North Carolina is not the place for dilettante barbecue. Judgment is swift and expert, as well as staunchly loyal to memories of Fourth of July picnics and family road trips. Hillsborough BBQ Company, which opened in April, has nothing to fear. The hickory-burning, coal-shoveling newcomer is already a Hillsborough institution and seems likely to become a Triangle destination.
The restaurant is situated picturesquely on lower Nash Street, where the Georgian civilities of Hillsborough begin to dissolve into country scrub. Though recently renovated, the room has an easygoing, time-mellowed feel, its wood benches and wrought-iron accents evoking an era of clotheslines, iceboxes and puttering pickups without indulging in country kitsch. I consider it a perfect room—a parlor, let us say—in which to eat barbecue.
Monomaniacs of Eastern-style chopped butt will frown at the catholic offerings. The chopped anchors the menu, but shares billing with ribs, chicken, turkey breast, brisket and fried catfish. Smoked for 10 hours in massive brick ovens that replicate the legendary workhorses of Lexington Barbecue No. 1, the chopped is exemplary: roughly hewn rather than finely minced, moist without being mealy, subtly smoke-infused, strewn with plenty of caramelized outer bits and cleavered at the last minute. It is almost undetectably dressed, inviting one to ramp up the flavor with the apple-steeped, honey-infused vinegar sauce ready-to-hand in squirt bottles.
The ribs and chicken are smoked, sauced and finished on the grill. Available in half and full racks, the ribs are sweet, smoky and tender, saving one the plane fare to Kansas City. The chicken is fine, but beside the point amid the general paean to the pig. Does one order tempura at Nobu? Nor should one order chicken or turkey breast at a first-rate 'cue joint, though the latter was surprisingly tender.
The sliced brisket is a tougher call, so to speak. It's impressively smoky, but lean and slightly dry. Slathered in the house's quietly complex "Mid-Western Sauce," also ready-to-hand in squirt bottles, it makes for good eating, but it's not likely to wow the judges at the Jack Daniel's Invitational. I will retry the brisket in two months, on the assumption that it remains a work in progress.
The most pleasant surprise is the fried catfish. These crispy, melting billows give the pork a run for its money. I, for one, face an identity crisis. Am I the kind of guy who breathes in laboriously crafted hickory aromas and decides to order fish? Apparently I am. Live and learn, even about oneself.
In so many barbecue restaurants, the side dishes are immaterial. Oil-sodden, raw-centered hushpuppies are standard; so too are fries served in limp, wormy piles, barely dolled-up canned beans, and congealed masses of nuked macaroni and cheese. White sandwich bread like that served at the famed Sweatman's in Holly Hill, S.C., may pay homage to the 1950s table, as purists have explained to me, but Wonder Bread is still Wonder Bread.
The BBQ Company, by contrast, takes blue-ribbon pride in 'cue adornments that, after all, occupy more than half the plate. The hushpuppies are golden and crisp and as nobly al dente as the pastas of Rome. They are—and I tremble with the weight of this pronouncement—ideal. In my private pantheon, they vie with the hushpuppies at Lexington Style Trimmings.
Other priority sides include the Brunswick stew, thick enough to eat not only with a fork but with one's fingers; the baked beans, a chunky olio of lima, navy and kidney; and the unconventional cold salad of roasted sweet potato chunks mixed with burnt-sweet strands of blackened onion and green pepper.
The Lexington-style red slaw brings an effective tang to the chopped 'cue, but the white slaw is, to my Allen & Son-conditioned palate, a little bland. I miss the note of pepper and the lip-puckering smack of vinegar. Likewise, the corn pudding seems a bit hesitant, neither quite sweet nor quite savory, to which I say, "Buck up and cast your lot."
Dessert encompasses a particularly thick, chunky, flavorful banana pudding and an array of respectable pies. While happily not reheated in the microwave in order to produce a specious à la mode, the pies are merely capable bake-sale fare, a pleasant coda rather than a climax.
In its most conspicuous departure from the meat shack model, the BBQ Company features a well-stocked bar. Wine seems incongruous (canapés with that?) but bourbon is logical. I tried the "Smoked Pork Manhattan," a concoction of pork-steeped small-batch bourbon, sweet vermouth and orange bitters. I found the vermouth cloying on top of the bacon notes. The bartender let me try a shot of straight pork-infused bourbon, which solved the problem.
My one nagging complaint is the televisions hanging above the dining room like perching vultures. Barbecue is a social occasion that the nattering nabobs of CNN only distract from. Surely good barbecue requires no commentary.
These are the minor quibbles of a contented patron. On the back of its gas-free old-school 'cue, plate-overrunning portions, modest prices, smiling staff and general attention to detail, the BBQ Company can probably sign that 50-year lease.