I’ve been on the hunt for something in the Pacific Northwest almost as elusive as Sasquatch. I’ve been searching for some good Southern BBQ. We’re talking pulled-pork goodness with the right seasonings and sauces, served up on a bun with appropriate side dishes. It’s an expensive endeavor, but I think I may have found evidence that this cryptofood does, in fact, exist up here.
First there’s the matter of semantics…
On the West Coast “barbecue” is very generic. It’s either a noun referring to any open flame cooking device (grill, fire pit, etc.) or it’s a verb describing the act of cooking any food on said device. A gathering at which such food is served may be referred to as a “barbecue.” I’ve heard Laura, the Californian, and her family talk about barbecuing burgers or going to a barbecue where food is cooked on a grill.
In the Southeast the term “barbecue” is restricted to a very specific cuisine. It’s a slow-cooking method used most often on pork products, such as pulled pork or ribs, but it can refer to brisket or other beef products cooked in such a fashion. True Southern barbecue, or BBQ, usually involves lots of smoke and open flames. Barbecue is also the name of the sauce applied to said meats after cooking. For the generic cooking style those West Coasters talk about, we use the terms “grill” or “cook out.” And while they have their merits, I won’t even get into Texas, Kansas, Hawaiian, or Korean style barbecue.
The star of Southern barbecue is pulled pork. A whole pig or large portion is slow cooked, then pulled apart prior to serving. It was this delicacy that I sought.
I noticed that the California variation of the word “barbecue” isn’t used as much up here in Washington. At least, I haven’t heard it that much since moving up here. I’ve also noticed that you can find pulled pork sandwiches on the menus of many restaurants around here. The Farmhouse Restaurant not too far from us featured “Carolina pulled pork sliders” as one of their appetizers. I was tempted, but I already had my mind set on their excellent turkey and dressing. Maybe next time. Other restaurants have it in their sandwich section.
I decided to try one of these pulled pork sandwiches first. I ordered one from the Old Edison Inn, one of our staples for Taco Tuesday. We like their food, so I thought it would be a good start.
It was expensive. This cost $12.50, and for less than $5 we could have had better at Henry’s in Greenville. The sandwich had Cole slaw, which I like on my BBQ. Sadly, it was also slathered in their sauce, a red concoction that wasn’t really to my liking. I only ate about 3/4 of the sandwich. There were some large footprints, but no Sasquatch here.
Duff suggested that I try Kelley’s BBQ in Mount Vernon. I had a Bring Your Own Guitar event one Wednesday evening, and that seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a try.
Kelley’s is a drive through place on the other side of the river from Mount Vernon. It does only one thing – BBQ. They have individual meals as well as bulk pricing.
Of course, I was after pulled pork. I ordered a sandwich combo with one side, more reasonably priced than Old Edison Inn at $9.95. I got a bun, a small container of mac and cheese, a container of pulled pork, and a container of sauce. From this I constructed my sandwich.
Given my experience at Old Edison I went easy on the sauce. Kelley’s sauce was a bit better and the flavor of the pulled pork was quite good. The mac and cheese was quite tasty and spicy. It was the best part of the meal. While the BBQ was good, I had a bad case of acid reflux afterwards. I found had Sasquatch, but he was too angry.
I told my fellow guitarists about my quest, and they said I should try Whitey’s BBQ in La Conner. This past week Laura and I were out birding and we found ourselves near La Conner at lunch time. Seemed like a perfect time to try their recommendation.
Whitey’s BBQ is on First Street, the main drag of La Conner. On this Wednesday we found a parking place right on the street right at the restaurant. I tried to get a shot of the exterior, but it was blocked by a van.
Inside there were a few tables and a long bar. There was racing stuff on the walls, so the overall vibe was right.
The menu looked right, too. In addition to the pulled pork I sought, there were some typical Southern BBQ place offerings – brisket, ribs, chicken, and even fried catfish. One of the more intriguing was bacon-wrapped chicken. However, if I were to do a proper comparison there was only one option, the pulled pork.
Our drinks were served in Mason jars, which we took as a good sign. While we were waiting for our sandwiches we decided to do a taste test of their sauces. There were three bottles on the table – Original, Orange Blossom, and Spicy Apple. The original was a sweet BBQ. The Orange Blossom had a hint of citrus, but the real star was the Spicy Apple. It had a hint of vinegar and heat with apple overtones. It may not have been a traditional Southern sauce, but the flavor was incredible.
Our waitress brought out a couple more sauces to sample. There was a garden spice, which was OK, and what she called a traditional Carolina mustard sauce. It’s been my experience that mustard-based sauces are smooth. This one was made from stone-ground gourmet mustard. The flavor was OK, but didn’t seem very traditional.
In Georgia alone there are hundreds of varieties of sauces. If the meat is good, the sauce will be, too.
Soon enough the sandwiches arrived. The pulled pork was perfectly plucked. The flavors were right, and the Spicy Apple sauce was an excellent accompaniment. Sasquatch exists.
For my sides I got fried okra and baked beans. I was amazed to find fried okra up here, so of course that would be one of my choices. It was good, but the breading was a bit too…sophisticated. There was a panko-herb mix that just didn’t stay on the okra pieces very well and imparted an unexpected flavor – not bad, just unexpected. The baked beans were also different. I expected pork and beans, but got more of a vinegar bean salad. Again, the flavors were wonderful, but hardly traditional. Still, I could live with it. A very traditional and somewhat redundant piece of cornbread rounded out the plate. Even though it was overkill, I sample a few bites. It was great.
So the pulled pork was great fit the description of traditional Southern BBQ. The sides and sauces may not have been traditional, but were an excellent accompaniment. If this wasn’t so darn expensive at $12 a plate I think we’d be here more often. We did find that we could buy in bulk at $14 a pound, still more expensive than back home, but cheaper than buying the plates. We may have to get some for the freezer next time we’re in La Conner.
But we weren’t done with Whitey’s…
Even though we were stuffed from BBQ the last item on their menu was too compelling to pass up. We placed an order of Caramel Apple Bombs to go. These were apple doughnut holes coated in powdered sugar with and served with hot caramel sauce for dipping. They were some of the most divine things I’ve ever eaten. We may have been full from the meal, but we decided to consume them while they were still hot. That was the right choice.
Of the BBQ options we’ve tried so far, Whitey’s is by far the best. I thank my guitar friends for bringing them to my attention. I know there are other options around, so my exploration isn’t done. I still want to try those Carolina Sliders at the Farmhouse. If the highway isn’t blocked with snow, I understand there is another good BBQ place up at Marblemont. Still lots to explore. Once you’ve found Sasquatch, you kind of want to find him again.
UPDATE: Tommy Thompson sent me a reminder of Lewis Grizzard’s classic discussion of Southern BBQ. Grizzard describes it more eloquently than I ever could. Here’s a link. Grizzard goes on to say…
If a restaurant specializes in something besides barbecue, the barbecue probably won’t be any good. You can serve other things, just don’t brag on it.
I guess that rules out Farmhouse, Old Edison Inn, and a half dozen other places around here. I think I can narrow my search parameters.