Famed barbecue joint The Pit brings its Raleigh reputation to Durham | First Bite | Indy Week
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Famed barbecue joint The Pit brings its Raleigh reputation to Durham 

Smoking the whole hog

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Smoking the whole hog

Try as we might, we can't bring ourselves to hate certain kingpins—Bruce Springsteen, Wayne Gretzky, Apple, Pixar, J.K. Rowling. The Pit, one of the most popular restaurants in the Triangle, belongs in this unlikely category.

It operates with the unerring commercial instinct of the Cheesecake Factory and the systemized efficiency of a McDonald's, but for all its slickness it serves up the homiest, smokiest Carolina comfort food, nearly all of which would pass muster wherever the back roads stop and the weeds begin.

Having operated since 2007 in a retrofitted 7,800-square-foot meat-packing plant in downtown Raleigh, the Pit now has a similarly vast sister restaurant in the semi-gentrified area north of downtown Durham. Amid the fastidious boutique enterprises that define the new Durham, the Pit might seem merely crowd-pleasing, but to please a crowd is not to pander to it.

The Pit is about getting familiar stuff right, beginning with its sink-or-swim item: the pit-smoked Eastern-style chopped. Philosophers of Carolina cue invoke Ayden's Skylight Inn as an all-purpose debate ender, but we won't count the angels dancing on that particular pinhead. By any non-hairsplitting standard, the Pit's cue is what it should be: smoky, juicy, tangy, tender without being mushy or mealy.

The coarse-chopped "outside brown," meanwhile, has a jerky-like chew and an intense smokiness that does not appeal to all tastes but appeals powerfully to some, including mine. An oenophile might identify a variety of notes: shoe leather, forest fire, pipe smoke issuing from the desk of an eminent scholar of Augustan literature. The outside brown captures the essence of barbecue. Taste and texture matter, but what really matters is the suggestion of fire, which evidently stirs something limbic and primal in us.

The sliced shoulder is innocuous in comparison to the chopped and outside brown, but it is, as the menu vows, "succulent." This adjective also describes the three varieties of rib—beef, baby back and sparerib—which don't disappoint.

Among the primary porcine offerings, the only letdown is the pulled pork, which comes in strands "ready for you to sauce." The correct inference is that the pulled is bland. The more damning point is that it's at least sometimes dry and tough, recalling the kind of botched pork roasts that trichinosis-fearing moms specialize in. I have more tentative reservations about the brisket, which is tender but devoid of the smoky note that would distinguish it from mere pot roast. The brisket is tasty enough, but I can't imagine anyone from Chapel Hill or Raleigh braving the highways to satisfy a craving for it.

The fried chicken, on the other hand, is worth a rush-hour drive. Conspicuously juicy and crisp without being greasy or bready, it contends as the area's best, at least in dark meat form.

Unlike many BBQ restaurants, the Pit brings zeal and creativity to its peripheral offerings. The complimentary biscuits could serve as the centerpiece of another menu, and the appetizers—fried pimento cheese with pepper jelly; fried green peppers with goat cheese and red pepper vinaigrette—are inventive without muddling the homespun essence. It's a testament to the menu's savoir faire that a vegetarian could jerry-rig an interesting and varied meal without resorting to the "BBQ tofu."

Certain batches of hush puppies are irresistible (hot, crisp, sweet, round as balled melon) and others are inedible (oil-logged, crusty, riven by jagged valleys). This is a kink to be worked out.

Desserts—apple pie, chocolate cake, meringue-topped banana pudding and similar icons of the farmhouse windowsill—are big and blunt. Those who like a little tea in their sugar will find the offerings copacetic; those who prefer murky espressos should probably pass.

Now we arrive at the burning question: How does the Pit measure against area standouts like Allen & Son, the Pig, the Original Q Shack and Hillsborough Barbecue Co? Certainly it belongs in this lofty-earthy echelon.

The Pit's closest genetic match is Hillsborough Barbecue Co. Both graft old-time smoke craft onto the modern restaurant model, bringing variety, high-volume efficiency and shabby-sleek decor to a cuisine born amid farms and mills.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Its butts are smokin'."

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