The Whole Hog

A food critic's visit to barbecue country.

“Charlotte is the Dallas of North Carolina,” a friend commented as we wandered around the banking boomtown of the New South. Starting about twenty years ago, downtown Charlotte got “revitalized,” a process only accelerated when Bank of America moved its headquarters to the city. Developers have ripped out all of Charlotte’s downtrodden charm and installed tall, shiny buildings, young financiers, and third-rate sculptures.

Nevertheless, there’s still plenty of good eating. A few days after my column ran on East Bay barbecue, a friend called to offer me a free plane ticket to Charlotte for the weekend. I’d spent the days since the column appeared fielding readers’ e-mails with corrections and commentary, so I jumped at the chance to head to the real South to try one of the regional variations on barbecue that I’d been searching for in California.

At Mert’s Heart and Soul, Caresa and I had some kickass barbecued ribs, braised in a tangy tomato sauce so long that the meat clung to the bones, served with fatback-laced greens and cornbread so good that I forgave it for the inches it added to my waistline.

But I had a peak experience at the unironically named Bubba’s, south of downtown. Every local I talked to that weekend gave Bubba’s the nod for its barbecue — and when you’re dealing with such a contentious subject, that’s saying something.

Western North Carolina style barbecue is a whole lot closer to the sweet tomato-sauce ‘cue of the Deep South, and by extension, Northern California. But in Charlotte and points east, “barbecue” — the default definition, that is, just as “Coke” can refer to any kind of soda — means the whole hog, brushed in a sauce of vinegar and spices and smoked over hickory.

What you get on your plate at Bubba’s is a heap of finely shredded meat speckled with bits of red chile peppers. After the buildup, I stared at the plain beige meat with a sense of anticlimax. Then I stuck a forkful in my craw. And then another.

The meat was a little dry — a couple extra splashes of Bubba’s vinegar sauce added a tart kick — but it was almost like someone had infused smoke and cracklings into each shred. After fifteen minutes, my friends and I were all stuffed and moaning, but as this was a one-time deal, I kept sucking the flavor out of tiny pinches of meat until it was time to go.

On the way to the airport, our hosts joked about a town just across the border in “South Cackalackee” that was famous for its Frito Pie.

“Served in the bag?” I asked. They nodded.

Now there are two reasons for me to return.

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