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Timeless: Gary's Barbecue

Here's one mystifying, frustrating and yet occasionally beautiful thing about the Southern U.S. - change comes slowly. I find it even more beautiful when, after decade, some things don't change at all.

By this I mean Gary's Barbecue, an institution I grew up on in the 1980s and 90s in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Its provenance is China Grove, NC - a funky-named place between Kannapolis and Salisbury, and pretty much in the backwoods where somehow, someway, the subdivisions and ho-hum strip malls invading the greater Charlotte area haven't caught up with little China Grove.

I hope they never do. I hope Gary's remains untainted by growth and development so it can continue as the best damn Lexington-style barbecue joint out in the middle of nowhere.

Anytime pork on a bun comes up in conversation, Scott's probably learned by now to tune out my odes to Gary's glory, in the nearly nine years (!) we've discussed the finer points of barbecue. He grew up on South Carolina style, sadly - they drench the pork in a sweet/spicy mustard sauce. What is that all about?

I finally showed Scott REAL BBQ last weekend, during our drive down to my Grandmother Carrie's funeral in Concord, NC.

We pulled in to the parking lot off of Hwy. 29 and I immediately became giddy, nearly leaping out of the car before it completely stopped. I gabbed about their vinegar sauce and the ice pellets they use that I loved, the way the pork wasn't dry or plain, but moist and perfectly seasoned. The tin signs of memorabilia - Grape Nehi, Coke, Wonder Bread, etc. - lining the walls, and the three 50s-era Chevys with the bad-ass fins that they kept well preserved in a special room in the back. (This is NASCAR country, ya know.)

We seated ourselves in a booth and as I grabbed the menu, I realized it was probably five years or more since I last ate at Gary's. I pondered the weight of those years.

What if they didn't have that ice that I liked? What if the pork was just so-so and their fries weren't crinkle-cut like they used to be? What if, God forbid, they were out of Cheerwine?

When the waitress took our orders, I had to ask her what came on the BBQ platter versus the BBQ tray. I didn't remember. I ordered the platter - which came with pulled pork, slaw, fries AND hushpuppies (oh, those warm little carbs o' the South) - and Scott ordered a large sandwich and onion rings. As when in Rome, we ordered two small Cheerwines to drink.

The food came quickly, almost as soon as the Cheerwines, which luckily were poured over the ice pellets I recalled fondly. My eyes bulged at the amount of pork loaded on my plate, along with a generous scoop of slaw cut with red pepper and vinegar (no mayo), and several golf-ball size cornmeal hushpuppies.

Scott was confused to see slaw on his sandwich - I reminded him this was, of course, "Carolina Style." Nonetheless, it didn't prevent him from digging in, and after one bite, he grinned widely and uttered the highest compliment he can possibly give - "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm."

That's right. Gary's hadn't changed a bit. The pork was still moist, the fries still crinkle cut, the slaw still piquant and slightly red, and the Cheerwine flowed freely from pitchers. Thank you, oh benevolent gods of the barbecued pork.

I don't know what I would have done if the meal hadn't been up to my expectations. I suppose I would have paid the tab and drove off, wishing for the "good ol' days." But I can say for sure that at Gary's, the good ol' days, and nights, are better than ever. And that, my friends, is truly a beautiful thing.

Gary's Barbecue on Urbanspoon


  1. My hometown's bbq joint is "Joe's Barbeque" and like all good southern bbq places, it has a pig in an apron for it's logo. After all, Joe's slogan is "Good as the Best, Better than the Rest and Just a little big habit forming."

    And they hands down have the best sweet tea in the South. I think a BBQ face off is in order, yes?

  2. MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM! You know, I used to be anti-cole slaw, but damn, now I love that vinegar taste!

    Its funny, you know a Yankee has made slaw when it includes things like Romaine lettuce and, I kid you not, Peanut Thai dressing... sigh. They may never learn.

  3. Peanut...Thai? Oh, no. That is fancified stuff right there.

    Beth! I have experienced the goodness of Joes! If I am correct, there is/was an outpost in Shalotte that we visited all the time when we were down at the beach. My cousins on my mom's side grew up on Joe's.

    I typically take my BBQ with Cheerwine, but I would consider the sweet tea option, too. Yum.

  4. I will totally join the BBQ face off!

  5. YES! You have par-taken in some of my native delights. The Shallotte Joe's BBQ is the sister restaurant to Whiteville's original Joe's.

    I feel so close to you right now. GROUP HUG!


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