If you could boil the essence of North Carolina down to its essential flavors, what would you get?
You'd have a salty hint of Wilmington and a cooling bite of Asheville, some small-town seasoning and a little big-city spice.
To put together the ultimate North Carolina eater's guide, we combed through years of food trips, stories and memories to come up with 25 must-have eating experiences, from Carolina classics to chef creations.
If you put all of them together, you'll have a taste of North Carolina. And a map for the eating trip of a lifetime. They're not in a particular order.
1. Banana pudding has a place of honor all over the state, from barbecue restaurants to church picnics. But the banana pudding at Savor Cafe in Charlotte rises above the rest, with housemade vanilla wafers and custard topped with an artfully browned circle of marshmallow creme.
404 W. Morehead St., Charlotte, 704-334-0098, www.savoronmorehead.com
2. Picking apples at Skytop Orchard in Flat Rock in early fall always feels as if you're standing at the top of the world. How do you top that? Follow the picking with the essence of apple: a cold cider slushy and a hot cider doughnut.
Pinnacle Mountain Road, Flat Rock, 828-692-7930, www.skytoporchard.com.
3. The famed Magnolia Grill in Durham puts an ingenious contemporary spin on a classic Southern menu item with its grits souffle. The dish is familiar and sophisticated, airy and creamy. The new South, indeed.
1002 9th St., Durham, 919-286-3609, www.magnoliagrill.net.
4. We're not crazy enough to pick just one North Carolina barbecue. Instead, we'll suggest that both Eastern North Carolina and Lexington styles are perfect, and every place you love is the very best. If we had to pick, though, we'd go with the classics: Wilber's in Goldsboro or the Skylight Inn in Ayden for Eastern style (whole pig, sauced with vinegar and red pepper); Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby or Lexington Barbecue in Lexington for Lexington style (pork shoulder, sauced with vinegar, red pepper and tomato).
Wilber's Barbecue, 4172 U.S. 70, Goldsboro; Skylight Inn, 4617 Lee St., Ayden; Lexington Barbecue, 10 U.S. 29-70, Lexington;
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, U.S. 74, Shelby.
5. The menu changes daily at Catch in Wilmington, where chef Keith Rhodes cooks up what's fresh off the fishing boats and from the farms. Popular right now: grilled mahi-mahi, which is locally caught. It is served with a coconut black bean sticky rice cake and pineapple-lychee salsa with jalapeño oil. Whatever is being served there, you can't eat better seafood on the coast than what Rhodes cooks in his kitchen.
6623 Market St., Wilmington. (Original location at 215 Princess St. is aiming to reopen Tuesday after renovations.) 910-799-3847, www.catchwilmingtonnc.com
6. Ever since the state raised the alcohol limit on beer, Barley's Taproom in Asheville has earned a reputation as the best taproom in the South. Take a seat and take your pick from 55 taps, including more than 30 made in North Carolina. Here's one to try: Vortex 1, from Pisgah Brewing Co. in Black Mountain, a fine blend of a hoppy pale ale and sweet, amber brew.
42 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, 828-255-0504, www.barleystaproom.com.
7. The star of the Snappy Lunch's pork chop sandwich is the battered pork loin chop that's as big as a pie plate and fried to golden crispiness. That's why there's a line out the door at this Mount Airy lunch spot made famous by "The Andy Griffith Show." All those tourists line up for their Mayberry dining experience, but the sandwich is enough of a draw for us.
125 N. Main St., Mount Airy, 336-786-4931,
8. From textile mills to tobacco fields, North Carolina has a history of inventing high-caffeine sodas, including Sundrop. From there it was a simple step to the Cherry Lemon Sundrop. It originated at R.O.'s Barbecue in Gastonia (Sundrop, Cheerwine and a slice of lemon), then branched out to What-A-Burger in Mooresville (Sundrop, Fanta cherry soda and a lemon slice). Either way, it's sweet, tart and refreshing on a hot afternoon.
What-A-Burger, 210 S. Main St., Mooresville, 704-664-5455
9. Speaking of R.O.'s Barbecue in Gastonia, you can't have a list of North Carolina foods without R.O.'s slaw/sauce/dip. It's not shredded cabbage, it's not a salad. It's a mix of mayonnaise, ketchup, spices, relish and a few shreds of cabbage, so soupy, it's served in a cup with a spoon. People use it for everything from hot dog sauce to chip dip.
1318 Gaston Ave., Gastonia, 704-853-8788, www.rosbbq.com/whole.htm
10. Whoever said Charlotte's banking towers have no soul never stopped on College Street for Mert's Heart & Soul. The little loaves of warm cornbread with honey butter warm more than our souls.
214 N. College St., Charlotte, 704-342-4222.
11. When spring brings the first whiff of honeysuckle, wise people head to Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill for the annual monthlong appearance of chef Bill Smith's honeysuckle sorbet. That first bite will leave you stunned that the fleeting honeysuckle essence could be translated to a taste.
610 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 919-929-7643, crookscorner.com.
12. Don't let the rough look of Keaton's Barbecue outside Statesville fool you. It's a friendly place, and the chicken - fried, dipped in barbecue sauce and grilled - is a true original, spicy-hot and a little chewy from being soaked in sauce before it goes on the grill. It comes in a mild version, but we never bother. Get at least a half chicken - a quarter is never enough.
17365 Cool Springs Road, Cleveland, N.C., 704-278-1619, www.keatonsoriginalbbq.com.
13. Fried-herring shacks used to dot the length of the Roanoke River, but the Cypress Grill is one of the few that remain. This Jamesville institution is open only during the herring run from early January to the end of April. Folks order herring either "sunny-side up," with white meat still seen; "cremated," the meat turns dark in the oil; or "hard-as-a-brickbat," for extra crispy. Herring, similar to sardines, can be an acquired taste, but the other fried fish on the menu, homemade pies and a dining experience only feet from the river make it worth the trip.
1520 Stewart St., Jamesville, 252-792-4175
14. Since the beginning of the republic, politics and barbecue have gone together like pork and hickory smoke. The Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church barbecue in Charlotte is a church event, held every year on the fourth Thursday in October. But just as many people come to see the politicians who line up to press the flesh. We turn out for a plate of chopped pork and applesauce and their quirky version of Brunswick stew made with ground beef, chicken and pork.
600 W. Mallard Creek Church Road, Charlotte, 704-547-0038, mallardcreekpresbyterian.org
15. You can't consider your Outer Banks visit complete without buying a piece of Gaynelle Tillett's fig cake from the Ocracoke Seafood Company. Tillett, like many of the island natives, has mastered this moist spice cake made from figs off trees that dot the island. If you're lucky enough to score a jar of her fig preserves, you can re-create it at home.
N.C. 12, Ocracoke, 252-928-5601, www.ocracokeseafood.com
16. Juicy tomatoes. Salty bacon. Rich mayonnaise. That classic summer taste comes together on a single, double or triple (if you dare) BLT served at the Merritt's Store & Grill in Chapel Hill. It's a no-frills convenience store with a grill in the back. Remember to grab extra napkins on your way outside to sit on a bench and eat.
1009 S. Columbia St., Chapel Hill, 919-942-4897, merrittsstoreandgrill.com. 17Price's Chicken Coop in Charlotte is a simple place where everybody stands in line and gets food to go. But it has made the list of the best fried chicken places in the country, for its authenticity and the crackling, deep-fried crust. (We still think the world should give the gizzards a chance.)
1614 Camden Road, Charlotte, 704-333-9866,
10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
18. Robeson County has its own baking tradition: The 12-layer cake, with thin layers of yellow cake separated by a rich chocolate frosting. Before we dig in to the country buffet at Fuller's Old Fashion Bar-B-Q in Lumberton, we always check the dessert table - just to make sure we need to save room.
3201 N. Roberts Ave., Lumberton, 910-738-8694.
19. You know those fake country stores designed to pull in tourists? Bradford Store isn't one of them. It's the real thing, right down to the wood stove. Even more real: owner Kim Bradford's dedication to local products. Pull up a rocker, open a Mooresville-made Uncle Scott's Root Beer from the cooler and sit a spell to think about that.
15915 Davidson-Concord Road, Davidson, 704-439-4303, unclescottsrootbeer.com.
20. No visit to the N.C. State Fair would be complete without a scoop of ice cream made by N.C. State food science students . No joke: It's made from milk from cows raised at the university's dairy. With 14 percent milkfat, it is lip-smacking goodness on those hot Indian summer days. Classic flavors include strawberry, cherry vanilla and butter almond.
Oct. 14-24, next to the Hobbies and Crafts building, State
Fairgrounds, 1025 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, 919-513-2388, www.ncsu.edu/howlingcow
21. The state is dotted with little lunch counters that have perfected the chili dog: steamed bun, juicy dog, soft chili. Look for them all over, including classic spots like the Roast Grill in Raleigh, Ward's in Whiteville and Pulliam's in Winston-Salem.
Roast Grill, 7 S. West St., Raleigh; Ward's Grill, 706 S. Madison St., Whiteville; J.S. Pulliam Barbeque, 4400 Old Walkertown Road, Winston-Salem.
22. Pecan pie at Chapel Hill's Mama Dip's. It has the perfect ratio of crunchy pecans to the sweet, satisfying filling and, oh yes, it's served warm. You should know the pie's lore: Mildred Council aka Mama Dip refused to travel to Manhattan to be filmed making that pie for "Good Morning America" on Thanksgiving morning. So the crew came to Chapel Hill to film her.
408 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill,
23. Here's a taste that hasn't changed for a couple of hundred years: warm Moravian sugar cake, fresh out of the brick oven at Winkler Bakery in the Old Salem Historic Site in Winston-Salem, all soft, warm and bubbling with molten sugar. They'll usually give free samples, and you can buy a whole cake for about $5.50.
Old Salem Historic Site, Winston-Salem, www.oldsalem.org.
24. October should not pass without making the trip to Brunswick County to shuck oysters elbow-to-elbow at the annual Varnamtown Oyster Roast. The congregation of the Dixon Chapel United Methodist Church has hosted the event for more than 50 years. The line of people waiting to eat their fill of roasted oysters, hushpuppies and sweet pickles is a testament to the eating experience. To look like a pro, bring your own homemade sauce and roll of paper towels.
190 Varnamtown Road, Varnamtown, 910-842-5530, The church has a Facebook page.
25. Down-home fried-fish restaurants called fish camps used to dot river towns throughout the South. Get a taste of the tradition at Twin Tops Fish Camp in Belmont. Skip the seafood and go with a plate full of salt-and-pepper catfish. The crunchy crust is dusky with black pepper and covers sweet, white flesh underneath. Save some change to blow in the incredible candy store.
4574 S. New Hope Road, Belmont, 704-825-2490.