Dip, sip and lip-smack your way through this small Piedmont town, where a distinctive style of barbecue headlines the culinary scene
Many of us travel to sample regional cuisine, to discover specialties unique to a limited geographical area. Food-minded travelers exploring central North Carolina, for example, can’t resist stopping in a town that calls itself “Barbecue Capital of the World.” Being a meat lover, I certainly couldn’t.
On a recent trip to the state’s Piedmont region, I feasted on Lexington-style pork barbecue and found plenty of other taste treats in town. In fact, food and drink experiences highlighted my Lexington visit. If headed to this community of 19,000, bring your appetite.
Barbecue and Slaw the Lexington Way
Pork shoulder cooked slowly over hickory and oak coals is Lexington’s claim to fame, and the area has 15 BBQ restaurants to choose from. While barbecue in westernmost North Carolina comes with a thick, tomato-based sauce and the eastern part of the state prefers whole hog barbecue cooked with a peppery, vinegar-based sauce, the meat in Lexington is the star, the sauce secondary.
The only flavoring used is a thin sauce called “dip.” Made from ketchup, vinegar, salt, pepper and a bit of sugar, dip is added to the meat before serving. A small cup or pitcher of dip is placed on the table for those who want more sauce for their pork or to liven up their fries or hushpuppies. Each restaurant has its own secret recipe for dip.
Lexington-style barbecue, I learned, is served three ways: finely chopped, coarsely chopped (small chunks) or sliced. It is not pulled. The coleslaw accompanying the meat tends to be “barbecue slaw,” finely diced cabbage in a ketchup-vinegar sauce. I’m not a big fan of white, or mayonnaise-based, coleslaw, but I liked this red slaw. Some restaurants offer both red and white. Slaw is served on all barbecue sandwiches unless you tell the server otherwise.
If you order a “tray,” there’s slaw on one side of the container, meat on the other. With a tray you have a choice of rolls or hushpuppies (those addictive, deep-fried balls of cornmeal batter). Order the “plate” and expect french fries in addition to slaw and hushpuppies or rolls. Some people request pieces of “brown” meat—the tasty crust that forms on the outside—to add to their order.
BBQ Places Make You Feel Right at Home
While ordering a barbecue meal is secondhand to locals, servers at Lexington’s BBQ establishments are used to explaining the menu options to newcomers, so don’t feel intimidated.
Scattered throughout the city, Lexington’s BBQ eateries are unpretentious, family-owned places where staff and owners mingle with customers and make them feel welcome. All are closed on Sunday. Curiously, none of the restaurants are in downtown Lexington; rather, they’ve sprouted up over the years in various neighborhoods.
Brothers Cecil and Mike Conrad run Barbecue Center, a business their parents started in 1955. Their mother still works there.
For groups and individuals, the Conrads are happy to show the “pits” (a brick oven with three chambers, comparable to an oversized smoker) where pork shoulders (300 a week) cook slowly on a rack for nine or 10 hours at temperatures of 200-225 degrees. On this behind-the-scenes look, you watch an employee “fire the pits,” the process of adding wood and shoveling coals by evenly distributing them underneath the meat, which derives flavor from the rising smoke. Pitmasters know exactly when to add more coals. (The word “pit” goes back to the day when barbecue was cooked in a pit in the ground.) In true Lexington style, the pork is salted before cooking but not basted or marinated.
Sides, Desserts and Drinks
At Barbecue Center I had a sandwich of finely chopped pork with red slaw and a side of mac & cheese. Other side choices were french fries, sweet potato fries, hushpuppies, baked beans, pinto beans, green beans and fried okra. One person in our group had BBQ soup (beef vegetable with finely chopped ’cue), and the menu also listed BBQ salad. Besides pork, Barbecue Center offers smoked chicken plates four days a week. You can also get hamburgers, hot dogs and other sandwiches, including pork chop, pimento cheese and BLT. The restaurant has a private room that can accommodate groups.
For dessert to share, we went for Barbecue Center’s signature gut-buster—the four-pound banana split, eating only half of the whipped cream-topped mound of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream drizzled with chocolate sauce and “wet nuts” (walnuts in thick maple sauce). Other dessert choices: apple pie, pecan pie and homemade banana pudding.
Locals typically order sweetened ice tea with their barbecue meal, but it’s also available unsweetened and half ’n’ half. Instead of ice tea or Coke, I opted for Cheerwine, a cherry pop (soda) I had always wanted to try. Similar to the taste of Dr Pepper, it’s a North Carolina favorite and now one of mine.
A Lexington Institution
Lexington Barbecue, where I had lunch one day, is among the city’s best-known barbecue joints. Located on a road called Smokehouse Lane, it serves 7,000 customers during a typical week. A look at license plates in the parking lot reveals that many are from out of state. Carryout accounts for about 35 percent of its business, says owner Rick Monk, whose father founded Lexington Barbecue in 1962.
“We serve 6,000 pounds of pork a week, and more like 12,000 or 13,000 around Christmas,” Monk says. “Each pork shoulder is 17 or 18 pounds, cooks down to 10 pounds, and we get six or seven pounds of meat out of it.”
In addition to pork shoulder, Lexington Barbecue offers smoked turkey, available in a sandwich and a salad. On each table is a bottle of barbecue sauce, made in-house every week, for those who want a condiment besides dip.
Looking to gnaw on a rack of barbecue ribs? Well, they’re not on the menu in Lexington. And, except for one restaurant, you won’t find beef brisket either. This is pork city.
In Uptown Lexington, the local name for the downtown historic district, visitors can tap into a little barbecue history at City Hall, where remnants of the town’s first brick-and-mortar barbecue restaurant were uncovered during a renovation project in 2016. The original brick BBQ pits, on display in a hallway, are estimated to date from the period between 1942 and 1952. Exhibit panels and a video tell the story of Lexington-style barbecue.
On the building’s exterior, plaques inscribed with names of pioneering entrepreneurs make up Lexington’s Barbecue Wall of Fame. The first open-pit barbecue businesses, you learn, operated out of tents downtown. It’s said the smell of smoke from cooking pork wafted into the windows of the Davidson County Courthouse, letting folks know it was time to recess for lunch.
Old-Time Candy Store Conjures Up Sweet Memories
On a stroll down Main Street in Uptown, I found a heaping helping of sweet treats and heady doses of nostalgia. My favorite stop was the Candy Factory, where I felt like, well, a kid in a candy store. Not only does it have every candy you can think of, but the Candy Factory boasts a staggering collection of old metal advertising signs and other antiques, some of them for sale. As both a sweet tooth and collector of vintage soft drink signs and memorabilia, I was in heaven.
Fronted by a red-and-white-striped awning, the ultimate candy emporium occupies a circa-1890 building that long ago housed a hardware store. The aroma of fresh-popped popcorn hits as soon as you set foot on the well-worn wooden floor. One of the antiques in place when Wynn and Annette Conrad bought the place in 2018 was a player piano, which they will demonstrate for you by inserting a role of old-timey music.
Roaming this sugary wonderland and deciding what to buy truly was a trip down memory lane. Flashbacks of my 1950s childhood emerged as I recalled weekly visits to my hometown drug store, where my dad would go for the Sunday newspaper after church and let us kids pick out a candy. I usually got Chuckles, candy cigarettes or a roll of Necco wafers, all of which are stocked by the Candy Factory, along with dozens of other candies and gums from my generation and later ones. (As a kid, I most often chose the rather plain, chalky Necco discs because there were more pieces. Even back then, I opted for quantity over quality.) Maybe your favorite was root beer barrels, candy buttons, licorice, Pez, Turkish Taffy or Black Jack gum. Perhaps you liked gum drops, Bazooka bubble gum or those marshmallow-y orange Circus Peanuts. The Conrads have them all.
Among the dizzying array of products on Candy Factory shelves are bags of melt-in-your-mouth Red Bird peppermint puffs, which have been made in Lexington by the Piedmont Candy Company for more than a century. The store abounds with giant jars of bulk candies and bushel baskets filled with plain packages of goodies like bridge mix, chocolate-covered peanuts and malted milk balls. There’s a wide variety of saltwater taffy flavors, banana being the best seller. In a case featuring freshly made individual chocolates, the buckeyes (with peanut butter center) are the most popular. The Conrads make their own creamy fudge, another hot commodity. You’ll also find a Jelly Belly dispenser.
Besides sweet treats, the Candy Factory sells toys, books, puzzles and Christmas decor. Yesteryear items include yoyos, Raggedy Ann dolls and Dr. Seuss books.
Other Uptown Discoveries
When I’m exploring the atmospheric Main Streets of America, I always have an eye out for groceries, bakeries and antiques stores, and I found all three in historic Uptown Lexington.
Conrad & Hinkle Food Market, an old-fashioned grocery store owned by the same family since 1919, offers a number of locally made products, from jams, relishes and fried snack pies to Moravian cookies and chicken pot pies. The cooler has containers of the store’s prized homemade pimento cheese spread (a Southern standby) and chicken salad. The helpful Lexington Visitor Center is next door.
For a mid-morning treat, you can’t do better than a scrumptious apple, blueberry or cherry fritter at Red Donut Shop, an enterprise started in 2015 by the four Vay brothers, whose family escaped from Cambodia during the war in the 1970s. Their extended family owns donut shops all across the country.
The most impressive building on Main Street is the Old Courthouse, an 1858 Greek Revival gem that now houses the Davidson County Historical Museum. Painted cream and slate blue, it’s distinguished by towering Corinthian columns and a stately cupola. Exhibits document chapters in local history, including Lexington’s past as a furniture and textile manufacturing center.
Main Street in Uptown becomes the site of the annual Barbecue Festival in October. Recognized as one of America’s great one-day food fests, it was cancelled the last two years because of the pandemic but is expected to fire up again on October 22, 2022. Any time of year, though, you will see artist-decorated fiberglass pigs on Uptown sidewalks and elsewhere, reminders of Lexington’s pork-centric reputation.
Depot District Watering Holes
In the Depot District, formerly an industrial area by the railroad tracks, furniture factories have been converted into spacious drinking establishments with seating inside and out.
Bull City Ciderworks specializes in what it calls a semi-sweet, semi-dry apple cider, offering flights that let you sample four or five varieties. Most popular are Off Main, Bull City’s flagship, and Orange You a Hippie, a cider flavored with orange peel and hibiscus. Beetnik gets its purple color from beets, while Steep South combines black tea and honey. The tart Cran-Pappy uses cranberries, and Sasquash is infused with squash, maple syrup and hot peppers. The Cider Mosa cocktail combines pineapple juice with Orange You a Hippie and a bit of Cherry Tart. In addition to ciders, 10 local craft brews are on tap. A different food truck shows up each day. Group tours are available.
Food trucks also service Goose and the Monkey Brewhouse, the cidery’s South Railroad Street neighbor.
Vineyards and Race Cars
North Carolina boasts a growing wine industry and counts more than 200 wineries, six of them in the Lexington area, which encompasses the southern end of the Yadkin Valley wine region. Childress Vineyards, the largest, offers more than 50 wine varieties and has a number of indoor and outdoor venues perfect for groups. Its famous owner: NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, an area resident.
Tuscan in style with a red-tile roof and stucco walls, the winery’s main building features a palatial tasting room with a cavernous beamed ceiling and wooden tables and floors. Groups can combine a 30-minute walking tour of the winery and beautifully landscaped grounds with a complimentary pour of the Wine of the Month. Tastings can be self-guided or under the guidance of a wine specialist. Every year for the Barbecue Festival, Childress Vineyards produces a Fine Swine Wine, a red that pairs well with Lexington-style pork barbecue.
At The Bistro, the winery’s farm-to-table restaurant, the menu changes seasonally. It’s not unusual to see Childress and his wife dining there or mingling with guests.
Located within walking distance of the winery is the newly renovated Holiday Inn Express & Suites, where rooms on one side afford views of the vineyards.
Auto racing fans immerse themselves in the world of NASCAR at the Richard Childress Racing Museum & Team Store. A short drive from Lexington in the town of Welcome, the museum takes visitors on a journey that includes Childress’ days as a NASCAR driver, his organization’s championship-winning years with the legendary Dale Earnhardt and No. 3 team, and the evolution and success of the team after Earnhardt’s untimely passing. The 52-acre campus also comprises buildings where engines and other car parts are manufactured.
The museum displays more than 25 GM Goodwrench Chevrolets driven by Earnhardt, including the 1998 Daytona 500-winning car, the 1995 Brickyard 400 winner and each of the special paint schemes he drove in the All-Star races from 1995-2000. Also showcased are cars driven to victory in the 2018 Daytona 500 and 2017 Coca-Cola by Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson. Some exhibits are enhanced by video clips depicting triumphal moments in the history of the sport, which has deep roots in North Carolina.
Mounted wildlife in one section of the museum reflects Childress’ passion for hunting, fishing and outdoor conservation. (His passion for wine resulted from time spent at racetracks near vineyards in California.)
Groups can arrange a guided tour of the museum and have a meal in an event room or amid the cars on the museum floor.
Lexington is about 20 miles south of Winston-Salem.
—By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
Lead photo: Cooking pork shoulders at Lexington Barbecue. (Craig Distl Photo)