Allen & Son Barbecue in Chapel Hill, NC
Real Wood Pit Smoked Barbecue in North Carolina
Allen & Son Barbecue, Chapel Hill, NC
Mom and Daughter Work the Front
Keigh Allen Mixes Barbecue by Hand
Guys Take a Break for a Good Q Lunch
Allen & Son Barbecue is Very Popular
When folks in North Carolina start talking barbecue, you’ll usually hear Allen & Son Barbecue (6203 Millhouse Road – Route 86) mentioned. It wasn’t always that way though says Keith Allen, the owner. He remembers the early years before the restaurant was so well known. That was before he was listed on the NC Barbecue Trail and was mentioned in several books and on Oprah.
In the Beginning
Keith started out smoking the barbecue at his father’s restaurant. His father was a businessman, and Keith was, by default, the pitmaster. He will laugh a bit about being called a pitmaster. He’s modest though proud of his work, and he doesn’t go for all the hype. It’s just what he does he says – smoke barbecue.
Growing up, Keith learned to live frugally and to work hard. Those traits have stood him well, and he still lives lean and works about twice as much as most other men. In addition to getting up by 2 a.m. to start the fire, he does landscaping and hosts hunting expeditions. “There’s a lot of day left when I’m done here,” he says. That’s when he landscapes and hosts hunting – after he’s cooked and chopped pork for hours.
When he was a kid, the family did things the old fashioned way. They gardened and put up food. His grandfather even made moonshine. That’s not to be confused with bootlegging. That’s just selling white lightning. Moonshining was and still is a craft, but most people don’t do it these days as it can mean some jail time. Smoking pork – now that’s legal, although health codes made it difficult to be a wood burner.
All in the Family
As with most true barbecue joints, Allen & Son is a family affair. Frankly, it would probably be hard to be a pitmaster and not have family involved. First, it’s a lot of work. Second, the family would not see you much with all those hours it takes to do pork the old fashioned way.
Keith’s wife works the front desk and waits tables. As he told me, “She’s the tall, skinny one.” I had to question how the pitmaster’s wife could be skinny. He said, “She weighed 290 when I married her, and she’s worked that down to 90 pounds in the restaurant.” He was joking, of course. Well, I think he was anyway. I know she was sure working hard at lunch time but still had time to smile and be friendly.
Keith’s daughter was also working the day I visited. She was a cutie and had the relaxed family spirit while getting a lot done.
The ladies of the family not only work the floor and register, they make homemade ice cream and Southern desserts. There are twenty or so traditional desserts ranging from pecan pie to peanut butter pie and also a key lime pound cake.
Pit smoked barbecue is very labor intensive. And, that is an understatement.
Keith splits all the wood, and if anyone has split wood, they know that’s a big job. Mostly he uses fallen trees that people want out of the way. That goes back to his heritage. Why waste something that can be put to a good use? Everyone wins, but it does take time and effort.
The wood is burned down to coals and then shifted from the fire area to the cook area where it slowly smokes the pork shoulders. You can’t throw pork over a burning fire (that’s grilling), or you burn the outside and have raw meat inside. This is all “low and slow” as they say in North Carolina. That’s how you smoke pork.
Once the shoulders are perfectly smoked, Keith pulls the meat off the bones and then gets two huge knives and hand chops the meat. Some barbecue joints have shifted to machine choppers, but he says that it’s just better if chopped by hand. The meat doesn’t get mashed up, and the mix is more even.
After the pork is chopped, Keith adds seasonings and sauce. So, yes, he does “sauce” in the back. It’s not overpowering. So, there’s extra sauce on the table for those who like to spice it up.
I had a taste of the “just sauced” barbecue in the back. Yum. I may have to get a job there. The barbecue is terrific out front, but you just can’t beat the back room barbecue. If I were the swooning type, I would have swooned. But, I’m not totally sure what that means – other than it’s a Southern thing.
The Barbecue Sauce
You’ve probably heard the saying, “The secret’s in the sauce.” Yep. That’s true when it comes to North Carolina barbecue.
There are two basic types of barbecue sauce in North Carolina – eastern (beach) and western (piedmont). Eastern is vinegar and pepper seeds. Western adds a little tomato – often ketchup. Both are thin and most heavily vinegar.
Allen & Son is right on the divide, and Keith says his is neither eastern or western. He’s just not getting in on that debate. He’s a peace loving guy.
I would say that Allen & Son sauce is closer to eastern barbecue sauce, but he adds something. The something is the big question. I asked – of course. He said he wouldn’t even tell Oprah or her friend Gail, so what are the odds I’m getting the secret. Hum. Not good. Maybe some day. I’m good at keeping secrets.
In any case, I would guess that there’s some type of fat in there. I’d say just a little melted lard, butter, or even bacon grease. Grandma spiked a lot of her food that way, so that’s just my guess. The sauce is a tad richer than other barbecue sauces in the area.