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East vs. West: Which Is Best?

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.

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.

Like most Lexington joints, Lexington Barbecue is heavy on french fries. Fortunately, it also fries up bundles of cornmeal dough into oblong hush puppies, which taste like Burger King onion rings minus the onions. Oddly enough, that's a compliment.

The Skylight Inn, by contrast, serves lukewarm slabs of flat cornbread. These oniony slices aren't bad and even feature bits of crispy cracklins that also flavor their barbecue--yup, pork rinds. But with or without cracklins, fried cornbread always trumps cornbread.

Advantage: Lexington Barbecue.

DESSERT: Lexington Barbecue offers one of the finest homemade peach cobblers this side of Atlanta. There are also pecan, chocolate, lemon and apple pies. The Skylight Inn, by contrast, is dessertless. This one's a rout, folks.

Advantage: Lexington Barbecue.

PRICE: Both spots serve their meat in paper boats they call "trays." At Lexington, a tray of barbecue, slaw and hush puppies or rolls costs $4.60. A plate, which has fries and more meat, is $7.40.

The Skylight offers more size choices, with small ($3), medium ($3.50) and large ($4) trays that include slaw and cornbread. You can also get a pound of meat for $7.50.

Advantage: The Skylight Inn, by a snout.

NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: Every October, more 100,000 people find their way to Lexington for the Barbecue Festival (Oct. 22 this year). The rest of the time, hit one of the 20 barbecue restaurants the town of 20,000 offers; work up an appetite by examining the photos on the history of Lexington barbecue at the Davidson County Historical Museum. Visitors can also tour Nascar team owner Richard Childress's auto museum and, on the outskirts of town, taste his wine.

Ayden has a population of 4,570 and a somewhat charming, quasi-deserted downtown. Each year, there's a Collard Festival -- complete with Collard Queen -- the weekend after Labor Day.

Advantage: Lexington Barbecue.

BOTTOM LINE : If you're the kind of person who happily drives 50 miles off of I-95 for some spine-tingling swine, the Skylight is your place. But if you're looking for a tad more than barbecue bliss -- like a town with more than just gas stations -- Lexington is probably the better bet. Wherever you go, just don't ask them what they think of the other side's 'cue.

Lexington Barbecue (336-249-9814) is at 10 Hwy. 29-70 S. in Lexington. The Skylight Inn (252-746-4113) is at 4618 Lee St. in Ayden. Both are closed Sundays.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company