George Miller keeps the good stuff in a jug behind the counter of his small, nine-month-old Carolina-style 'cue joint, Restaurant 28, in a Glendale strip mall on the southeast corner of 51st Avenue and Olive. If you tell him you hail from the Old North State, he'll let you sniff it. And if you ask nicely, he may even fix you up an especially potent batch with it to carry home.
Sounds like one of those episodes of The Andy Griffith Show where Andy and Barney are on the hunt for whoever's been selling 'shine to Mayberry's town drunk Otis Campbell. But Miller ain't been dealing in no white lightnin' or skullcracker, as they call it down South. Why, I wouldn't even suggest such a thing, what with Miller, 52, being a deacon in his local Baptist assembly. Rather, the magical elixir of which I sing praises is Miller's spicy, vinegar-based barbecue juice, the stuff Miller mixes in with finely chopped swine to produce just about the greatest thing to come out of Tar Heel country next to Michael Jordan and John Coltrane: authentic eastern North Carolina-style pulled pork.
When I was growing up in Raleigh, the state's capital, I didn't know there was any other type of barbecue, and in that case, ignorance truly was bliss, because no other kind of hog flesh I've sampled since has come close to equaling the tart tang that occurs when my pie-hole is filled with smoked, shredded North Carolina sow. Sitting in Miller's modest establishment with its handful of tables topped with yellow plastic coverings, feasting on a plate of collards, golden-brown hush puppies, and this minced, ambrosial oinker, it's as if I hear the dulcet voice of "Sweet Baby James" Taylor crooning, "In my mind, I'm gone to Carolina."
You'll have to inquire after the vinegary version. Otherwise, if you order the "chopped bbq pork," what you'll receive is more a take on 'cue from the western part of N.C., a sweeter, almost pasty, tomato-based sauce, also stirred into the tender bits of snout-bearer. But Miller, who hails from the little town of Faison in Duplin County, southeast of Raleigh, knows that the real deal is done eastern-style, because that's generally where the state's hog-farming industry is located. However, most non-Tar Heelians are not used to the sour twinge of spoilt wine in their 'cue. So Miller went the route of the tomato, which is still excellent, even if I'm partial to the eastern recipe.
There are numerous other aspects to Miller's cooking that ring true to cuisine from the birth-state of such disparate talents as Thelonious Monk, Roberta Flack, and my favorite rapper, Petey Pablo. The collards, prepared with ham, are not sugary, as is the case with some other soul food. Slightly bitter and savory, they taste best when liberally doused with white vinegar in which hot peppers are pickled. This makes for some really addictive pot likker in the bottom of the plate that you can soak up with your hush puppies.
The hush puppies themselves are as perfect as a fresh, glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut served piping hot. Miller prepares the fried, oblong pastries with his own blend of spices and corn meal-flour mix from North Carolina's House-Autry Mills. These fritters almost always accompany a meal of barbecue or seafood in N.C., and after downing a mess of 'em, you'll begin to understand how -- with comestibles like these -- a spare tire is almost as inevitable as gray hair, arthritis and diabetes for Southern men. Lore has it some antebellum chef lent these edibles their name by tossing a few to the hounds yelping 'round his knees, ordering the dogs to, "Hush, puppies."
Miller's catfish is superb, firm and thick, encased in a light, brown batter of his own concoction. And the rib tips, slathered with some of the red barbecue sauce that's also offered in a bottle on your table, are meaty and guaranteed to satisfy every carnivorous fantasy you might have brewing in your noggin. The red beans and rice are steeped in rich, dark brown gravy, and the "dirty rice" with hash tempts the nasal passages as well as the tongue. I can attest to the fact they're both even more mouth-watering reheated the following day.
Adventurous fressers may want to try the chitlins and the chicken gizzards, two true Southern delicacies. For those unacquainted with the olfactory joys of pig intestines -- more precisely spelled "chitterlings" -- let's just say that the aroma of week-old road kill grilled up with fresh ordure probably just begins to approach the perfume of these stewed swine innards. And yet, when doused with loads of hot sauce, they remind me of tripe, though more flavorful. Don't forget to hold your nose while noshing.
Chicken gizzards don't require a clothespin to pinch your nostrils shut, though they are chewy, and some folk don't cotton to masticating that muscular piece of fowl stomach. Worry not: I'll eat what they don't want, and aid my gnawing with a glass of sweet tea, or red Kool-Aid, both offered by Miller. Happy endings are to be had with any of Miller's desserts, from the Nutty Buddy ice cream pie and gooey peach cobbler, to the red velvet cake and sweet potato pie. But where's the banana pudding with vanilla wafers, the trailer-park treat that's sweet to eat? That's a Carolina classic I hope Miller eventually adds to his menu.
Miller runs Restaurant 28 with the help of his lovely wife Sandra, a native of Red Hook, Brooklyn. She and Miller first dated when he visited NYC at the age of 19, but the romance was short-lived. Miller entered the Army and saw the world before retiring from the service and returning to Faison. By that time, Sandra was living in Arizona, but they reestablished contact via long distance some 28 years after their initial tryst, and fell in love all over again. Hence the eatery's unique title.
The pair married three years ago, and spent time doing barbecue festivals before finally starting their own place. Wish I'd known about them sooner. The main reason I go home once a year for Xmas is to eat me some 'cue. Now all I need to do is drive to Glendale to fetch it. Sigh . . . Too bad my round-trip ticket to Raleigh is non-refundable.
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