RALEIGH, N.C. – When I saw the sign, my stomach tightened. Valet parking? At a barbecue joint?
I had chosen The Pit on the recommendation of Michael Felder, the former North Carolina football player who hosts the excellent In The Bleachers podcast. Felder knows his food, and I wouldn’t expect him to steer me wrong. Still, doubt crept in as I dug into my pocket for singles to tip the valet*. This place seemed too fancy to produce quality barbecue. It had a wine list. It served microbrews on tap. I immediately folded a few more singles around my valet claim check so I could bolt in an instant if I saw the word “fusion” on the menu.
*Some people only tip the valet when he brings the car back. This is the acme of foolishness, especially for those who drive a nicer vehicle than I do. The best way to make sure he doesn’t do a doughnut into a spot or practice Dukes of Hazzard-style ramp-jumping with your ride is to take care of him beforehand. (Tip afterward, too.) Your shocks and struts can thank me later.
A few days earlier, I had parked at an auto-parts store in Opa Locka, Fla., to eat ribs at Mama Lucy’s. Why? Because the well-seasoned barrel smokers take up much of Mama Lucy’s parking lot, and if the beauty shop next door is busy, the only way to get there is to risk life and limb crossing 119th Street on foot. (The lack of attention to the rules of the road doesn’t seem to bother the street vendors who stand at the intersections selling socks and other necessities, bless their hearts.) This, to many of us in the barbecue-loving world, is how barbecue should be enjoyed – in the most uncomfortable, inconvenient manner possible.
The proprietors of The Pit have defied that notion in every way imaginable. They smoke whole hogs, but they have outfitted their restaurant to satisfy the needs of those more accustomed to $75 filet mignon. Most great barbecue restaurants have a stack of used Michelin tires resting somewhere nearby. The only kind of Michelin will get near The Pit is a Michelin star. OK, maybe that’s going a bit overboard, but Felder put it best when he sent me this message on Twitter: “It has that upscale feel most BBQ places don’t have. They cook like a hole in the wall, though.”
Indeed they do.
As a native of Columbia, S.C., who spent most of his childhood in Florida, South Carolina and Alabama, I’m skittish when someone takes a cleaver to pork. But chopping is the preferred method of pork separation in the eastern half of North Carolina. Hand-pulling pork preserves the juice. Chopping can dry it out instantly, and a mouthful of dry pork tastes like a mouthful of socks. But if the pork is cooked perfectly, it will remain moist even after it’s chopped. The Pit cooks its pork perfectly.
The chopped pork is the only dish that comes from the whole hogs smoking out back, and the mix of shoulder and belly meat pairs perfectly with the sinus-tickling vinegar sauce. Meanwhile, the spare ribs – which come from the same supplier but aren’t cooked while still attached to the hog – were thick, juicy and pulled clean off the bone every time.
The Pit takes the same care with its sides as it does with its meat. The bartender made sure I knew I had jalapeno-vinegar sauce available to spice up already delicious collard greens. The cheesy bacon grits could have used a tad more cheesy, but after the chopped pork, the ribs and the greens, it was tough to complain. After the final bite of grits, I planned to pay my check and leave, but then the bartender handed me a dessert menu.
At the moment, I’m quite fat. Football season plus two tiny children left me little time to exercise. I should not eat dessert until I shed about 10 more pounds, but I couldn’t help myself when I saw the entry in the middle of The Pit’s dessert menu. Carrot cake – a particular weakness of mine under any circumstances – with molasses cream cheese frosting and bourbon ice cream. Yes, bourbon ice cream. If Maker’s Mark doesn’t start mass-marketing this stuff immediately, it is passing up a potentially massive revenue stream.
Speaking of massive, it sure was nice to roll my bloated body off the stool and have my rental brought to me at the front door. So maybe there is no one-size-fits-all barbecue aesthetic. Maybe a great barbecue joint doesn’t need to look like it’s about to succumb to the whims of the local department of health. Maybe valets and ribs can co-exist.
Pre-meal workout: Six-mile run around the University of North Carolina campus
Featured workout tune: Somebody That I Used To Know, by Gotye. (Breakup songs, even the slow ones, make great running songs.)