next table had ordered. The chicken — why would you eat chicken with pork like that available? It’s good chicken, but ….
After eating, I wandered around back to the pit and there I met Ken Spady, the head pitmaster. Spady is only 30, but he started cooking when he was 13. His father raised hogs, and sometimes would cook whole hogs as a catering sideline. Among the tasks a 13 year old can perform on a hog farm, by far the best is cooking that pig. Mr. Spady graciously let me look around the pits. And explained their operation. I was struck that, unlike most places I’ve seen, they cook the head along with everything else.
That means that the cheeks, the most delicious part of the pig, go into their barbecue. They split the head and remove the brain and tongue, which have distinctive flavors, and which are sold separately to people who want brains or tongues. The trotters go to grocery stores, and the ears become dog treats which, in my unfortunate experience, is by far the highest and best use of pig ears.
I really enjoyed talking with Ken Spady. He’s a very bright and affable fellow who knows what he’s doing, and does it as well as anyone around. I always like to talk to master craftsmen about their work. It’s a lot better than talking to lawyers, bless our hearts. It’s especially good to talk to one who has succeeded so well at such an early age. Keep an eye on him.
You should head to Pitt County, the heart of Eastern North Carolina barbecue. It’s full of great, great barbecue places — in addition to the Skylight Inn, there’s Bum’s, B’s, and Sam Jones — not to mention some excellent craft breweries. You’ll be amazed at the quality of the barbecue and the low prices. You’ll meet a lot of good people and eat a lot of great food — especially that pork at the Skylight Inn.
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