Ed Mitchell's Que—note the possessive—arrives with some swagger. EMQ's website describes Mitchell, who was raised in Wilson, as a "legendary pitmaster" and as a "North Carolina barbecue legend." "Legend" is an ante-upping word, especially when you apply it to yourself.
Located in a new office building wedged behind the left field fence of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, EMQ must simultaneously: 1) Live up to its own hype, 2) Compete with Mitchell's erstwhile outfit, the Pit, which recently opened a Durham location on West Geer Street, and 3) Pray that foul balls don't come screaming through a window.
I like its chances in the first and second instances. Notwithstanding the deep-fried brie (why?), the Caprese salad (again why?) and the conciliatory barbecued tofu, the menu is a stripped-down though slightly pricy exposition of North Carolina pit-craft. Plate choices include chopped ($13), pulled ($12), ribs ($21), BBQ chicken ($14), fried chicken ($14), BBQ turkey ($13) and brisket ($16), with standard sides. Burgers and sandwiches are also available, though anybody who orders a burger should be deported to Connecticut.
Why pretend that EMQ—or indeed this review—is about anything other than the caliber of the chopped and pulled? Opening week, the chopped was tangy but somewhat dry and mealy as a function of over-cleaving. Two weeks later, it was tender and perfectly textural, heralding Sunday supper in the smoke-haloed hereafter that awaits Tar Heels. Certainly it competes with the best in the region. The pulled, while moist, teeters between subtle smokiness and blandness. A pair of dueling sauces in spout-fitted mason jars comes to the rescue. There is an Eastern-style vinegar sauce and a Western-style molasses-based sauce, each throwing a roundhouse punch as if trying to end the state's most fraught debate with a single blow.
The ribs and barbecued chicken come slathered with the Western-style sauce. Bereaved of their fat by long, slow cooking, they fall off the bone without being succulent. I call them a near miss. The fried chicken is respectable, while the smoked chicken wings are a coup at the margin of the menu. Neither sauced nor battered, they are crisp, juicy little nibbles, with none of the oily heaviness that clips your average Buffalo wing. At $8 for five pieces, they are no bargain, but neither is an ounce of caviar.
The sides—black-eyed peas, collards, hush puppies, mac & cheese, mashed potatoes, slaw—are perfunctory. The limp fries are worse than perfunctory, but the baked beans—sweet, smoky, faintly infused with bell pepper, strewn with nuggets of pork sausage—are outstanding, a realization of all one's long-cherished bean-related hopes. Consider the beans mandatory.
EMQ's desserts, retro-priced at $3, flaunt their simplicity, resisting whatever esoteric impulse led to the fried brie. The deep-fried peach pie and chocolate pecan pie pleasantly recall the era of family recipes on batter-stained notecards, though the pineapple sheet cake may be a little too redolent of a PTA bake sale. The banana pudding is what it is. Your childhood is either inseparable from the memory of it ... or it isn't, in which case you probably consider it baby food.
Cuisine aside, EMQ is a ledger of pros and cons. The interior is boxy and generic, with none of the railroad-era charm of the Pit's Durham establishment. The high ceiling and glazed concrete floor promise a dull roar on game days. There is no low-priced lunch menu. Even more oddly, there are no combination plates, meaning that completists will have to gut it out—appropriate phrase—dish by dish. On the other hand, service is smiling, attentive and blazingly fast. Food arrives before you've shimmied the paper from your straw. Whoa, Nelly! Did that happen by pneumatic tube? Floo powder? Kudos to the staff.
EMQ will intensify rather than end the local barbecue debate. Vying with Allen & Son, Hillsborough BBQ Company, the Pig and the Pit, it thickens the pack rather than leaves it behind. Advocates will cite the chopped; detractors will do the same (barbecue, like poetry, admits countless interpretations, competing critical schools).
Aficionados champion the hickory-smoked cue at Allen & Son, but this may have at least something to do with A&S's ramshackle digs and general lack of concession to suburban modernity. With its tourist-friendly location and readiness to play up its brand, EMQ is not destined to be a sentimental favorite, but I would hate to bet on the outcome of a blind taste test.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Queue up for Que"