When asked about their favorite foods, your typical high school student is likely to say “pizza” or “hamburgers.” The occasional gourmand might mention “sushi” or the recently legalized-in-California “foie gras.”
There was a time when those answers would have sufficed for me as well. I like burgers. I like sushi.
That was before I went on a road trip down the East Coast with my dad in the summer of 2014, starting in Philadelphia and ending in Orlando. (By the way, if you’re in the area, go to the Harry Potter park- even if you’re not a fan of the series, it’s still an awesome experience.) I was most excited about visiting the various museums in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia- taking a trip through America’s history, if you will.
To my surprise, the most memorable moment of the trip occurred in a run-down roadside restaurant in tiny Ayden, North Carolina. That was when I discovered North Carolina barbecue.
When most people think of barbecue, they may think of huge ribs slathered in overwhelmingly sweet, oppressive sauce. I, too, thought this when my dad told me that we were going to try some of the local fare on our week-and-a-half long voyage.
During the five-hour drive from Washington, D.C. to Raleigh, NC, we made a few stops. The first was in the aforementioned Ayden. We had heard rumor of an excellent barbecue place, Skylight Inn, hiding in the out-of-the-way town. Over the years, it had garnered immense praise from critics. One called it “the barbecue capital of the world.”
The owners of the Skylight Inn had obviously heard this too. We arrived at the small building with hopes high. Aside from the sign, which announced that “if it’s not cooked with wood it’s not bar-b-q,” the first thing I noticed was the absurd mock-up of the capital building’s iconic dome adorning the building’s roof. The South is (in)famous for ridiculous architecture, and for the first time now I understood why.
Unfazed, we entered, walked up to the counter, and ordered. Within a few minutes, our food was delivered to us. I grabbed my dad and two cups of sweet iced tea and dug in.
North Carolina barbecue is served in the form of a sandwich comprised of finely chopped- not pulled, this is very important- wood-smoked pork, topped with a splash of thin vinegar-pepper sauce and sour, brightly colored coleslaw. The whole thing is light, tangy, and completely delicious, a 180 from other styles of barbecue (Kansas City, I’m looking at you).
When I took that first bite- and I’m not exaggerating here- I knew my life had changed. As my dad said afterwards, “I didn’t know food this good existed.”
My dad is a self-proclaimed foodie. He’s been to world-class restaurants across the globe. And yet this humble sandwich in a tiny little restaurant in an otherwise insignificant North Carolina restaurant stands shoulder to shoulder with the very best. High praise indeed.
Through the course of that trip, we stopped four more times for barbecue in North and South Carolina, and though none compared to that first Skylight Inn sandwich, they were all good in their own right. After we got back, we searched madly for something, anything that resembled that perfectly-cooked pig, but to no avail.
We even had meat shipped from North Carolina, prepared it, made all the condiments, and ate it, sticking to authenticity as best we could. This was the closest we could get to real pit barbecue in the Bay Area.
As I said before, when most people think of barbecue, they think of ribs and thick sauce, or if they’re of a Texas bent, maybe pulled pork. But rare is the time that North Carolina barbecue is found outside of North Carolina.
I would love to tell you that I’ve discovered a west coast oasis for authentic North Carolina barbecue. Sadly, that’s now how this article ends. In 20-30 years, maybe, when you have a family, make the trip out to North Carolina and taste perfection. And let them know California is eager to have them set up shop out this way. Maybe for the Bay Area generations of the future, culinary perfection will be just down the road.