The ritual of barbecue starts with the woodpile and ends with the best sandwich ever. Yes, ever. Executive Editor Hunter Lewis revisits his hometown joint
Allen & Son Barbecue (919/942-7576) sits at the nexus of Old 86 and Millhouse Road on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, North
Carolina. A few miles off I-40, it's the first place I go whenever I fly home via RDU.
I ate my first real chopped pork sandwich here. Recently my daughter did too. In high school, my buddies and I burned a path down the back roads, skipping class for a taste of pitmaster Keith Allen's handiwork. The teachers always smelled the telltale wood smoke on us. Turns out this sandwich is worth more than a week of detention.
Owner Keith Allen hauls hickory to the restaurant and splits the wood with a steel wedge and a maul. Some mistake the no-nonsense Keith for a lumberjack or retired tight end. He is a pitmaster.
Keith transports the hickory by wheelbarrow to feed the fire in a huge brick fireplace, where it burns down to nuggets of coals. He shovels the coals into the two pits that sit on each side of the fireplace.
Whole pork shoulders, chicken halves, and ribs sizzle on the grates, dripping fat onto the coals. The smoke infuses the meat, and the gentle heat slowly breaks down and tenderizes it.
In the kitchen, Keith uses two machete-like blades that he calls "lamb breakers" to aggressively and rhythmically break down steaming hunks of pork shoulder into piles of chopped barbecue.
Keith douses the 'cue with a fatty Eastern NC-style, red pepper-spiced vinegar sauce. This marriage of vinegar sauce with Western NC pork shoulder cookery befits a Piedmont town in the middle of the state.
Step up to the window, and place your to-go order or pay your bill. The house sauce is for sale in Mason jars. A board advertises the specials: peach cobbler, chocolate chess pie, cherry pie.
Tackle shop meets BBQ joint. Smoke-stained painted cinder block walls, framed accolades from the press, taxidermy galore, and oilcloth-lined tables: The place just feels, and smells, right.
The veteran staff shepherds platters and never-ending pitchers of perfectly sweetened tea to the tables full of country and city folks, white collar and blue collar, Duke and Carolina fans.