East vs. West: Which Is Best?

North Carolina's BBQ Divide: The fare at the Skylight Inn, above, and, below, Lexington Barbecue.
North Carolina's BBQ Divide: The fare at the Skylight Inn, above, and, below, Lexington Barbecue. (Photo by Jonathan Bloom)
Sunday, May 15, 2005

In the world of North Carolina barbecue, the battle of East vs. West is paramount. We decided to see for ourselves by visiting the pillars of eastern- and western-style barbecue: Ayden's Skylight Inn and Lexington Barbecue in Lexington. The Skylight is an exemplar of the vinegary eastern style, while Lexington is the mecca of the tomato-laced western style (people usually say "Lexington style"). Here's how they measure up.

-- Jonathan Bloom

DISTANCE FROM D.C.: An hours-long jaunt south to sample some pigture-perfect barbecue? Sounds reasonable enough. Ayden sits between Raleigh and the Outer Banks, a five-hour drive from the District. Lexington, roughly halfway between Winston-Salem and Charlotte, is about a 5 1/2 -hour drive.

Advantage: Skylight Inn, by a gallon or so of gas.

Here is a meal with some sides at Lexington Barbecue.
Here is a meal with some sides at Lexington Barbecue.(Jonathan Bloom)
AMBIANCE: Both joints have the requisite piles of hickory and oak out back. Upon entry, Skylighters can see exactly what they've come for -- a pile of meat on a chopping block. Deep fryers are the most prevalent behind-the-counter sight at Lexington Barbecue, open since 1962.

Neither Lexington's faux-wood paneling nor the Skylight's metal chairs and folding tables offer much atmosphere. While Lexington does feature a bona-fide lunch counter, its decor can be described as L.L. Bean meets Flo's Diner: Shelves filled with wooden ducks and paintings of hunting dogs abound.

Meanwhile, the 1947-era Skylight has a replica capitol rotunda on its roof, lending credence to its modest claim of being the "Bar-B-Q Capital of the World." Inside, a display case is stuffed with plaques and autographed pictures: Skylight has served every president from Nixon to the elder Bush.

Advantage: Toss-up.

THE MAIN EVENT: Eastern-style barbecue features a tangy vinegar sauce. Western, or Lexington style, to the horror of easterners, mixes ketchup into the meat-basting "dip."

While easterners cook whole hogs, westerners only smoke shoulders. As a result, the Skylight Inn cooks its hogs for up to 14 hours, vs. eight to 10 hours for the Lexington Barbecue shoulders. That may explain why the Skylight's meat has a more robust, smoky flavor. Lexington's barbecue needed augmenting from the Tabasco on the table.

Advantage: Skylight Inn.

SIDES: Lexington Barbecue serves some mighty fine coleslaw. The vinegar-laden side could be a meal on its own. While the Skylight's all-white slaw is good, it lacks the zest and heft of Lexington's.

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