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One nation under barbecue

France can have its foie gras, Italy its pasta. In the U.S., we'll take our barbecue any day (and the messier, the better).
The barbecue platter at King's in Kinston, N.C.
The barbecue platter at King's in Kinston, N.C.

France can have its foie gras, Italy its pasta. In the U.S., we'll take our barbecue any day. Nic Brown, who, being from North Carolina, likes his pulled pork with a kicky, vinegar-laced sauce, revisits some of his local favorites.

Barbecue has imbued my memories like hickory smoke seeping into the fabric of my past. Each of my major milestones (wedding, baby, first book) has had its meal to match. Last fall, with ribs and butts on the brain, I set out on a three-day drive to revisit the restaurants that have played a part in the story of my life. The 200-mile journey winds through some of the most bucolic stretches of North Carolina's countryside, threading together modest houses and storefronts that cater to a local (and exceptionally pork-savvy) crowd.

Stop number one is King's, a plain brick, 74-year-old spot in Kinston, about two hours southeast of Chapel Hill, where I live. Last summer, when our daughter was 10 months old, my wife and I took her to King's on our way to the coast. While we focused on our sauce-soaked ribs, we tried to steer her toward a bowl of soft yams. Despite our best efforts, she spent her time trying to figure out the physics of a plastic straw.

This time, I immediately recognize the gal behind the cash register—Margaret King, wife of the late founder, Wilbur King Sr. She's dressed in a matching purple suit and hat, lips fire-engine red. My table sits next to a buffet of greens, fried chicken, fried fish, and sides. I'm tempted, but I order off the menu so I can get what King's is known for—its barbecue plate. The meat is served in the traditional North Carolina style: teased off the bone and dressed just enough to have a peppery tang. My platter comes with slaw, hush puppies (deep-fried torpedoes of dough), and fries. There's an extra bottle of sauce on the table, and I know to shake it first—Carolina-style sauce settles into clear vinegar anchored by a thick murk of spices. The sum of its parts is what you're after.

Just over the Neuse River and through downtown Kinston stands The Bentley, a 1913 neoclassical estate turned B&B with countless fireplaces and a wraparound porch. Each of the four guest rooms has a theme; mine is the Porcelain Room, decorated in Staffordshire-style blue and white. Made-to-order eggs and fluffy pancakes are served in the conservatory—a wonderfully civilized pause in my quest.

The sun is beaming on Highway 58, and for 10 miles I'm surrounded by cotton fields in full bloom. The plants are low and white, as if they've been dusted with snow. Two hours down the road, in Pittsboro, I reach Allen & Son Bar-B-Que, an old mossy wooden outpost with a log pig on the roof. It's the place that catered my wedding rehearsal dinner four years ago.

A perfume rises from the basement, where hundreds of pounds of pork are cooked daily. The low-ceilinged dining room is filled with tributes to the UNC Tar Heels sports teams, and each of the tables has a roll of paper towels propped upright in the center, like bouquets in honor of grease. When my plate arrives, one side is filled with charred, smoky meat, the other with peppered coleslaw. Six thumb-size hush puppies lie across the heap. It's a masterpiece of crunch and sizzle, reminding me why our rehearsal feast elicited far more swoons than the wedding salmon.

By dark I'm back home in Chapel Hill, less than 20 miles north, revisiting the scene of another big party—this one to celebrate the publication of my novel, Floodmarkers, out last year. Chapel Hill has a full address book of barbecue restaurants. I find most of them forgettable (the meat is oversauced, the vegetables overcooked), with one exception. Tucked beside a kung fu studio in a strip mall, The Barbecue Joint looks as ordinary as its name, until you read the chalkboard: There's pulled pork, of course, but also duck confit salad, gumbo, and bacon-and-garlic brussels sprouts. Despite the down-home booths, this is clearly no country backwater. Co-owner Damon Lapas, who trained at the New England Culinary Institute, cooks Carolina barbecue for the new millennium. The food arrives in plastic baskets lined with wax paper. A square of cornbread rests on the pork, surrounded by coleslaw and house-made pickles. The barbecue is chopped into large pieces, and the edges have a nice crisp to them, with a hint of sweetness. It's dressed in almost no sauce—this place lets the barbecue stand on its own and saves the frills for the rest of the menu.

It's fun to play tourist in your own town, so my wife and daughter join me at the Inn at Bingham School. The former 19th-century headmaster's home is a four-poster-bed, claw-foot-tub sort of place, hushed save for one toddler's squeals. Around lunchtime we head west on Old Greensboro Road, passing live oaks, farmhouses overtaken by kudzu, and two-pump gas stations with coolers of North Carolina's singular cherry soda, Cheerwine.

Brown-Gardiner Drug Store, in Greensboro, is the perfect place to end my pilgrimage. My mother used to take me here after trips to the dentist, and even numbed up on novocaine, I always loved the food. But it's the setting that makes this 52-year-old spot special: a pharmacy on one side, and on the other, a grill, a handful of tables, and a counter filled with regulars.

Purists may be horrified by Brown-Gardiner for one reason: It outsources the barbecue! (The meat arrives smoked from Brookwood Farms in Siler City, and is grilled on-site.) But I love the vibe—and why care that they don't have their own pit when it tastes this good? My plate of pork is exactly as I remember; singed from the grill, accompanied by crimped French fries and a state-of-the-art orangeade (fresh orange juice, water, and sugar). We've brought my mother along, and as we sit together at the counter it feels like we're in a Carolina time warp—exactly what I'd been craving.

The Bentley
117 W. Capitola Ave., Kinston, 252/523-2337, , $119

Inn at Bingham School
6720 Mebane Oaks Rd., Chapel Hill, 800/566-5583, , $150

King's Restaurant
405 E. New Bern Rd., Kinston, 252/527-2101, , barbecue plate $6

Allen & Son Bar-B-Que
5650 U.S. Hwy. 15 501 N., Pittsboro, 919/542-2294, barbecue plate $6.50

The Barbecue Joint
630 Weaver Dairy Rd., Chapel Hill, 919/932-7504, barbecue plate $6

Brown-Gardiner Drug Store
2101 N. Elm St., Greensboro, 336/273-0596, barbecue plate $4.75