As she walked swiftly towards the door, the woman — a complete stranger — leaned over the low side to our booth and remarked, “You’re missing the fashion show back there.”
Confused, it took me a minute to realize that she was referring to a scene I hadn’t noticed unfolding over my pal Anthony’s shoulder, out the wide windows along the side of Country BBQ.
Crouched in front of a small shed — with its brilliant pink walls acting as a backdrop — a twentysomething woman with hair past her shoulders modeled for a camera in her underwear. A parking lot alongside the busy thoroughfare that is Wendover Avenue hardly seems like the right place for what could’ve been a boudoir shoot, until you recall that this barbecue joint stands in the shadow of the towering Christie’s Cabaret strip club complex.
But Greensboro’s Country BBQ isn’t exactly a lively place on a Friday night — no music played, and by the time we left around 8:40, the servers were already packing it in, talking about showering to wash off the barbecue smell before going out that night.
Country BBQ matches a certain brand of Carolina Southerness, an Americana made of dark wood, brick walls, wax paper, slow-cooked meat and a whole mess of sugar. The restaurant is of a piece with Stamey’s, and like the more well known ’cue purveyor, there’s a drive-thru there. Even if you dine in, a plate or sandwich of chopped pork and satisfying slaw arrives before your conversation has moved beyond the basic pleasantries.
It’s not as country as Wink’s in Salisbury, as diner-esque as Short Sugar’s in Reidsville, as divey as Boss Hog’s in Greensboro or as flashy as Little Richard’s in Winston-Salem. Country BBQ is more inviting than Hill’s, more open and sunlit than Allen & Son, slower paced than Pik-N-Pig.
That is to say it’s somewhat middle-of-the-road, the kind of place where I watched our server put great care into drawing and shading a pig on the chalkboard, where you can still get a filling sandwich smashed between white-bread buns for less than $4, and where someone will actually take your order tableside instead of at the counter.
That is to say that it’s appeal is in its unremarkable-ness, that I felt tempted to order more despite filling up on ’cue and hushpuppies, and that the food is good but not great.
Anthony would dispute the last claim. I watched him stir the tableside sauce — dark and overly peppered — into his pork, making sure it kissed each bite before he lifted it to his mouth. I squirted a little onto a hushpuppy and determined I was glad the sauce hadn’t come on my sandwich.
But Anthony is a Southerner, and a Greensboro native to boot, the kind of guy who has a story about a friend’s dad picking up dinner for them from Country BBQ on the way home from soccer practice, or something a little trite like that. And I, in turn, am a convert, a yankee born and raised on the idea that barbecue is a verb rather than a noun and who almost never ate pork at home. So make of that what you will.
You could argue that these facts make Anthony more knowledgeable, but I could also make the case that my judgment isn’t clouded by nostalgia. I’m guided by my palate, I’d claim, unencumbered by the barbecue battle lines that cross this state. And really, there’s some truth to both perspectives.
That said, I’d rank Country BBQ somewhere between Stamey’s and Prissy Polly’s in Kernersville. Boss Hog’s is a little dumpy, but the ’cue is on point, and all things being equal I’d rather reach for their barbecue sandwich and their hushpuppies. Same goes for Mr. BBQ, and maybe Bib’s, too.
Short Sugar’s claims the top spot on my list, and I can honestly say the homemade barbecue my girlfriend’s dad cooks in Durham belongs not too far behind.
Yet here emerges the problem with any claims I might make to being an impartial outsider with clear vision — I’ve been living in the Old North State for more than a decade. Maybe I’m a latecomer, but that doesn’t mean each barbecue meal has been emotionless or scientific. Hardly.
I’d probably rank Smiley’s BBQ third among the places I’ve tried in North Carolina, but I’m sure that’s influenced by the fact that it’s in the mecca of Lexington and that someone took my order while I sat in my car. Short Sugar’s was the last stop on a multi-leg BBQ roadtrip I took. And people talked up Allen & Son and Country BBQ so much before I went that I likely expected a particularly sublime meal at the two institutions.
But the truth about good barbecue is that it’s simple. Sure, there are intricacies of how it’s prepared, and what goes into the slaw. There’s something unique about every barbecue joint, whether or not there’s a photo shoot happening outside. But we come because we know what to expect, and we like it.
I watched a server at Country BBQ dump almost a whole bag of sugar into a pitcher, filling it up about halfway, pausing, and then adding about a cup more. That’s just how it’s done, which is why pros like Anthony cut his sweet tea with unsweetened tea and why I go ahead and order a cup anyway.
A part of him might’ve gone to connect with his past and a part of me might’ve gone to feel a part of this Southern brand. But more than anything we did not go to be blown away or surprised, instead showing up for some good, reliable barbecue. And that’s exactly what we got.
Visit Country BBQ at 4012 W. Wendover Ave. (GSO), 3921 Sedgebrook St. (HP) or at country-bbq.com.