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Pit Stops

Styles vary, but it's all pig

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My dad used to say barbecue was hardwired to the family's DNA. On family vacations he would drive 100 miles out of the way to visit a legendary barbecue pit set outside a refurbished gas station. We ate at Dreamland and Ollie's in Alabama, Pierce's in Virginia, and Lexington #1, here in Carolina. We had ribs in Memphis and Texas beef brisket in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Even after my father was transferred to Wall Street - where, alas, there is no barbecue - he maintained a dedicated suitcase for barbecue which he filled up whenever he visited the South. Although as a family we were equal opportunity 'cue lovers, since barbecue varies throughout the South, I have a particular weakness for Georgia barbecue, the barbecue I grew up with, and Lexington barbecue. But I can visit the Old Hickory House on North Tryon whose owner is the cousin of the folks who owned the place I frequented in Atlanta. It's the only spot in town where diners can eat near a hickory-smoked pit since it's part of the dining room and order the wood-smoked infused "outside brown," the preferred meat of true barbecue connoisseurs.

Here in Charlotte, we have Bill Spoon's and Bubba's offering wonderful eastern-style barbecue, but Lexington-style barbecue is frequently overlooked. Of course, we can always go up the road to Lexington, or to Bridges' in Shelby.

In 1982 Sonny Lyon bought Hog Heaven Barbeque, a small Lexington-styled barbecue joint off Eastway Drive. His is the best barbecue sign I've seen: a large pink pig with a chef's hat resting on a cloud under a rainbow beneath the words Hog Heaven. Now that's pure Americana.

Inside the grey building is a small dining area with only a handful of booths and walls decorated with NASCAR memorabilia. Most customers carry out here. On the menu are dinner plates with sliced or hand-chopped pork, St. Louis-styled ribs, chicken, and hot dogs.

When Lyon first opened he smoked his meat over hickory logs. "I used to totally cook with wood. I changed to gas about five or six years ago," Lyons said. "Wood was getting expensive and the labor, too. Now we have gas running into the same pits. The drippings are what create the smoke and we still have that." The pork is moist and seasoned with Lyons' special Lexington-based sauce. Although he grew up in Creedmore, North Carolina, which features eastern-styled barbecue, he prefers the tomato-based sauce of the Piedmont. With Brunswick stew, however, he fancies his cousin's eastern-style recipe. Hog Heaven's stew is a densely flavored melding of pork, chicken, corn, lima beans, and spices. Also good are Lyons' two styles of slaw: plain or barbecue for loading onto the pork sandwiches. Ribs are St. Louis-style short ribs, a bit less flavorful than expected.

Hog Heaven has a long standing reputation for being the best spot for Lexington-styled barbecue in town.

Hog Heaven Barbeque, 1600 Purser Drive, (across from Garinger High School) 704-535-0154. Sunday through Tuesday 11am until 3pm, Wednesday 11am until 7pm, Thursday though Saturday 11am until 8pm. Cash or checks only. Catering.

Barbecue is becoming the fast casual frontier for corporate restaurants. Responding to the desire for Americans to eat comfort food in more upscale environments, corporate giants such as the Orlando-headquartered Darden Restaurants, Inc. have responded with new-styled barbecue restaurants. Darden, which also owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden, launched Smokey Bones Barbecue & Grill in 1999. Currently Darden has over 100 of these restaurants, including one in Charlotte.The idea of a corporate barbecue restaurant is not a new concept. After all Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q opened their first shop in 1968 in Florida. But Sonny's is a franchise operation. Smokey Bones is part of a chain.

The concept of Smokey Bones is family-styled sports bar. Booths are equipped with sound boxes to adjust for individual televisions. The interior has that high country log cabin décor complete with a hanging canoe.

The menu, which is also the place mat, offers barbecue from across the US: pulled pork, beef brisket, barbecue chicken, smoked sausages, as well as baby back and smoked St. Louis-styled ribs. The barbecue is smoked over hickory wood in large smokers on site. The pulled pork sandwich, hand rubbed with seasoning, is heavily smoked, more along the lines of Ozark barbecue. This sandwich is served on thick club roll and offered with the three table sauces: a mustard-based sauce, a sweeter thicker commercial tasting tomato-based sauce, and one which is hot peppers. Much better than the pork sandwich are the St. Louis ribs, meaty and falling off the bone tender. The sides include a hefty portion of profoundly fettered onion rings served with an overly sweet honey-mustard sauce, sugary barbecue beans, but excellent cole slaw. One of the stranger dishes is the Brunswick stew that has no lima beans, but does have ground beef. Beyond the barbecue on the menu the other items seemed more appealing: the buffalo, Angus or vegetarian burgers.

Smokey Bones is not the only corporate barbecue fast casual restaurant out there. It's just the first one to show up in Charlotte. The question is will non-Carolina-styled barbecue make it here? And will Carolinians look beyond the barbecue to see that Smokey Bones is also a sports bar?

Smokey Bones & Grill, 8760 JM Keynes Dr., 704-549-8282. Hours Sunday through Thursday 11am until 10pm, and Friday and Saturday 11am until 11pm. AmEx, Visa, MC.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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