Allow me to start this month’s featured food reviews by explaining just how important this month’s topic—barbecue—is to me and Duke’s home state.
As a born-and-raised product of the state, I say with confidence that in North Carolina, there are few things that can be more divisive than barbecue—politics and the Duke-UNC rivalry are the only two things that come to mind. The reason behind this is that for centuries, North Carolina foodies and pork lovers have attempted to perfect the craft of barbecue, thus flooding the market with countless delicious stands, shacks, restaurants and lean-tos to feed the state’s insane demand. There are plenty of reasons why North Carolina is so obsessed with finely-shredded beef, most of them having to do with economic and agricultural background. But just know that if you have any barbecue takes to dish out, you better be well-informed and well-experienced.
Lexington features more of the pig’s shoulder while eastern includes the shoulder and pretty much everything else. The big difference, though, comes in the sauce: Lexington features a ketchup-based sauce and is applied after the dish is prepared. Eastern is all about the vinegar and is mixed in with the meat after cooking.
“It’s about an 80-mile radius from Durham east, down to Wilson and Rocky Mount, that only serve a vinegar-based barbecue,” Bullock’s Barbecue Tommy Bullock said. “When you go west of here, it changes. It goes more of a Lexington style, where they just put the sauce on top of the meat—they don’t season it with it. And it’s good, but everyone thinks their barbecue is the best. But eastern North Carolina barbecue is the most different.”
As we are in the eastern part of the state, it seemed just that I review a pair of Eastern-style barbecue joints and give you, the Duke community, the lowdown on where you can find the best pork in town.
The Grandfather of Durham BBQ
There are certain special places you can enter and immediately realize the significance, even if you don’t yet understand it—Bullock’s Barbecue is one of those places.
Now, I know you came here for barbecue talk, but before we get to the actual pork, Bullock’s has a special place in Durham history, so I’d be remiss to skip over it.
The store first opened Aug. 1, 1952, about a half-mile down Hillsborough Road from the present location. In 1970, the Bullocks opened their second and current store. It was around the time of the move that Bullock’s began to bring in quite a few big names via catering and word-of-mouth.
The list of celebrity visitors seemingly goes on infinitely, with all the walls of the restaurant’s opening area—featuring takeout and checkout counters—covered with the faces and signatures of all those to pass through for a quarter-pound of Bullock’s must-have barbecue.
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The list spans names that would make your parents and grandparents swoon: Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, George Strait, Joe Biden, New York Yankees—George Steinbrenner and the entire team swung by twice back when the team came through Durham—Burt Reynolds, Connie Chung, Robin Williams, Colin Firth and more. And among the most interesting of those to identify as a Bullock’s-fed celebrity is the first one on the list.
“The first celebrity type we fed was Jimmy Buffett,” Bullock said. “We fed him at a concert in Chapel Hill at the UNC Student Union. Then the next celebrity was Kenny Rogers, he performed at the Dean Smith Center. Then Garth Brooks performed at the Dean Smith Center. And then word just sort of spread amongst the industry.”
But as fast as the word spread around Hollywood, Nashville and New York, the food industry, namely the events food industry, took a turn away from local food in favor of national companies being contracted to handle all catering business.
“It was a period of time in there that we really fed a lot of movie stars, as well as country music stars and politicians. Now these arenas have these national food service companies, and they make them take their food so they don’t have the flexibility of calling and bringing in an outside caterer. But there was an era that you’ll probably never see again of about a 10 or 12-year period that we fed a lot of celebrities.”
When asked what has set his store apart from the rest of the barbecue in town, Bullock was quick to rattle off a list longer than that of the aforementioned celebrities—the Bullock’s BBQ menu, one he says he’s created for the public. It features countless daily specials, nearly 40 entrees, and plenty of comfort-food sides, all homemade, all as beloved as the next. Except, of course, for the barbecue.
Bullock’s serves an Eastern-style barbecue, which is shredded fairly fine and is served alongside an extra side of sauce. The barbecue itself is tender and juicy enough to get my stamp of approval, though I’d have liked for mine to have had a bit more of a kick. Even though the barbecue didn’t knock my socks off, the sides—mac and cheese, Brunswick stew, baked beans and, of course, hushpuppies—were all delicious and managed to surpass expectations. The hush puppies here were especially tasty, much more so than the "authentic" ones Duke students believe they’re getting at Cookout.
The meal quality and experience, along with the wonderful staff, makes Bullock’s a must-eat restaurant for any Duke student hoping to better understand Durham. In a community that seems to open a hip, new restaurant every week, Bullock’s remains firm, holding the old barbecue fort down the same way it has for the past 63 years. And as long as they don’t change the menu, service or hush puppies any time soon, I imagine Bullock’s will be dishing out barbecue and serving the Durham community long after we leave.
I say the following having taken the previous intro and the weight of North Carolina BBQ takes into account: Backyard Barbecue is the among the top-three barbecue experiences I have ever had in my life.
Finding Backyard is not the easiest task—it's located off of Route 55, roughly 15 minutes from campus. On the drive over, I was feeling a decent amount of pressure from the fact that Backyard had recently been rated the No. 1 barbecue joint in the state by Yahoo Travel. That’s no easy thing to live up to, and if the pig-providing restaurant was indeed undeserving of being No. 1, I knew it would be my duty as a journalist, reviewer and native to say as much. Luckily for both of us, I wouldn’t have to go to such extremes.
There are a million things you notice when you walk in the store: the nonchalant, friendly, almost home-y ambience, the sweet smell of baked beans and barbecue, the walls.
The restaurant’s interior walls are covered from floor-to-ceiling with signatures, mostly done in black Sharpie, from their customers, though this wasn’t always the case. According to Melvin Simmons, one of the store’s owners, the tradition started with Triangle-product and American Idol (back when it was a semi-cool thing to like) veteran Clay Aiken. You see, Backyard BBQ is apparently one of Aiken’s favorite places to grab a bite, so one day, as a token of his appreciation, he signed the wall.
After Aiken adorned the wall with his John Hancock, it didn’t take long before Fabianne, Melvin’s wife and co-owner, was faced with a question from one of their regulars. “If Clay can sign the wall, why can’t I? What makes him so special?” Fabianne’s answer was simple— he’s no more special than any other customer. From that day on, every fan, customer or friend who came through the door had a space on the wall if they wanted it.
The story of how the Simmons family came to own Backyard is a long, riveting one, but Melvin summed it up before giving me the lowdown, for brevity’s sake.
“We started in April 2007,” he said. “[Fabianne’s] mom was sick and she didn’t [want] her mom going into a nursing home, so we needed an outlet, something that could generate funds. We discovered this place, rolled the dice on it and it became [Backyard.]”
The place got its first round of notoriety when it was featured in “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” by Dale Volberg Reed and John Shelton Reed. The inclusion was actually done after the couple had completed their book, as they were so impressed by the barbecue that they felt they had to include it, according to Simmons.
And as someone who has now enjoyed this ‘cue twice now, I can say that the Reeds got it right: Backyard serves some fantastic barbecue.
The meat is tantalizingly unique, as Backyard is one of two known restaurants in Durham to cook its meat on oak and hickory wood, according to Melvin, who also goes by Big Paulie.
It’s juicy and tender, more so than any other I’ve had, and you can tell the meat has been cooking for an extra two hours on that wood-fired grill as soon as you take a bite. Oftentimes, places will serve dry Eastern-style barbecue, which is a big no-no when you’re dealing with a pre-sauced meat. Everything about the process has to be perfectly timed so that when the customer takes a bite, the moisture and the sauce are still present at the time of service.
“We represent North Carolina for what is, which is a southern culture,” Melvin said. “Typically, we have origins of North Carolina. What a lot of people try to do is come in and create and recreate and bring forth a renaissance. But this establishment here is based on what we were brought up on…. This is not a competition, this is real life—this is how we feed our family.”
Backyard has this down to a science, and the dedication to their craft should not go unnoticed. I went with baked beans and mac and cheese for my sides, both of which were delicious. The baked beans were surprisingly sweet, but I adjusted quickly and scarfed down my meal all-too soon.
You should visit Bullock’s for the history, variety and convenience, but if you’re truly looking for some of the best barbecue in Durham, and the state of North Carolina, you have to stop by the Simmons’ shop. After all, it’s right in our backyard.