The Pit (Raleigh, NC)

image courtesy of flickr

Raleigh’s The Pit has received so much attention over the years that you’d think it was some kind of legendary establishment – the kind of place that makes Raleigh.  In fact, the place is more of a curiosity, in terms of ambiance and popularity, and, unfortunately, not terribly exciting in terms of food.  It’s about as far as you can get from Allen & Son’s – a little shack lost between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, where the meat cooks over wood for most of the night – and still be called a North Carolina barbecue restaurant.

The interior of The Pit is moderately swanky, mostly as a result of the building’s previous incarnation as an upscale steakhouse, but partly, one suspects, as a deliberate branding angle.  It’s not a white tablecloth affair, but the wait staff does wear all black and shuffles to and fro discreetly.  It’s certainly a far cry from your average no-frills bbq joint.  There’s a large bar area with plenty of high tables near the front door, and a couple of more stately dining areas.  The place is huge, but it gets packed, always.  You can take a date here, or your family, but it seems best suited to a business meal.

On a recent lunch visit, I ordered the chopped bbq plate ($7.99), which comes with two sides, a biscuit, and a couple of hushpuppies.  The plate is a much better value than the bbq sandwich, which comes with only one side (and no biscuits or hushpuppies), but costs only $0.40 less.  At dinnertime, the cost of the plate entrée jumps up 50% to $11.99, so beware.  The barbecue itself was rather flavorless, even with a liberal application of sauce at the table.  It lacked smokiness but at least it wasn’t mushy.  I chose collards and cole slaw as my side items.  The collards were pretty bad – too vinegary and not tender enough; the cole slaw was average.  My biscuit was also lackluster.  It was soft and buttery, but it seemed like a frozen biscuit rather than a scratch-made creation.  The Pit does have good sweet potato fries, and some regular fries I tried were also pretty tasty.  But the best part of my meal was the excellent hushpuppies.  I would have traded all of my side items for a basket full of those.

In the end, it was an uninspiring and forgettable meal.  While the value at lunchtime is good – you get a lot of food – I’m not really eager to return.  I have heard that the ribs are very good, but I’ve yet to try them in several visits.  [Although former head chef and NC bbq icon Ed Mitchell defeated Bobby Flay in a rib “throwdown” a couple years ago, he is no longer associated with the restaurant].  So, even with a general lack of good bbq restaurants in Raleigh, The Pit doesn’t really stand out.  I’d rather drive a little ways out to the aforementioned Allen & Son’s, or perhaps to Stephenson’s (near Benson), or The Pig (Chapel Hill) for a more rewarding bbq experience.

Review: The Pig (Chapel Hill, NC)

In the world of barbecue, much is made of tradition – doing things the way they’ve always been done.  There’s something to be said for this: some of the best cue you’ll find in the Triangle comes from Allen & Sons, where Mr. Allen still gets up in the middle of the night to chop hickory wood and start the meat cooking for hours and hours.  This traditional formula has been tweaked over the years to the point that nowadays most barbecue is cooked over gas.  More recently, the cuisine has been updated by places like The Pit in Raleigh through the use of local, pasture-raised, hormone-free meat sources.  The Pig in Chapel Hill builds on this progression but takes it all even further, with an ambitious menu that aims to please the meat lover and vegetarian alike.

The building is located in a small shopping center off of Weaver Dairy Road.  Despite a large façade, the restaurant feels tucked away (it’s easy to pass right by).  The inside is quite modest and small, and, like a prototypical bbq joint, lacks much of any adornment.  The menu is scrawled on a large chalkboard above the tiny kitchen, and is impressive in its scope.  Items include not just bbq, but also pork belly sandwiches, catfish po-boys, homemade pastrami and bologna, and, for the vegetarians, country-fried tofu, shitake po-boys, or a sweet PLT sandwich (sweet potato, lettuce, tomato).  There are usually some additional specials as well.  The list of side items is equally tempting, if a bit more traditional: hushpuppies, mac & cheese, collards, baked beans, fried okra, mashed potatoes, and so on.

I ordered the pork belly sandwich ($6.50, with pickles on the side) and a side of sprouts n’ shrooms ($3.25).  Having the sides priced a la carte like this can lead to a pricey meal, particularly if you opt for a sandwich as your main item.  My wife ordered the small bbq tray ($7.50), which came with slaw, hushpuppies, and pickles.  I’ll summarize right here by stating that, with the exception of the hushpuppies, everything was incredibly delicious.  The pork belly was meltingly tender and had a nice sweet glaze on it.  The slaw on the sandwich included plenty of carrots, and made the end result even better, though the whole thing was served on a cheapy throwaway bun.  The pickles were fantastic; they were crisp and sweet and tasted as though they’d only been marinated for a day or less.  Not being a huge fan of pickles in general, these were just right.  The sprouts n’ shrooms was a small bowl of charred brussels sprouts and button mushrooms.  It was good too, but I’d probably try a different side item next time.  Perhaps I’d choose the fried summer squash or okra, both of which I also had the chance to sample.  The squash was served as thin golden planks of crispiness, seasoned with coarse salt and oregano.  The okra was also crusty and delicious, and heavy on the chili powder.  The hushpuppies, being more of an underseasoned cornbread fritter, were a departure from the norm, and weren’t a big hit with me or the rest of our party.  It’s normally very hard for me to lay off the hushpuppies at a bbq restaurant, but these didn’t keep me coming back for more.  As for the bbq itself, I thought it too was great.  It lacked smokiness but was very flavorful, having arrived well sauced from the kitchen.

Having tried many bbq restaurants over the years (and enjoyed most all of them), I love the approach that the Pig is taking.  I’m excited to go back and try more of their menu.