We land in Atlanta late at night after a very nice BA flight and quickly pick up our hire car. It’s now 10:30 pm, so we head off straight away out of Atlanta and into the highlands. Apart from taking one wrong turning, we kick on. We are staying with good friends and finally arrive at 1:30 in the morning and get to bed.
The next day our big tour starts by getting up late and drinking many cups of frothy cappuccino. Brunch was at a friends grocery store, not your normal grocery store. This is a brilliant place which now boasts, full bakery and pizza oven, and there is an excellent selection of wines and great beef and fish. Coffee/lunch bar in the centre of the store plus it also has a full restaurant service, a great place to stop off if you want something relaxed.
Lunch at TJ’s consisted of a great ‘patty’ burger and delicious fried chicken with some lovely fries. We finish off with good coffee and a great selection of ice creams. I really like this place!
The next day our big tour starts by getting up late and drinking many cups of frothy cappuccino. Brunch was at a friends grocery store, not your normal grocery store. This is a brilliant place which now boasts, full bakery and pizza oven. There is an outstanding selection of wines and great beef and fish. Coffee/lunch bar in the centre of the store plus it also has a full restaurant service, a great place to stop off if you want something relaxed.
Lunch at TJ’s consisted of a great ‘patty’ burger and delicious fried chicken with some lovely fries. We finish off with good coffee and a great selection of ice creams. I really like this place!Mountain Fresh Grocery 521 Main St, Highlands, NC Tel: US-828-526-2400
Old Edwards Inn
Dinner that evening was at the Old Edwards Inn. This is probably one of the best hotels in the whole of North Carolina. It has a fabulous reputation and full 5 Diamond rating, plus its full member of Relais Chateau (a sort of elite club of the world’s best places) if that’s your sort of thing.
We eat in the Wine Garden Restaurant, a small, pretty restaurant outside by a small stream. Due to the unusually dry and warm weather, we are fortunate to be eating outside, and it’s charming.
We start with homemade charcuterie and a huge 16oz rib-eye steak that comes with no veg, potatoes or salad. It’s incredibly tender, juicy and delicious. The staff are charming and attentive.
Old Edwards Inn 445 Main St, Highlands, NC 28741 Tel: US-866-526-8008
The next day we head off to Asheville to eat lunch at one of the new kids on the block.
Buxton Hall “Whole Hog Barbecue- cooked slow and low over wood.’
Lunch at Buxton Hall was very good. We feast on a bar-b-q plate, slaw, rice, beans, ribs, pulled pork, pickles and hash gravy (new one on me its’ all the left-over bits, made into a luscious, deep flavoured unctuous thick sauce come stew) Slaw in this part of NC is just cabbage, mayo and chilli flakes, no carrot or onion. It’s a cool place, modern, quite trendy, open-plan—great food, full of flavour and really pushing the modern bbq theme.
Buxton Hall 32 Banks Ave, South Slope, Asheville NC Tel: US-828-232-7216, Web: www.buxtonhall.com
That night we stay at Fearrington house just outside Pittsboro, NC. Dinner was going to be fried chicken wings, deep-fried Brussel sprouts and ribs. We eat in the modern bar/brasserie that used to be a shop, and it’s very smart. This is technically faultless cooking from Colin Bedford, my young chef I trained in the mid-’90s.
Ribs perfectly cooked with a deep and succulent flavour, all perfect, spot-on cooking. Wings, soft and not greasy, again cooked perfectly. Deep-fried sprouts are a bit of a revelation. He cuts sprouts in half lengthways, immerses them in iced water, and leaves them in the fridge overnight. The next day, drain really well, then deep fry in hot oil in small batches until cooked and lightly browned. Serve with a dip, possibly a blue cheese one or just on their own, with a little sea salt. They are really, really good.
My breakfast the next day was delicious, shrimp and grits, good flavour and nicely cooked. Simon’s fried breakfast, however, wasn’t on the mark. Sour sausages and bacon were not good, and all a bit lukewarm. Strange really, as they were the only people having breakfast at the time.
Colin shows us his new piece of kit, a pressurised deep fryer. There is nothing really new in that (KFC have used them for years), but now you can buy them for home or semi-professional use. He demonstrates it to us, cooking 14 buttermilk marinated chicken thighs in 15 minutes from scratch. The difference is incredible, soft, crisp, perfectly cooked and not greasy at all. Simon is so impressed; he orders one for his business that day, and by the time he’s home, it will be there!!!
Fearrington House 2000 Fearrington Village Center, Pittsboro, NC 27312 Tel: US-919-542-2121
Allen & Sons
It’s weird; I have been visiting Fearrington for 25 years but never set foot in this place. Strange when it is slap-bang next to the village.
This is real East North Carolina bbq, simple and straight to the point in this no-fuss restaurant. There are very few dishes to choose from. Long slow smoked pork or ribs are the real deal here. It’s served on prison-style, portioned plates. Proper, and I mean by that long slow smoked pork is served with slaw, again just cabbage and vinegar dressing and hush puppies. Beans and fries are extra in this part of NC. It’s simple and thoroughly delicious. Simon Sweet tea is the preferred drink here, not my favourite. On the whole a very, very nice lunch.
After lunch, we had a guided tour around the smokery and the full family history. The original pits are still there, blackened over many years of smoking. Modern kit has taken over some of the processes, but the same basic principles are still adhered to very strictly.
Allen & Son Barbeque 6203 Millhouse Road, Chapel Hill NC Tel: US-919 942-7576
Our road trip took us back to Asheville for the night, halfway to our next stop Nashville. This time lunch was at the well-known and respected 12 Bones Bar B Q in the downtown art district by the river. We had left early from Fearrington and got to Asheville by 12 noon. The day was bright and sunny and really hot for September. Even at this time, the car park was packed, and the queue was out of the door. This is a serious joint, making everything from scratch. The place is only open from 11-4 daily and closed at the weekends. This was Simon’s favourite place of the whole 2,500-mile journey. We both had ribs. Mine finished with brown sugar Simon’s with their famous blueberry chipotle glaze. The ribs come with cornbread and 2 sides. I have collard greens and smoked potato salad; I can’t remember what Si had. I think it was baked beans. Brisket also features well at this restaurant along with the smoked turkey. You can even buy all the red meats, chicken or turkey by the pound!
It was interesting to see the slight difference in style of bar b q from just 5 hours down the road. First, the straightforward plain style of eastern NC, of no-frills like rib or pulled pork glazes and basic ‘slaw’ Then once in Asheville you tend to have more glazed ribs and certainly brisket of central NC. One chap we spoke to even said that once you get over the Appellations into Tennessee its changes again. Fierce arguments are waged over what is and isn’t seen as a correct way to cook bar b q. Well, whatever your preferred choice, you get a bloody good feed here. Just make sure you get here early.12 Bones Smokehouse, 5 Riverside Drive, Asheville NC 28801 Tel: US-828.253.4499 Web: www.12BONES.com
I love the chain Cracker Barrel; this simple southern food outlet is everywhere from North Carolina to New Orleans. Fried chicken, mash and collard greens, all spot on. Simon hated it. In fact, we only had breakfast on this trip.
…Next stop Nashville.
After a fantastic drive through the Appellation mountains, we finally get to Nashville, and it’s hot, scorching. We were going to see some old friends of mine, Debbie and Blye, for a few days. So, they were primed that we had to eat bar b q, fried chicken and brisket. Plus, a good look around this famous music town.
Martin’s Bar B Q Joint
The first port of call was Martin’s. This is bar b q on a grand scale, with 5 outlets plus a catering arm. The one we had lunch in was huge and packed at 12.30 pm. Whole hogs are smoked overnight, so every day, the food is top-notch. The menu is heavily biased towards pulled pork, ribs and brisket, and the portions are huge. Wings and smoked turkey are also big here, something that we didn’t see much of in eastern North Carolina. We had a sampler plate of wings, fries, ribs and brisket. All were fine, the brisket especially as it just oozed fat and juiciness from under the blackened crust. The place was buzzing, but that could be partly due to the fact that the local football team were playing. Wings and brisket were Simon’s favourite I just love the proper smoked pulled pork, such a far cry from the pseudo stuff you get everywhere in the UK now. Real bar-b-q comes from the long slow smoking process and only uses seasoned logs, pretty much only hickory, never gas. Only one observation, I felt this chain, which it essentially is, was very slick and quick, and the food was excellent. However, it somehow lacked the authenticity of, say, Allen & Sons, for instance. Nevertheless, it was still a very nice Saturday lunch with great company.Martins Bar B Q Joint: Downtown 410 4th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37201, Downtown, Nashville, TN Tel: US-615.288.0880 Web: www.martinsbarbq.com
After that lunch, we needed to walk it off, so we set off into town to listen to some great music. The Honky Tonk bars were rammed. We had a great afternoon catching up.
Edley’s Bar B Que
The following Sunday lunch was at Edley’s, relatively new compared to many of the places we have visited already. Again, slick and well run, this place was heaving for lunch. Here, whole hogs are slow-smoked daily using white oak wood (not hickory). It claims to be some of the best bar-b-que this side of Mississippi. Lunch was very good. We feasted on wings, ribs and lots of sides (sides are big here), Smoked beans, salads, fried pickles, okra and lots of nachos. Sandwiches bigger than a whole loaf are also a big seller here.
Edley’s Bar B Q 908 Main Street Nashville 37206 TN Tel: US-615 873 4085 Web: www.edleysbarbq.com
Nashville is very famous for one famous dish, fried hot chicken! No, me neither. Blye and Debbie told me we just had to try it whilst we were in town, so I set about doing a bit of research. Many stories and people are claiming this institution, so I’m a bit confused. I think it started in the 1930s, but I’m also sure that fried chicken has been around for a lot longer than that. Chicken shacks were on most street corners and were very popular. Basically, it is chicken dusted in very hot spices, then floured and fried in lard. Once cooked, it’s then dipped in an equally hot sauce and served in a slice of the cheapest bread you can buy topped with pickled gherkins and slaw. It’s incredibly hot, and I could only manage a few mouthfuls when Brian Jackson (local hot fried chicken champion no less) came by to cook for Simon and me. Now I like fairly hot food, but this was ridiculous; my mouth was on fire. In fact, I could feel my pulse in my temples throbbing. At the same time, Blye cooked us his smoked chicken; he last cooked for me some 20 years ago it was truly stunning. Long slow-smoked over hickory really is the for me the best way.
Our stay in Nashville was great fun, and we had some excellent food. This was not only confined to great bar b q and fried chicken joints but extended to very popular local restaurants also. Debbie and Blye took us to very good neighbourhood favourites. Treehouse and Margot’s were very different from each other but excellent. Simple food just cooked correctly. In fact, I had the best-cooked piece of wild salmon I have ever eaten in Margot’s. In my view, it’s a very tricky thing to cook, mostly due to the fact it’s so lean. Anyway, we had to kick on, and so after a delicious light breakfast, we head off to Memphis.
This was a special diversion to one of the top ten best bar b q places in the whole of the states, the iconic Jim Neely’s Interstate bar b q. This place has been serving the best bar b q in Memphis since 1978 and is still going strong.
After a good 3 hours drive, we finally turn off the interstate and head towards downtown Memphis. It wasn’t what I expected at all. In fact, we were slightly disappointed. We drove straight past it, and then once we turned back, it looked like a shoddy 7-11 store. Finally, we pulled into the vast car park (we were the only ones there). As we opened the car door, we were hit by a gentle waft of wood smoke. We were early, to be fair but were both really hungry, so off we went.
The restaurant is vast and on 2 levels. We are led to the back level and given menus. The restaurant is very basic and really does feel and look like something straight out of the ’70s. I don’t think it has ever changed. Our server is a striking black lady in her late 60’s and is very cool with us until we speak. Then, she warms up and is funny and chatty and was curious why we came all this way to Jim’s from England. She informs us the portions are huge, so be careful. We ordered ribs, wings, beans, mash, bread and fries. The ribs are a huge slab, delicious, tender and smoky but still with a little bit of bite. The wings are gorgeous, and Simon loves them. In fact, I didn’t even get a taste! All washed down with half a gallon, yes, half a gallon of sweet tea or coke.
She was right; our eyes were bigger than our bellies, well, mine certainly, not sure about my portly friend as he polished off all his with ease. Over lunch, we decide to change our trip slightly and head to New Orleans, as Simon had never been. ‘It’s so close’, I tell Simon, well, American close, only 5 hours away. Simon drives, and I snooze, and then we change over about halfway for the run into New Orleans.
In the end, it took 6 and a half hours, as there was a lot of traffic. The sun is setting, and it’s a warm balmy evening as we get close. The last 30 miles or so is on a two way raised carriageway over the swamps. This is ‘gator’ country and reminds me of that programme on Sky about Alligator hunters. You know, the one where you have no idea what they are saying and need subtitles.
We finally get to our hotel, slap bang in the middle of the French Quarter, and have a very needed cold beer.
We head out and, quite by accident, stumble on the Acme Oyster Bar. This is where we had eaten after filming here a few years ago. It’s packed, and we settle down to a large plate of fried and raw oysters. It was quite nice to have a change from bar b q, fried chicken and brisket, if I’m being honest. It was delicious, and all washed down with several welcome glasses of Sauvignon Blanc.
Simon was less convinced but ate it all nevertheless. We wander back to the hotel and settle down for a couple of beers watching the local football team on the telly. Then off to bed.
I woke early and texted Si (he’s always up early), and we decided to head off out to find some breakfast. The morning was bright and sunny, and we headed off downtown, taking pictures. We wander down to view the mighty Mississippi River; it’s spectacular in the early morning light. On the way back to the hotel, we walk past The Palace Café on the main street. I’m not one for eating in touristy places, but to be honest, we were hungry. The restaurant is rather nice, and the staff are charming, and the cappuccino is excellent. We are offered the standard fare from the buffet and, after a quick glance, decide to go off the a la carte. Si chooses The Palace signature dish of crabmeat cheesecake with pecan crust, mushroom sautéd and Creole Meuniere (a deep coloured and flavoured brown roux-based sauce with lemon, butter, Worcestershire sauce and creole seasoning). I know what you are thinking, it was unusual but very, very good indeed. Light, fluffy cheesecake texture with lovely deep crab flavour and a superb, creole dark mushroom sauce. This really is something I am certainly going to work on. I, in turn, had the Gulf shrimp, mushrooms, stone grits and the same Creole base sauce. Its served with a biscuit. Like Simon’s bloody delicious and really filling. After the second round of coffee’s we settle up and go back to the hotel.
The Palace Café 605 Canal St, New Orleans LA 70130 Tel: US1-504-523-166 Web: www.palacecafe.com
We decided that we had seen enough of New Orleans, so we packed our bags, checked out and got on the road to our next destination Houston, Texas. The sat nav reckons 6 hours, so we take it slowly, not even stopping for lunch, just a coffee. The day is scorching, and it really is sweltering when we hit Houston in the late afternoon. We check into our rooms just and unpack.
We were here for a few nights, so rather than bar b q or fried chicken, we thought the best steak bar in town was next on the list. After all, we were in Texas, the spiritual home of beef, lots and lots of beef and Pappas we were told, was the best. So we get a table after a bit of haggling and set off in a cab. As we arrive, the place is buzzing, and we wait in queue for a few minutes so the doorman can open our door. I did feel a bit scruffy in an open-neck shirt and did get a few disapproving looks. The restaurant is huge, with a large open kitchen down one side. There must have been 200 people sat down at once, and the place is at full tilt. We order asparagus, fries (a bit overcooked for me), veal chop, rib-eye steak and the biggest onion rings I have ever seen. The meal was excellent, just way too much to eat; in fact, we couldn’t eat dessert. The meat, I have to say, was outstanding. I did take a couple of photos, not the best, but it gives you a rough idea of the food.
This time we really were stuffed, so we ordered our cab and waddled out absolutely full to the brim.Pappas Bros Steakhouse 1200 McKinney Street, Houston, Texas, TX 77010 Tel: US-713 658-1995 Web: www.pappasbros.com
The next day we do a bit of shopping and wander about downtown Houston and wonder about lunch. We had heard from our driver that the best-fried chicken joint was a place called Punks. So, after a quick look at the website, we set off.
The restaurant is set in a very nice part of town, about a 20-minute ride from downtown and has a lovely feel to it as you walk in. We are greeted by cheery staff and given menus and a really nice local wheat beer.
We start with devilled eggs, pickle chips with buttermilk ranch and pimento cheese dip, served with Ritz (yep) crackers, celery and carrots and hush puppies with spicy remoulade. This really is simple southern food with no frills. The dip is tasty, pickles lovely, and eggs are fine, but the star was the hush puppies.
This place has won the best-fried chicken in Texas 2 years on the trot, so the main course was a no brainer. Crispy fried buttermilk chicken is fried to order and is served with horseradish mash, brown gravy, buttermilk biscuit, honey butter, dill pickle and Punks sauce.
I also have a side of collard greens, which I really like. The chicken is the best I have ever tasted. Soft, succulent non-greasy and fried to perfection in lard, it really is the only way. The mash and sauces are equally as good; biscuits are as light as a feather. I would come here every day if I could; it’s that bloody good. We pay the bill and set off back to the hotel for a lie-down. We needed it!!!
Punks Simple Southern Food 5212 Morningside Dr, Houston, TX 77005, USA Tel: US-713-524-7865 Web: www.punksrealsouthernfood.com
Dinner that evening was in a place I had filmed at a few years ago, Goode Company. Its been here since 1977 and was started by Jim Goode and uncle Joe Dixie. It prides itself on real honest food and reasonable prices in unfussy surroundings. There are now 7 outlets plus a catering arm, and the food is as good (e) get it? As ever.
As we were in Texas, we had to have the blackened brisket smoked low and slow. With a couple of sides, rice and a bean salad plus a little cornbread. The meat was soft and succulent, oozing beef fat and was totally delicious, as good as it was when I visited a few years ago. To be honest, we couldn’t really do it justice as we were stuffed from lunch, but we did try.
Goode Co. BBQ 2 8911 Katy Fwy, Houston, TX 77024 Tel: US-713-464-1901 Web: www.goodecompany.com