Lexington, North Carolina, population fewer than 20,000, keeps its pork lovin’ residents’ content with 17 barbecue restaurants, all at very reasonable prices. While folks bicker over who makes the best in town, others argue about the best style: Memphis, Kansas City, North Carolina. No matter what, Lexington barbecue is legendary and you need to taste it. The town was named “One of Ten Great Places to Celebrate Food” by USA Today.
Lexington barbecue is pit cooked byexperts called pitmasters who say there are four crucial steps to making ‘cue. The first step is using only pork shoulders, which provide meat that is moist and juicy. The second step is smoking the pork shoulders over wood fires to provide added flavor. The third is basting with a medium-textured sauce or dip that is absorbed during cooking. The dip is a mixture of vinegar, water, salt and pepper. (In Lexington the word dip is drawn out into three syllables – dddd-eee-ppp.) As the dip and fat drip onto the coals, smoke is created that rises up, surrounds and permeates the meat and gives it a rich, smoky flavor. And the fourth step is slow-roasting the shoulders for eight to 10 hours at a time.
The dip is crucial. Unlike other regions which use thick, sweeter sauces, folks in Lexington favor a lighter sauce. It’s more tangy than sweet, and cooked right into the meat. Bub Wright of Lexington Barbecue says, “We don’t use rubs, marinades or anything like that. It’s the true barbecue taste.”
Another thing that sets Lexington-style barbecue apart is the variety of ways in which it is served. Customers can get their orders chopped, pulled or sliced — and with bark, the extra crusty and flavorful outside pieces,if requested. The bark was my favorite.
The coleslaw can also be an eye-opener. It’s traditional in Lexington to serve “red” slaw or “barbecue” slaw, which includes ketchup and a dash of vinegar to alter the taste and color. (Not my favorite!)
And then there are hush puppies. Small pieces of sweet round cornmeal, mixed with a tasty ingredient or two, then deep fried and served golden brown. “It’s a Southern thing,” explains Rick Monk of Lexington Barbecue. “On a steady day, we serve about 5,000 to 6,000 hush puppies. On a good day, it can be 10,000.”
There are two things Lexington-area barbecue restaurants don’t do. Since it takes 8-10 hours to properly smoke a pork shoulder, they serve no swine before its time. And they never view their fellow restaurant owners as competition.
The family-owned businesses work together to present the annual Lexington Barbecue Festival that draws around 200,000 people. The Festival takes place in Uptown Lexington, which I would call the downtown area. A nine-block stretch of Main Street is closed to traffic. Over four hundred exhibitors sell everything from handmade crafts to handmade fudge, plus there’s a juried competition for artists and craftsmen and lots of live entertainment.
The festival attracts people of all ages and includes a special section of rides and games for children. You’ll also find an antique car show, the “Hogway Speedway,” Racing Pigs, Bicycle Stunt Show, 50-ton pig-theme sand sculpture, Corvette display, “Festival Chop Shop,” Lumberjack Sports show, rock climbing wall and more.
The main feature, the barbecue, is served out of three main tents, one at the square and the two others on the ends of the festival. The tents are amazing places where no fewer than 35 people chop meat, fix slaw and serve pigtail French fries.
In addition to consuming way too much barbecue, I also visited the RCR Racing Museum which showcases cars and memorabilia from famed NSCAR owner Richard Childress. He teamed with Dale Earnhardt in 1981 and their partnership continued until Earnhardt’s tragic death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
I felt more at home, however, touring the Childress Vineyards. Richard Childress fulfilled a longtime dream when he opened Childress Vineyards in 2004. The terroir’s humid climate, long growing season and gravely, red clay soil are the key natural features of the vineyards. They offer great bistro fare at lunch. The tasting room is open from 10 a.m to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Tastings include eight half-ounce pours and a souvenir glass. I sipped on Sauvignon Blanc, Reserve Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Pinnacle (a Bordeaux-style red blend), Merlot, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Three Red (the vineyard best seller) and a Finish Line Port. All were far better than I had anticipated.
Another Lexington highlight is browsing the Timberlake Gallery that showcases Bob Timberlake’s watercolors and Giclee (fine art) reproductions. Bob has had eight successful shows at the prestigious Hammer Galleries in New York City. Bob has also created a full line of popular home furnishings and accessories.
The swine-and-dine city is located just 20 miles south of Winston-Salem or a little over an hour from Charlotte. I guarantee you won’t leave hungry.
For additional information: visitlexingtonnc.com.
Disclosure: Many thanks to Lexington Tourism for hosting me for a Swine, Wine and Dine tour.