Once upon a time, I lived in Durham, North Carolina. There I learned the beauty that is barbecue — whole-hog pulled pork, drenched in a hot pepper-and-vinegar “sauce” — and probably ate that a few dozen times a year. Even after moving to New York, I had a good reason to visit my one-time home at least a couple of times a year, and on every drive down I tried to visit two venerable Durham institutions: Sam’s Quik Shop, for my craft-beer fix, and Bullock’s Barbeque, for all-you-can-eat Eastern Carolina barbecue.
I’d not visited the area for over two years, but with my personal ship righted, it was time to start making time for Durham once again. And the group I was there with (in the background you’ll see many of them) knew that at least one dinner had to be Bullock’s, tucked away off Hillsborough Road.
Being a group of nine, we decided to hold off till 7:00 to go, as reservations are generally not taken and the line at 6:00 can be downright oppressive. We walked in and were seated quickly in the back room, familiar to me as home to many a fraternity pig-out dinner in my college days.
The Bullock family has run this restaurant for over half a century, and in that time seen their fair share of celebrities — A-list, B-list, country singers, NASCAR drivers, politicians, you name it — and the walls near the entryway are covered in signed photos and memorabilia.
While everyone perused the voluminous menu (I can’t remember the last time I looked at the menu here), hushpuppies were brought to the table. I love Bullock’s version, especially with Texas Pete or the house hot sauce, though the honey butter provided is no slouch as a flavor enhancer.
Most people at the table opted for a standard meal, like fried catfish or ribs; one couple chose hamburgers, even. Clearly not their type of place. I and two friends at the other end of the table made the smart choice, Family Style. In addition to my beloved barbecue, Family Style adds in fried chicken, Brunswick stew, and a host of side dishes. If you clean off a bowl of something, just ask for a new one and it’ll be right out!
The onslaught of food begins. First out, the fried chicken, a mix of thighs and breasts — I don’t remember a drumstick, and there are never wings — piled into a bowl. It’s a simple, not very spiced flour coating, and my chicken is fried much the same way. These were hot and fresh from the deep fryer to the point where I had to wait a few minutes to take a bite of my thigh.
Meantime, the filler arrived, in the form of crinkle-cut fries, light golden in color, but cooked through. I sampled a small handful of these for completeness’ sake, but I’m much more a fan of gorging on the sweet cornbready goodness of the hushpuppies.
The Bullock’s cole slaw is a little weird, in that it’s finely chopped and drench in a mayo-based dressing that’s really not all that creamy. It’s certainly on the sweet side, too. But I find myself heaping the stuff on my plate constantly if the bowl stays nearby.
A shaky shot of the green beans, which I still have yet to actually eat in some hundred trips to Bullock’s. They smelled like green beans though, I will give them that.
Brunswick stew, a tomato-based thick soup of shredded pork, potato chunks, corn, and lima beans, hearty, hot, and surprisingly filling.
And my reason for being here, the benchmark against which I judge my own pulled pork. This is barbecue; in this part of North Carolina, “barbecue” always means this plate. You can cook meat over flame on a grill, and yes, there’s still barbecue sauce (which should never go near barbecue), but the noun on its own means what you see here.
I filled up my divided plate with a first round of foods, and started working on all that goodness.
The barbecue at Bullock’s is impossibly moist and meaty. It’s faintly tangy, and more than faintly peppery-spicy. It almost melts in my mouth every forkful. I’m guessing if I had access to whole hogs and a big smoker I could more readily duplicate this texture, but on this evening I was in pig heaven, going back to the bowl for more and eating far more than my share of the pork.
I used to skip the Brunswick stew because of the lima beans, but I learned it’s a very important source of pork, so I manage now to eat around those nasty little green bastards to indulge this. There’s just got to be an uncomfortable amount of fat in the liquid here; it too is on the sweet side, and very tasty.
I neglected to take pictures of the innards of the chicken thigh on my first plate, so — in order to receive a second helping of chicken, all dark meat this time, please — I gamely tried the remaining breast. While the thigh was deliciously greasy and hot and juicy all the way through… the breast did a very good job copying his darker friend. I think the fried chicken gets a butter rubdown prior to flouring and frying, and it shows. The skin was quite salty, but not overly so for me, and there was plenty of flavor to satisfy me.
Two thighs, a breast, more than half a pound of barbecue, several scoops of cole slaw and Brunswick stew, a handful of fries, a couple baskets of hushpuppies, and an ungodly amount of sweet tea later, I believe I was done for the evening’s eating festivities. Total cost for this? A whopping $12, cash only, please.
Waddling out, I decided one last look back at the main wall was in order. Billy Joel, Chubby Checker, David Letterman, and a healthy mix of stars, singers, athletes, and local favorites adorn the waiting area and pickup counter. You can’t ask for a more stridently local, beloved institution than Bullock’s Barbeque.