A Farewell to Historic Allen & Son Barbecue
This one really stings. Last week word came that Allen & Son Barbeque in Chapel Hill, North Carolina—which just this summer clocked in at number five on my list of the Top 50 Barbecue Joints in the South—had quietly closed its doors.
I'm not surprised that Keith Allen ducked out on the QT, for he wasn't one to make a fuss. "It would have been very emotional," he told the Raleigh News & Observer. "Too much to endure. You can't hug and kiss and cry and all that stuff and still work an 8-hour day."
Not that Allen ever worked an 8 hour day. A do-it-yourself kind of guy, he personally cooked every pound of barbecue served at his restaurant—waking five days a week at two a.m., getting the fires going by three. Monday was his easy day, for the restaurant was closed and he could devote his energy to hauling wood and splitting it with a maul and steel wedge.
Keith Allen is actually the son in Allen & Son. His father, James Allen, bought a drive-in barbecue spot near Pittsboro back in the ‘60s, and that's where Keith learned the trade. In 1970, while still in college, the younger Allen happened across a restaurant for sale a few miles north of Chapel Hill. He borrowed $3,000, bought the place with a certified check on a Saturday, and went to work at the new outpost of Allen & Son the following Monday. (His father's original Pittsboro location is still in operation under different owners, who bought it years ago after James Allen passed away.)
I've always said that if you could visit only one North Carolina barbecue restaurant, make it Allen & Son. It straddled the state's two great barbecue regions. Allen cooked pork shoulders on closed pits the way they do in the Piedmont, but he dressed the chopped meat with a pepper-laden vinegar sauce without a trace of tomato, like they do to the East.
The atmosphere was right, too: a homey dining room with a mix of brown wood paneling and pale green-painted walls, the tables topped with green- and white-checkered cloths. A mounted deer head peered down from one wall, and a stuffed fox watched over the whiteboard with the daily dessert options. And what options they were: scratch-made cakes, pies, and cobblers topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.
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A few years ago I got to spend some time in the cinderblock pithouse behind the restaurant, chatting with Keith Allen while he cooked. I've never seen a set up quite like it. The entire back wall was a massive expanse of brick, with a fireplace and chimney in the middle where Allen burned split hickory logs down to embers. On either side were black metal-doored pits in which the pork shoulders and ribs cooked on big racks mounted on rollers so they could be pulled out for loading and unloading.
Allen worked in that pithouse twelve hours at a shot, scooping glowing coals from the firebox with a long handled shovel and spreading them beneath the racks in each pit. The laborious process created a superb finished product: tender, juicy chopped pork with a subtle but unmistakable smoky flavor, complemented perfectly by the spice of the sauce.
Allen liked to describe his barbecue philosophy as "chasing that flavor." He meant the delicate, beguiling taste imparted by the perfect dose of hardwood smoke. Not the raw, sooty punch delivered by modern offset cookers, nor the bland greasiness of industrial ‘cue that must be propped up by a thick, sweet sauce. It's an alchemical quality found only in the very best wood-cooked barbecue, the kind that roasts gently for hours over direct heat, the fat and juices dripping down onto the coals and steaming back up across the meat.
Allen's phrase has come back to me again and again as I've traveled across the South sampling barbecue. I'm always chasing that flavor, too—the gold standard that only a handful of restaurants have achieved. With the closing of Allen & Son, sadly, there's now one fewer place where we can catch it.