In the South, people are serious about their food. Do you put pickles in your potato salad? Do you soak your fried chicken in buttermilk? What kind of corn syrup do you use in your pecan pie – light or dark? Everyone has an opinion about what makes it the best. But no other food inspires as much passion as simple, old-fashioned barbecue.
Some argue for rich, thick tomato-based sauces, others for that unique vinegar tang, and still others for the spice and warmth of golden mustard. The decision between a dry or wet rib can turn vicious. Heck, we can’t even agree on how to spell it – BBQ, barbecue, bar-b-que or barbeque? And don’t get me started on the hash debate.
As an Asian-American woman born in the deep South whose first experience with barbecue was a soy-lacquered duck, I stand firmly on neutral ground in this debate. For me, good barbecue is always spelled with a “c,” should be moist and flavorful with that succulent porky, smoky taste, served alongside plentiful sauces, with a scoop of fresh potato salad (mayo-based, preferably with pickles), hash on top of al dente rice, and plenty of soft, white bread, straight from the cellophane wrapper.
OK, so maybe I’m not quite as neutral as I thought. And locally, I tend to go to various barbecue joints based on what I’m hungry for. It’s a quick drive across the river to Maurice’s BBQ Piggie Park in North Augusta for some of its Carolina gold, and across town in Evans, Edmunds Bar-B-Que is who I depend on for a bucket of tasty hash and rice. The BBQ Barn in North Augusta offers a terrific catering service (and I look forward to one day eating there!).
For the best overall experience – from the fast service to the atmosphere to, of course, the food – I enjoy Sconyers in south Augusta. (I especially like the looks we get when I and my friends – a group of fashionable, chatty young women in bright, summery dresses – plop down at one of the wooden tables among the jeans-wearing tough guys, roll up our sleeves and dig into one of Sconyers’ piled-high pork plates!) It’s no surprise to me that each of my favorite barbecue places is local. I think that’s how you get the best flavor.
My friends Wyatt and Jenni recently held a Wyatt-Squared birthday party for dad and son, and served barbecue from Lincolnton, Ga., where Wyatt grew up. I wasn’t able to stop eating the moist pulled pork and the rich hash on rice until it was present time and I was pressed into service to help jot down givers’ names. We planned a field trip right then and there to take the roughly 45-minute drive down to Lincolnton to experience the barbecue firsthand.
A Saturday evening a few weeks later found us in front of Poppa’s Finest Bar-B-Que II (the original location is in Thomson), a simple brick storefront smack dab in the center of downtown Lincolnton, just a stone’s throw from the sheriff’s house, the doctor’s office and pharmacy, and the bank. Its interior could hail from the ’60s – patterned linoleum, glass cases displaying its offerings, a board written up with the menu and the day’s specials – all for around $8, including tea or lemonade.
There were about eight of us, and there were a lot of different orders – a taster’s dream. They were out of potato salad, which made me sad, but my pork plate came with hash, rice, a scoop of cole slaw and two slices of bread, all served up in a portioned white Styrofoam plate. Sauces were mild and hot tomato sauces, plus a mustard-based sauce, and I decided to go with both tomatoes.
Other entrees included baked chicken, ribs and fried fish, with sides including baked beans or string beans, along with sandwiches. Wyatt customized his plate with barbecue, hash and rice, and an extra side of barbecue and extra bread.
Our food came staggered, so Sean and I were the first to dig in. With the memories of the barbecue I had tasted at Wyatt’s party still fresh in my mind and on my tongue, my expectations were pretty high, and unfortunately, I felt just a little disappointed. The barbecue was good and the hash and rice were good, but it all just seemed a little tired, even with the sauce poured on. The flavors didn’t seem as bright, the meat was a bit dry, and while the coleslaw was perked up by the addition of dill pickles, it, too, seemed a bit limp.
Also, the restaurant was strangely quiet – we were the only table there. “You know why?” confided Wyatt. “People eat barbecue here at lunchtime. It’s a lunch thing or they carry it home for dinner.”
Ah, I thought. The barbecue was good, but that might explain why it seemed just a little lacking. But when I started tasting some of the other entrees, I again thought, Ah! This was the taste I was looking for.
Sean passed me one of his ribs, darkly burnt with a dry rub, and it was perfectly moist inside and full of that barbecued pork flavor I was craving.
Wyatt’s mom shared a bite of her roasted chicken, a visual contrast with the white, white meat and the dark, herb- and spice-crusted skin – it was one of the most delicate, moist bites of chicken breast meat I’ve ever had. A vegetarian, Jenni ordered the fish basket with fries, hush puppies and cole slaw (Sunday brunch also offers a vegetable plate), and her fish might have been the best of all – light, flaky and not at all greasy.
So while I might have driven the longest ever to have barbecue – then end up eating almost everything else – I would definitely be open to taking the drive again. As I’ve discovered, Lincolnton is the place to go for great ribs, chicken and fish – all in one spot on main street. And next time, we’re going early.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Poppa’s Finest Bar-B-Que II, 120 N. Washington St., Lincolnton, Ga.
HOURS: Thursday, 4 to 8 p.m. (fish only); Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
SECOND HELPING: (706) 359-3815