Okay, so I'm going to cut straight to the chase: I have never really understood why anyone would get excited about Eastern Carolina Barbecue. I mean, I get it, they cook the whole hog, but what difference does that make if the finished product isn't good. Yes, seeing a whole hog being cooked is visually appealing, but we're talking about food here - if the taste isn't there then who cares what the cooking process looks like? And that "sauce" which is vinegar with some pepper flakes floating in it? I don't know which is more unappealing, bland mushy pork or a mouthful of vinegar. I want to like Eastern Carolina Barbecue, but I've always just found it incredibly ordinary. I never really got it, and i have tried it plenty of times. So while I had high hopes for the Skylight Inn, as it is lauded as one of the places to get good Carolina barbecue, I was pretty skeptical about the whole process. It's amazing the difference one meal can make. Not only was this the best Carolina Barbecue I've ever had by far, it was some of the best barbecue period I've ever had.
Skylight Inn is located outside of the tiny town of Ayden, North Carolina. It's not hard to find, but it is not really close to anything either. Pulling into the parking lot of this simple looking establishment, the first thing you will probably notice is the wood. There are huge piles of wood in the back lot. Slow cooking the whole hog over wood, the old fashioned way, is one of the secrets to the Skylight Inn's success.
Entering the restaurant, you immediately end up in line. There was a line when I got there, and a line when I left. I understand there is almost always a line there. It moves pretty quickly though and the fact that the line still exists shows how many people pass through their doors. The menu is simple: Whole Hog Plates, Whole Hog Sandwiches, Whole Hog by the Pound, Barbecue Chicken, a few sides, drinks and desserts. While I was waiting in line, I looked around at the clientele and it was clear that this place crossed all boundaries of age, race and socio-economic status. There were other tourists like me there, but a lot of the customers were local. These are all clear indicators of a good restaurant. It also occurred to me that to have your barbecue come out looking and tasting fresh, you really need a decent volume of business, especially when you are dealing with the whole hog! It appeared as though the Skylight Inn had that figured out.
...Chop chop chop chop chop...
My wandering mind quickly snapped back as I heard the sound of meat being chopped. Behind the counter, through the open window to the kitchen, a young man had placed a huge slab of hog on the cutting board, chopped it and pushed it through the window onto a massive wooden block.
I ordered my meal: a large Whole Hog Platter with cole-slaw and cornbread and a drink (this being North Carolina, I went with Cheerwine, a locally made cherry soda). The total was $9.50, a very reasonable price for lunch these days in my opinion. My meal was handed to me in the Skylight Inn's signature "stack". I took my meal into one of the side dining rooms, sat down and dug in.
I tried the corn bread first and I liked it. This is the way corn bread is supposed to taste, not sugary sweet like a muffin, but just a little sweet from the corn and hearty. Then I went for the coleslaw. To be honest, it was not great. I thought it was too sweet and there wasn't much to it. Then I went for the pork. Just by looking at it, you could see the "whole hog" idea in place - there were chunks of crackling in it and it looked way more appealing than any Carolina Barbecue I've seen. The taste was excellent - smoky, but well balanced, just a little fatty and very satisfying. Hesitantly, I reached for the sauce. Giving it a good shake to mix it up, I put a few dashes on a few pieces of my pork. To my surprise, this sauce only made the pork better. It was flavorful and peppery and not overly vinegary at all. It brought out the flavors in the pork and gave it a little kick. I was in awe of this barbecue - I had finally found out what the big deal was. And it was a big deal.
I didn't rush my meal, I didn't have anywhere else to be. I read up on some of the accolades the Skylight Inn has received over the years, including being served to President Reagan and winning The James Beard Award for American Classics in 2003. It's been written up in Southern Living, National Geographic, People and GQ as well as a host of state and regional publications. I guess sometimes when you want to find a great meal, it is easiest to follow in the footsteps of others.
After my meal, I went out and snuck around back to smokehouse. The smell of wood smoke and pork was amazing. I poked my head in the open door and found one of the cooks preparing a hog for the smoker. I didn't want to bother him in his work, but told him that the Skylight Inn had converted me on the idea of Eastern Carolina Barbecue. He got a kick out of that, and let me snap a few photos while he shoveled in some fresh coals.
I didn't want to leave. I even thought about going in for seconds, but I thought that would be overkill. I was pleasantly full from a very reasonably portioned and deeply satisfying meal. I hopped into the drivers seat, and headed down the road.
Thank you Skylight Inn for showing me what Eastern Carolina Barbecue can be. I now understand the big deal about the whole hog. I will definitely be trying more barbecue as I travel across North Carolina, but they will have incredibly big shoes, and smokers, to fill.