Notes from the South: Ribs and Hushpuppies at Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

"The ribs were some of the smokiest, moistest specimens I've had the privilege of eating."

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[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

In North Carolina, barbecue generally means one thing and one thing only: smoked pig, chopped up and served with a partly spicy, partly vinegar-based sauce (more on the West-East sauce divide later). Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, may be known for its chopped barbecue, but the restaurant also turns out a mean rack of ribs.

At the risk of incensing die-hard North Carolinian chopped barbecue lovers everywhere, I'm going to argue that I think it's a mistake for barbecue pits to be chopping up the whole hog. Leaner parts of the pig—the shoulders, the loin, and so forth—benefit from being mixed with the fattier cuts. But there are some parts of the pig that are already such an ideal composition of lean and fatty, that cooks should leave well enough alone. Ribs are one of those parts: tender and succulent, they're perfect just as they are, gnawed right off the bone for maximum enjoyment. Of all the barbecue pits I visited in North Carolina, only Allen & Son seemed to sympathize with this sentiment.

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The ribs were some of the smokiest, moistest specimens I've had the privilege of eating. Much of the interior of the ribs was pink—not a soft, dulled rosy tone, but bright pink from having been gently smoked. Each sliver of meat was defined yet tender, falling easily off the bone. The sauce was a little tangy, a little sweet, and didn't overwhelm the porky taste of the meat.

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For sides, get the hushpuppies. I'd go back to Allen and Son just for those hushpuppies. I hesitate to use the word "revelatory" to describe these hushpuppies, but they're just that good. What makes them so distinctive? A honeyed coating on the crunchy exterior and a surprisingly moist center, with plenty of real corn flavor.

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It's always the nuances that distinguish the stellar from the truly great, and these hushpuppies are just a little crunchier than most, with a coating that's just slightly sweeter and stickier than most. The soft interior are also especially adept at sopping up the sauces on the plate.

In short, while I wouldn't go out of my way to have the chopped barbecue at Allen & Son, their ribs and hushpuppies were some of the most memorable bites on my trip down South.

Allen & Son

6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27516 (map)
919-942-7576

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.

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