FACE-OFF: NORTH CAROLINA BARBECUE

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)

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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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