Hillsborough BBQ Company's location, in a small commercial strip several blocks off the town's main drag, is hardly what you'd call prime. But for barbecue aficionados, who know that some of the best barbecue is found off the beaten path, that's the first good sign.
The next is the aroma of hardwood smoke that greets you when you enter, priming your palate as you take in the stained glass pig over the door, church pews converted to banquettes, and other elements that deftly evoke barbecue shack tradition without crossing the line into caricature. A wall-spanning series of enlarged vintage photographs of outdoor barbecue scenes pays tribute to an era when whole hogs were routinely cooked over pits dug into the ground.
Spanning the styles
At Hillsborough BBQ Company, the "pit" is aboveground and made of brick, but pit master Tommy Stann cooks the same way as in those pictures: over hardwood coals, without any assistance from gas or electricity. Stann, who started out as a hobbyist, eventually became so passionate about preserving what he sees as a dying art that he gave up his landscaping business to pursue a restaurant career. He teamed up with Matt Fox, owner of the locally popular Wooden Nickel pub, to open Hillsborough BBQ Company in April.
Cooking barbecue the old-fashioned way is indeed more art than science, and has taken many people decades to master. Stann sets the bar exceptionally high with an ambitiously broad menu that spans the barbecue map from Eastern Carolina-style whole hog to Texas beef brisket. He hasn't yet attained mastery of the whole repertoire, but he's a fast learner.
He has certainly gotten the knack of whole hog barbecue. Chopped a little coarser than most Eastern-style versions, it arrives minimally sauced - which, for barbecue this inherently moist and flavorful, is all the sauce it really needs. The porky goodness is available as a plate or sandwich. There's a large sandwich option with extra meat, though the regular should be ample for most.
Baby back ribs are first-rate, too. Smoky and meaty with just the right amount of chewy-tender bite, they're basted (not too heavily) with a Midwestern style sauce before being finished on the grill.
Beef brisket, considered by experts to be the most challenging cut of meat in the barbecuer's repertoire, still needs work. Sometimes the thinly sliced beef approaches the difficult-to-achieve ideal of moistness, but more often is dry. Turkey breast suffers from the same inconsistency.
Barbecued chicken fares well, though, thanks at least in part to the fact that it's brined before being smoked. You can get light or dark meat, or a half chicken. And if smoke just isn't your thing, fried North Carolina catfish - moist, buttermilk-soaked nuggets in a light, crunchy batter - won't disappoint.
Plates come with excellent hush puppies and your choice of two sides, which rise considerably above the barbecue joint norm in terms of variety and quality. Brunswick stew, enriched with smoked rabbit, pork and chicken, is a must. Other winning options include fried okra, roasted sweet potato salad, creamy egg salad and fresh, whole, cooked-just-until-tender green beans. Corn pudding was dry when I sampled it, but gets so many rave reviews I'd happily give it another try.
Whatever you do, don't miss the seasonal side. In the summer, a refreshing parsley-spangled salad of roasted corn, tomatoes and cucumbers showcased the local harvest. More recently, baked apples, richly spiced and cooked to caramel sweetness, stole the show.
Yes, there's pudding
Desserts, too, are clearly more than an afterthought. Homemade banana pudding is classic, garnished with Nilla wafers and (if you like) whipped cream. Key lime pie on a crushed pretzel crust is a mouthwatering melange of creamy, crunchy, sweet, salty and tart. And if the pumpkin cheesecake, a current feature, doesn't get you in the mood for fall, I don't know what will.
Unlike most barbecue joints, Hillsborough BBQ Company offers a well-stocked bar, breaking with sweet-tea tradition with a small but well-chosen selection of draft and bottled beers, wines and cocktails. If you were so inclined, you might raise a glass to preserving tradition and at the same time embracing change. Here's to the best of both worlds