I have to admit I never understood the mystique, the history and the importance of "BBQ" until I moved to and had lived in North Carolina for a few years. Growing up, I understood barbecue to be both a backyard picnic and a tangy red sauce brushed on chicken on the grill. I didn't understand the tiny yet of paramount significance regional differences in what is referred to as "BBQ" or even "cue." Beef vs. pork, pulled vs. chopped, shoulder vs. whole hog, ketchup based vs. vinegar based, these arguments that can define someone, some place, or something, were lost on me. I never knew that Styrofoam plates of chopped pork, collards, potato salad, slaw and fried okra could unite a racially segregated state, if only for a little while. At first, I didn't like what outsiders call North Carolina BBQ. Now, I love it and have learned to carefully refer to it as Eastern North Carolina BBQ.
Books have been written on the subject. I'm sure that somewhere some college in North Carolina offers a semester long symposium on this enigmatic food. Unless you've traveled to North Carolina, it's unlikely that you have truly had Eastern North Carolina BBQ. In Texas, "BBQ" refers to beef brisket with a spice rub and no sauce. In Memphis and Kansas City, it can mean ribs with a thick, tangy tomato-based sauce. In South Carolina, they prefer a yellow mustard-based sauce. Coming closer to Western North Carolina, it's pork, but with a redder sauce. In Central North Carolina, the sauce is still a little red, but less so. Around the epicenter of Eastern North Carolina, also known as Wilson, NC, the sauce is vinegar-based with red chile flakes, and definitely no tomato products! Make no mistake about it, folks cling to their own BBQ traditions with a loyalty typically reserved for trophy winning sports teams. In locally famous BBQ shacks, the Pitmaster reigns supreme. This is the man (yes, a man) who is responsible for maintaining the fires and cooking the meat. While the at-home BBQer typically cooks a shoulder, or Boston Butt, the Pitmaster of a cue shack typically cook the whole hog. Have you seen those Intel commercials? The slogan goes, "our rock stars aren't like your rock stars." That's kind of the way it is with North Carolina Pitmasters. One man, or family, can define the rules for BBQ in a North Carolina town. One of those men is Ed Mitchell. He is more than a locally famous rock star Pitmaster. He's been featured on Food Network, winning his Throwdown against Bobby Flay and on Man vs. Food on the Travel Channel. The list also includes Gourmet Magazine, The New York Times, and so on and so on and so on.
When The Pit opened it's doors in Raleigh, Ed Mitchell was hired on as the Pitmaster. The place has been packed ever since. Tonight, I arrived with K & J around 7 PM. We had to wait for more than 30 minutes for a table at a crowded bar. On a Wednesday. This is pretty much standard at the Pit. It is definitely worth the wait.
One look at the menu and the price point and you'll understand why. The clientele was amazingly diverse, young, old, black, white, families, business men, you name it they were lined up for the legendary food. We were happy to wait at the bar with beers and BBQ Fries. Fresh cut fries, topped with chopped cue and melted pimento cheese with a side of BBQ Ranch.
Words cannot describe how good this was. And I don't like pimento cheese! While we were chatting and devouring our fries, Mr Mitchell was walking around talking to people. We asked the bartender if it would be possible to get our picture taken with him. She went over to talk to him and in a few minutes, he made his way over to us. I stood up and reached out my hand to greet him. He smiled, said, "noooo!" and gave me a huge bear hug like I was a long lost friend. He was thrilled to pose for pictures with us and chuckled at the camera (read:photographer) issues. He talked to us for a few minutes before he had to leave. Clearly Mr. Mitchell was enjoying this. It was obvious this was a daily occurrence and something that brought as much joy to Mr. Mitchell as it did the patrons. It absolutely made my day.
We were seated right after the photos were taken. The next round included fried green tomatoes with a pepper relish.
They were excellent. I was starting to feel a little full. The menu is huge. In the end I settled on the brisket. I got to try the chopped cue on the fries, so I was satisfied moving on to something else. I can't wait to go back for the barbecued tofu. I've heard it's fantastic. For my two sides, I chose collard greens and black eyed peas. They were both excellent.
J had the pulled pork with the fried okra and mac and cheese
K had the fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.
As you can see, it was a hit.
We ended the dinner with by sharing a scoop of housemade peach ice cream. It was really good, subtle, complex and creamy.
Regardless of which culinary path you choose, I think we can all recognize that there are those foods that define a location, be it a country, state or city. Cue is definitely a food that defines this area. As well, the area defines the food too. BBQ has been an important aspect of North Carolina culture since it was first prepared. Ed Mitchell has defined this symbol of the Old North State, and along with The Pit, has raised the bar. The fine dining atmosphere is elegant and accessible at the same time. It gives a new respect to this most beloved of comfort foods. It also reminds us that at one point BBQ was a special food, reserved for celebrations.
If you find yourself in Raleigh and looking to eat where the locals eat, The Pit is the place to go. The prices are excellent, making this restaurant very family friendly. The service was great. The drink selection is carefully chosen to compliment the food served. The kitchen stays true to its roots, using only ingredients from North Carolina. I truly enjoyed my evening at The Pit.
The Pit, 328 West Davie St, Raleigh. 919-890-4500