A couple of weekends ago, I made the drive down to Raleigh, North Carolina with my guy. Already on the road for work, he decided to add a couple of extra hundred miles to visit some close family friends. Road trip to the South? Where it might be warm(er)? And where they have sweet tea and pulled pork? Where my cousin recently relocated? Check, check, and check- I didn't have to think twice. Unfortunately, the whole "warmer" thing was not to be; instead, we encountered a pretty vicious ice/snow storm. Thankfully, we survived the drive and were rewarded with a fantastic lunch at The Pit right in downtown Raleigh.
While perusing for some outdoor shots of the large restaurant, I stumbled across a rather comprehensive review of Carolina BBQ. The author of this blog swears The Pit is the absolute best there is- and there's a lengthy podcast to explain why.
I was kind of hoping for a hole-in-the-wall authentic down-home type restaurant, but The Pit is pretty classy and quite spacious, which meant no wait for weekend lunch for a group. Fortunately, the food is exactly what I was looking for- classic Carolina 'que. The Pit provides a quick overview of the history of Carolina BBQ- the vinegar sauce (typically apple cider vinegar based) was developed without tomatoes because tomatoes spoiled easily in a time without modern day conveniences.
It was easy for me to choose the "Carolina Classic Combo" ($9.99)- a taste of both their fried chicken and the chopped BBQ, along with hush puppies and two sides AND a biscuit. "Chopped BBQ" is their name for whole hog pork (literally a pig cooked whole and every piece of meat chopped and mixed together) that has been dressed with the classic tangy vinegar sauce. I added a few extra splashes to the meat and it was terrific- a much different texture than pulled pork, but smoky, and with the perfect cayenne/sugar mix of sweet and spicy. The fried chicken was also excellent, with a thick and extra crunchy fried shell and tender meat (I detected a possible brine?). The sides were superb as well- of course I chose fried okra and cabbage collards, two purely Southern delicacies.
My boyfriend wanted to order the double combo- a choice of two of ANY of their meat options, but ended up being served just the brisket ($9.99). Which was actually a blessing in disguise, because the brisket ended up being my favorite meat of the day. Thick slices of super tender beef with a perfect crust of char and spice rub reveal their long, slow transformation in the smoker. It reminded me of the sleeper-hit flank steak at Fette Sau- just really flavorful with that melt-in-your-mouth texture that's hard to come by. Sweet potato fries, creamed corn, and a flaky biscuit= carb-y trifecta.
My cousin joined us for lunch, and although The Pit is only a few blocks from her workplace, this was a new experience for her as well. She decided to go a more traditional route with the pulled pork, an ungarnished pork shoulder "ready to sauce as you would like." On each table, The Pit offers both the vinegar sauce as well as a thin, slightly sweet barbecue sauce more familiar to the palate of non-natives like ourselves. It's hard to go wrong with fork-tender pulled pork, and it provided a fun opportunity to experiment with the different sauces.
I had a wonderful time chowing down on a new-to-me type of BBQ, and I'm so glad we got to experience what other eaters believe to be "the best" (though I'm sure this could lead to heated arguments...).
Even though we literally woke up still full from BBQ the next day, my cousin and I ventured back into the city to check out Big Ed's, another Raleigh original. A Philly friend alerted me to this place after Craig LaBan tweeted about it a few weeks before my trip. Apparently their pancakes are famously large and a challenge to consume, which means this place is right up my alley. The next Pancake Pantry? (<-- slightly embarrassed to link to that post, it was early in our blog's lifespan).
The place was packed on a Sunday morning, but an energetic and efficient waitstaff kept things moving- we didn't even have to wait for a table. This was really the authentic greasy-spoon Carolina experience I was hoping for- our waitress had a terrific accent, called us "honey," and brought biscuits straight away to our checkered tableclothed table. Steamy, fluffy, with a lightly toasted crumbly outer edge.. these didn't even need butter because they literally WERE butter.
I couldn't help but spend a few minutes to take in all of the entertaining antique decor hanging from the ceiling and filling the walls- from bedpans to baskets to wagon wheels to license plates. There was actually an old, rusty bike hanging directly above us. A group of tin cans was labelled "redneck wind chime." Loved it.
There's something for everyone at Big Ed's- their menu is enormous and filled from top to bottom on either side with every Southern breakfast (and lunch!) item you could imagine. Unfortunately our stomach capacities still hadn't recovered from BBQ, so giant pancakes were out of the question (if you eat three, you get a free T-shirt!). The list of side dishes was most intriguing to me, allowing a mix-and-match type meal. I wish I'd been brave enough to try the "Rose Pork Brains"!
I started out with another biscuit, this time with sausage gravy ($3.69). Our waitress warned me this wasn't going to be a picture-perfect white sausage gravy, and I'm glad she did- the gray-brown gravy was less than visually appealing. However, the spicy flavor of the sausage and the thick, flour-thickened texture of the peppery gravy made that biscuit a buttery transport vessel for the Southern breakfast of my dreams.
Even though we didn't see it on the menu, a Yelp-er spoke highly of the "cheesy potatoes" which sounded like something that we needed to experience. We asked our waitress about them, and she said they should be a menu-regular- we responded to her "with bacon and onion?" with zombie-like nods. Waitress knows best, right? Obviously, crispy home fries with melted cheddar cheese, smoky bacon, and pan-fried onions were indescribably delicious.
My cousin also couldn't resist breakfast in biscuit form, and ordered the sausage, egg, and cheese on a biscuit (~$4). The cheese was ingeniously folded into the fried egg, keeping everything in a neat little package. Sausage can come in patty or link form; we agreed links on a sandwich make little to no sense. The fried patty was a sink-your-teeth-in version of the crumbly gravy sausage. Nothing complicated about this one.
a fat kid all about balance, so I also ordered some of the spiced apples for sweetness ($2.29). Peeled apple wedges are cooked just enough to take out the crunch, but these still had plenty of bite- not mushy in the least. Sweetened with a brown sugar and cinnamon glaze, I was kind of wishing for a flaky pastry crust to make a darn good apple pie.
Big Ed's (No real website! They do ZERO advertising other than word of mouth.)