As you’re being seated in one of the two refurbished vintage railroad cars – decorated in a suitably nostalgic style with brass chandeliers, art deco posters and old photos of train engines – that are now the dining rooms of CrossTies Barbecue, you can almost hear a conductor calling out.
“Now boarding from the main platform at Carrboro Station, with scheduled stops including Texas brisket, Kansas City baby back ribs and smoked chicken with Alabama white sauce. Optional side excursions into Italian sausage and barbecued tofu. The CrossTies Barbecue tour will culminate at a surprise undisclosed location, rumored to be somewhere in North Carolina, before returning to the station.”
Then reality sets in, and you realize there’s no way you can eat all that in a single sitting. So you go for the sampler plate, which gets you your choice of two meats (you’ll leave the tofu for those poor vegan souls who get dragged here by their carnivorous friends) and two sides, plus hushpuppies.
Naturally, since you’re practically sitting on the dividing line between Eastern and Western Carolina-style barbecues, you’ve got to try the pulled pork. And you can never resist brisket, no matter how many times you’ve been let down by dry, overcooked brisket in the past.
The pork turns out to be true to the locale: finely chopped in the Eastern style (notwithstanding that “pulled pork” description) with a vinegar-based sauce, but made with the pork shoulders favored in the West rather than whole hog. There’s just enough sauce to moisten the meat (and if there isn’t, you can add more from the bottle on the table) without overwhelming the subtle hickory smoke flavor.
The only barbecue on the menu that isn’t hickory-smoked, as the menu informs you, is the brisket – which any aficionado of Texas beef barbecue will be happy to know is cooked low and slow over mesquite coals. Very slow, that is, as in more than five hours – which, as it turns out, yields tender slabs of meat that haven’t had all the juicy fat rendered out. You’re pleasantly surprised to find that the brisket, if anything, is more impressive than the pork.
The sides you ordered – coarse-cut collards braised in apple cider and seasoned with pork, and bourbon-spiked baked beans cooked in the smoker – are also good. But the hushpuppies are doughy in the middle.
All in all, though, it’s been an enjoyable outing. Next time you hop on the train, you’ll bring along a traveling companion to help you explore further points of interest.
Your second journey starts at the seashore, with a couple appetizers on a list clearly aimed at setting CrossTies apart from the traditional barbecue joint crowd (as if the trains weren’t enough). You and your date share shrimp and lobster fritters, riddled with morsels of shellfish and so beautifully cooked that the hushpuppy derailment on the previous trip is entirely forgiven. A house-smoked salmon “dip” – so densely packed with fish that it could justifiably be promoted to “salad” – is also a keeper.
You just have to try the brisket again, if only to confirm that it’s as good as you remember. It comes close, maybe just a shade too fatty this time. You’re curious about the Alabama white sauce, a vinegar-tinged mayonnaise that’s traditionally served with chicken in its native state, but a rarity in these parts. So you make your order a sampler, with smoked chicken – local free-range dark meat, the menu explains – your second pick.
You see three house-made barbecue sauces on the table — Eastern Carolina, Blackstrap Molasses (sweet but not cloying), and CrossTies Signature, a versatile Midwestern-style sauce with a decent spice kick. Alabama white sauce isn’t among them (presumably because it has to be refrigerated) but is brought on request. Turns out it works surprisingly well with the chicken.
After briefly considering the sandwich list (BLT with house-smoked pimento cheese, catfish po’ boy, smoked portobello and the usual barbecue sandwich suspects), your dining companion decides to, um, go whole hog with a barbecue sampler. She lets you have one of her baby back ribs, which is meaty and tender beneath a glaze of what you guess is the CrossTies Signature sauce. She also gets the smoked spicy Italian rope sausage, which is – well, how do you mess up sausage?
As for sides, the fried deviled eggs that look so good in print are a disappointment on the plate. Turns out deep-frying eggs makes the white rubbery. Fried okra is a winner, though, as are house-pickled vegetables (tonight, carrots and parsnips). The collards (which your companion insisted on after hearing you rave about them) are every bit as good as last time, and the fry station further redeems itself with properly cooked hushpuppies.
As the train rolls back into the station (figuratively speaking), you decide to share the Krispy Kreme bread pudding (which you’re informed is now made with doughnuts from Rise Biscuits Donuts, though the menu hasn’t been updated to reflect the change) for dessert. You do not regret the decision.
In fact, you’re already thinking about booking tickets for another trip. Next time, you’ll arrive at least a half an hour before your scheduled departure and settle in at the bar (or, weather permitting, on the tree-shaded patio between the two railroad cars) for a bon voyage drink. As you sip your local draft or specialty cocktail, you can plan your itinerary in detail.
And if the CrossTies ride isn’t always perfectly smooth, you know you can count on it being fun.
201 E. Main St., Carrboro
Atmosphere: refurbished vintage railroad cars
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: friendly, eager to please, generally attentive
Recommended: shrimp and lobster fritters, salmon dip, brisket, ribs, collards, pickled vegetables, bread pudding
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.