Monday, August 19, 2013

The Last Leg: Burgers, Onion Rings, and BBQ in NC

Am I STILL yakking about my recent trip through the south?!?  Um, apparently so, but only because I really must inform the world about the location of the Universe’s Most Amazing Onion Rings!  So, read on, if you care about such matters (and, really, shouldn’t we all?).

When last you saw us, we were in the underground basement of an Atlanta hotel, fighting about how to best pack the car with this new addition of two suitcases and 1000 convention gee-gaws and important papers.  That task accomplished, we hit the road, happy to escape the fearful Atlanta traffic by our mid-morning departure (and by traveling north; southbound still looked snarled).

I mention this only because it will be relevant later, but Steve needed something for breakfast/lunch (wait…I think they call that “brunch”!), so we stopped at a Burger King, his fast-food-poison-of-choice.  We both agreed that McDonald’s has better fries, but he’s not going to give up on the Whopper.

In South Carolina, I had to stop at one of the Gaffney interstate farmstands for some of their amazing peaches.  Oh, brother, yet another stop, and we were barely on the road…. I promised Steve I would buy him anything he wanted at Abbott’s, the peach store, imagining jams, spicy pickled okra, pecans, Cheerwine, or Blenheim ginger ale, all of which are available, along with AMAZING peaches.  Steve, however, happily discovered that also available were fireworks…many, many, many fireworks.  A woman of my word, we threw some fireworks into the car, too.

Our destination for the night was Charlotte, North Carolina, about 4ish hours away from Atlanta.  Why not push on to get closer to Virginia?  All because of this TV show, “Burger Land” (on the Travel Channel), which Steve discovered during a late night of channel-surfing…and this episode in particular: 

“George travels to Charlotte, NC, to sample different types of "Carolina-style" burgers with roots in Southern barbecue cuisine. First, he visits the town of Monroe, NC, for a burger slathered in chili and coleslaw. Then he enjoys a jumbo cheeseburger at an old-school drive-in burger joint and a double-decker burger smothered in Pimento cheese, before finishing up with a Southern-style burger from a tiny burger spot that George has never visited before.”

Who knew Charlotte was famous for burgers, Charlotte a city I breeze through four times a year going to and from teaching at the Converse low-residency MFA program!?

Heading out of our way, Duke’s in Monroe, NC, was our intended stop (here’s a fabulous video that will explain why this was our destination).  We were lucky to arrive—after a long tour of strip malls—at around 3 PM so there wasn’t a big rush.  The place is tiny, with a tiny parking lot, and feels located in a primarily residential neighborhood (lucky residents!).  We sat down at a tiny booth, and in these situations, I generally find that honesty is the best policy—especially since it’s not as though we were going to pass for regulars or even southerners—so I said, “We saw you on TV, so what should we get?”  “Two burgers all the way,” the waitress said, “you want cheese?”  Of course! 

These were some of the best burgers I’ve ever had, up there with the chili cheeseburger at the famous Tommy’s in L.A. and the burgers at the “secret” burger place in the Parker-Meridien hotel in midtown Manhattan, and my beloved Shake Shack.  One trick at Duke’s is that chopped onions are pressed into the meat as it cooks on the grill.  Another trick is that there’s amazing chili on top.  What makes it a “Carolina burger” is that there’s also (excellent) coleslaw on top.  Finally, the bun is pressed to firm it up, making sure it won’t collapse.  Honestly, this burger is a work of art, and if I had one in front of me right now, it would be gone in a matter of seconds.

As we left, I asked the waitress what it was like to be on TV.  Her face shifted into a mix of scorn and longing as she said, “Day shift.”  Oh…the glamour of the day shift, hogging up all the attention!  I felt for her.

We trudged back through the strip malls and on to a randomly chosen Hampton Inn that was basically located in the middle of nowhere, though convenient to the highway for tomorrow, and there we faced our greatest test:  could we really eat another burger, to make three in one day?  Could we even eat dinner?  Did we want to drive around unfamiliar Charlotte, relying on our hateful, untrustworthy GPS who was always screaming “recalculating” at me?  We dithered…the siren song of trashy shows on Bravo was powerful.  To complicate matters, I kept consulting food sites, reading about the burger choices, trying to see how far away we were from the other places on the TV show, what time they closed, checking out photos of burgers and various random food products in cities in different states (a list of the best green chile-cheeseburgers in New Mexico was interesting though not helpful).  I kept returning to this fact:  One place from “Burger Land” was a real drive-in, with a carhop and everything…and that’s when Steve said, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” and we were tipped into jumping back into the car to head out to the South 21 Drive-In, home of the Super Boy, featuring curb service.

Eight-thirty was the perfect time of night to open the sun roof and pull into a covered slot and push an ancient intercom button to order a Super Boy with cheese (to share), a chocolate milkshake, and onion rings.  And how fun to get the laden tray delivered right to us by a friendly man in a hat.  The burger was very good, ample and juicy, and the milkshake was excellent.  But the onion rings…OH, WOW!  I’ve become used to the equation of giant onion rings = better, with that puffy, “homemade” look to the batter as being the standard.  These were thin, very ring-like, with a tight, close-to-the-bone batter…and they were perfect.  Not at all greasy!  Totally crisp, down to the last one.  Never that horrible moment where the slimy onion slides down and whacks your chin.  True perfection!  (Watch this video from “Burger Land,” and you’ll see the utter charm of South 21 Drive-In; you’ll also get a glimpse of the onion rings at around 2:25.)  "These are the best onion rings in my life!" I shouted out the window at the carhop, who nodded knowingly.

The next morning, we decided that we didn’t have to eat any more burgers in Charlotte and that we had to focus on Finally Getting Home…all we wanted was to find a Biscuitville before 2PM, when they close.  However, oddly, we didn’t see any Biscuitville signs along the highway—which, in retrospect, feels like fate’s helpful hand.  Steve started fiddling with the hateful GPS (which, I might add, hasn’t been updated in about 5 years), looking to see what restaurants might be near where we were.  No Biscuitvilles, but barbecues came up, and he started reading off names:  Ed’s, Bill’s, Joe-Bob’s, etc…the usual line-up, and then he said, “Stamey’s.”

“What?”  In my food site research last night, I’d spent some time on Roadfood and was reminded of the famous Carolina barbecue joints I’d been to in years past…Stamey’s is one of the holy grails of western Carolina—and we were only 20 miles away!   Of course we didn’t really have to focus only on getting home….

After a scenic detour along a country road (with no gas stations…tick-tick, dipped the fuel gauge, stressing out one of us) we came up to what is called “downtown” Tyro, North Carolina, outside Lexington, a very famous vortex of barbecue, with an annual festival.  We got a booth, and ordered a barbecue plate: chopped pork, slaw, hushpuppies, and sweet tea.  The air was filled with the pleasant and rapid chop-chop-chop-chops of barbecue being prepared to order.  Red-tinted slaw was tart and vinegared just right, and the BASKET of hushpuppies were sweet and not at all greasy, with a lush interior.  The barbecue was superb, the best of my trip BY FAR, with lovely exterior shreds providing nice, contrasting texture.  As is typical in this part of NC, a vinegar-based sauce, but with a bit of red to it.  Yum, yum, yum…we ignored my early comment: “We don’t have to eat it ALL,” and ate it ALL (except for some hushpuppies, which we took home).  The place was packed by the time we left, around 12:30 or so, so clearly “downtown” Tyro, the crossroads of Stamey’s, a Dollar Store, and—thankfully—a convenience mart with a gas station is the place to be.

So back to the mission of Finally Getting Home…until we had to stop at the last Cook-Out before Virginia, north of Durham (exit 204, I believe).  There was talk of getting yet another burger; they are very good here—but we went for milkshakes instead; there’s a choice of 30 different flavors!—and ran across the road to a farmstand selling tomatoes, which we somehow found room for in the car.

And then, finally, we Finally Got Home.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.