Vote for best barbecue

news@lakewyliepilot.comMarch 18, 2013 

For the first time in the Charlotte Observer Tournament of Food’s six-year history, we’ve seeded the bracket completely randomly.

Why? Because we’re doing barbecue, and when you’re talking ’cue, all logical divisions – and all bets – are off.

“Barbecue” – as one reader chided me, it’s “Yankee” to specify pulled pork – brings out people’s passionate preferences more than any other single foodstuff I’ve written about. More than fried chicken, more than mac ’n cheese, more than Mom’s apple pie. That’s due to two powerful points, I’ve come to believe:

1. What you grew up with matters. If you got used to crushed-red-pepper-flecked-vinegar sauce on whole-hog ’cue, that’s the only thing that feels true. If you grew up with a sweeter red sauce on coarse-chopped shoulder meat, that’s what’s right, and everyone and everything else is wrong. Vehemently wrong. Peruse my blog posts about ’cue and you find one place’s product called ambrosial and slop by consecutive commenters. “I wouldn’t feed that trash to feral hogs” is one of my favorite slams, while “the only ’cue in Charlotte worth discussing” has been said (or written) to me about an astonishing number of very different restaurants.

2. The fact that barbecue pit-cooked over wood is a dwindling method matters. Traditionalists insist this is the only way to do it, and that’s one reason Michelle Obama was so roundly scoffed at when she said Charlotte had great barbecue. (Some folks mistakenly think it’s illegal now to cook over only wood in these parts; it’s not illegal but safety restrictions make it a more expensive method than most are willing to pursue. And even when they are, the price of wood and labor and maintenance are noteworthy.)

Other important distinctions are legion: Whole hog or whole shoulder or Boston butts (which are actually shoulder, but only part of the shoulder)? Eastern sauce (essentially vinegar, crushed red pepper, salt) or Lexington (vinegary but with tomato or ketchup added) or Western (sweeter, with more ketchup and sugar) or some derivation? Hand-pulled or chopped or both (or sliced)? Fresh meat? Frozen? Dry rub or no? Served hot, or reheated? A little fat mixed in or no? How much? “Outside brown” (also called bark) should be in what proportion to the “white”? And can you experience iconic ’cue in anything fancier than a scruffy little dining room? (And we’re not even mentioning slaw… or hush puppies.)

This bracket offers reader favorites, classics and newbies all within a 50-mile radius of Charlotte. Among the 16 contestants are Q2U of Lake Wylie, Courtneys of Clover and Ranucci’s of Belmont.

Compare and vote online, we’ll announce the Elite Eight next week, then the Final Four, and a judging panel will determine semifinalists and the winner, announced April 5.


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