Beach trip turns into barbecue tour

For our summer vacation, Sherri Panza and I put the standard maps aside, passed up the chance to visit our children, and decided that what we have missed over the years was to take a long road trip and lay on a beach.

Back in the 1970s, we headed from New York to Florida with a first edition of Jane and Michael Stern's revolutionary "Roadfood" book and a German shepherd. Now, our desires are stoked by the Sterns' blog and instead of a German shepherd we have Weegee, nearly 60 pounds of Eurasier, a soup of Chow, Spitz and Samoyed cooked up by a Nobel laureate.

All I had to do was promise my wife that she could get one great fish dinner and that I would not demand barbecue for breakfast. Yes, I'll eat barbecue at every meal if I can. I haven't really found any truly bad meat, just slightly different from what you might find over in the next county. I remain above the warring among those who argue that chopped is better than picked or sliced meat, and that sauce should just be a vinegar, ketchup and pepper solution instead of a richer sauce, be it hot or sweet. And on this recent jaunt I found that even in barbecue-crazy North Carolina, which has the fans of eastern saucing taking potshots at those who prefer western, restaurants were offering choices of sauce.

We ate barbecue in North Carolina, barbecue in Georgia, barbecue in South Carolina and barbecue in Florida. And with the help of local TV foodie Rick Sebak, who used to work in South Carolina, we had the name of a great place that gave us the chance to go off the highway and visit Eutawville, S.C. Technically, the barbecue was in Holly Hill, but who would say "Holly Hill" when they have the chance to send you to "Eutawville"? Alas, the restaurant is open only on Friday and Saturday and we pulled in on a Tuesday.

However, people in the South are helpful and friendly. Jonesing for pulled pork, I sent Sherri to seek out locals in the Eutawville IGA and when she walked out there was a local attached to her arm -- Faye, from the IGA. It was Faye's opinion that we could find some good 'cue by turning around and driving about a mile until we came to an ice cream stand called The Twist. There, she said, the owners smoke and pick their own pork and haul the stuff to the stand, where it's on a lunch menu that also includes slaw dogs, fried fish and fried chicken with corn muffins and cole slaw. Floored by the list, we ordered one of everything.

While waiting at the window, a large number of paper bags started appearing on the counter and cars started pulling up, discharging women who grabbed the bags, pushed some bills at the counter girl and then sped off. I kept thinking of moonshine until one of the women, Carole, told me that all of the local ladies ordered fried chicken for lunch from the stand. I felt so lucky because fried chicken was on our list and it was crunchy, and moist and sweet and was a great foil to the smoky and well-sauced pork.

If I had been keeping score, this pork would have been near the top of the list by virtue of its smoky flavor and crisp bits, passing the remarkably tender, nearly white pulled pork we found just as the sun set the night before at Carolina Bar-B-Q in Statesville, N.C. There the special was barbecue salad -- salad greens topped with a heap of pork and served with hush puppies.

Still, the best thing we ate on this trip was not barbecue, nor was it something we had to purchase. In the parking lot of our hotel in Savannah, there was a date palm loaded with ripe dates bursting with the flavor of apricots and honey.

Savannah, with its reputation as a diner's paradise, did offer up some classy barbecue at Wylie's Championship Barbecue on Tybee Island -- barbecue that included a moist and peppery chicken served with shiny flatware that you would expect to find at one of the downtown dining palaces.

It wasn't a website nor a tip from a local, but Weegee's insistence on a stop that resulted in one find. Spinning off the highway, I saw a rough wooden building and a sign announcing the Burger Barn. OK, burgers are good at 11, but when I looked over the menu, I was drawn to soft and fluffy biscuits topped with sausage and smoky spicy shredded pork on a bun. We ordered one of each -- and thanked the dog.

On the way down, we missed a place recommended by friends who retired from New Jersey to Gulfport, Fla. But on the way back north on Interstate 95, we got off at Exit 67 to try JTs. I saw three gas stations but no barbecue joint. We called over to a young man coming out of one gas station and asked if he knew the place.

"Heck," he said, "JT's my uncle and it's over past the Chevron." And there, like it just appeared, was a shack where JT cooks the meat and his wife prepares the sides. Transcendental, with rich sauce and red rice and green beans and a biscuit and a slab of pound cake all figured into a price that was so low you wanted to order a third dinner and keep on stuffing.

When he's not looking for road food, Larry Roberts works as a staff photographer:


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