This summer, we're visiting places within a couple hours’ drive of Charlotte. In this installment, a trip to the self-proclaimed barbecue capital of the world, Lexington, North Carolina.
If you’ve never been to Lexington, you’ve surely driven by it. It’s right off of I-85, about 50 miles north of Charlotte. And this town of just under 20,000 has its own style of barbecue.
Lexington-style barbecue is different from what that you might find in other parts of the state. Here, they only use pork shoulders as opposed to the whole hog. They also add a little ketchup to the vinegar and
pepper sauce popular in the east, giving it a sweeter flavor and a distinctive red color. And they put some of that sauce in the coleslaw, turning it red as well.
But sauces and slaws aside, it’s the distinctive smoky flavor in that meat that draws people to old-school North Carolina barbecue. And that flavor comes from pit cooking. At the pit at one of the most popular destinations in town, simply called Lexington Barbecue, the cooking process starts at 6 a.m., just like it did 50 years ago when it opened.
The wood fire heats up to around 2,000 degrees. Then, the coals are shoveled out and spread under racks of dozens of pork shoulders. As the meat cooks, its juices and fats drip down onto the coals, creating that smoky flavor. Then it’s chopped up and served to customers….a LOT of customers.
Manager Rick Monk says, “I serve between six and eight thousand people a week, and I’m closed on Sunday…so we stay busy.”
He says they keep the menu simple. You can order a tray of barbecue, slaw and hushpuppies; or a plate, which gives you more barbecue and a side item, like fries. And for dessert, it’s peach cobbler with ice cream. Sometimes, there’s cherry too.
Monk considers his customer base to be all of the Piedmont: Charlotte, the Triangle, and the Triad. Eugene Tatum comes once a week from Winston-Salem to pick up four orders.
“That’s what I get every time,” he says, pointing to one of the restaurant staff, “and that young man over there, if I don’t, he’ll tell my wife!”
Lexington Barbecue has a following outside of North Carolina, too. Founder Wayne Monk was even asked to take his food to the 1983 G-7 summit in Williamsburg, Va. He served the first dinner of the conference to President Reagan and his guests, and Monk remembers the heads of state like it happened yesterday.
“Mitterand from France, Trudeau from Canada, Margaret Thatcher from England, Kohl from Germany,” he recalls, “and the Italian guy…I can’t remember his name, but I’ve got his wine glass.”
In Lexington, Monk has played host to celebrities of many varieties, including Bruce Springsteen, wrestling star Andre the Giant, football legend Johnny Unitas, and Bill Clinton.
Of Clinton, Monk says, “he ate good; he loved the peach cobbler more than anything else.”
“But he’d had that before,” he adds casually. “He’s eaten with us several times.”
World-famous or not, customers frequently find Monk pulling up a chair at their table or chatting with them at the counter. At 77, he shows no signs of slowing down. And with six family members on staff, including his son and grandson, the Monk name is likely to be synonymous with Lexington-style barbecue for a while.
WFAE’s summer day-trip series “There and Back” airs Saturday mornings on “Weekend Edition.”
If you’ve got an idea for where we should go next, email us at email@example.com.