Skylight Inn | Whole Hog BBQ At Its Best | Ayden, NC

Review by: Michael Stern

Sauce Doesn’t Matter

“Granddaddy always said, ‘Sauce has absolutely nothing to do with making good barbecue,'” Samuel Jones tells you. He means Pete Jones, who started the Skylight Inn back in 1947. We know of no other place that practices the ritual of North Carolina whole hog BBQ so perfectly.

How To BBQ a Hog

It starts late in the afternoon, when the pitmaster burns oak wood logs until they turn to charcoal. The pit men push the coals from the chimney into the adjoining pit. They array halved hogs on a grate above the heat. At midnight, then again at dawn, they add more coals. They have no thermometers. To check doneness, they feel the meat.

At the Chopping Block

By 9am, the meat has turned tender, ready for the chopping block. You can see the block behind the counter of the restaurant. Here stands pitmaster James Howell with a cleaver in each hand. He starts hacking up the meat. Periodically, he puts the blades down to reach back for a bottle of vinegar or Texas hot sauce to splash on the meat. Salt and pepper come straight from the carton. No measuring. No secret ingredients.

Once he gets a heap of meat that is properly chopped and moist, Mr. Howell uses both cleavers to shovel it forward through the window onto an adjoining butcher block in the preparation area towards the counter. Here servers assemble trays and sandwiches. The servers add cole slaw to sandwiches and wrap them in wax paper. They top trays full of meat with a square of unrisen corn bread.

The Joy of Whole Hog BBQ

Don’t look for anything else on the menu except for chicken. The goodness of this pork demands full attention. Its union with smoke creates a soft elegance. Vinegar and hot sauce modestly abet it, but in no way overwhelm it. Being whole hog BBQ, it delivers textural excitement. Along with veal-soft shreds from the interior of the flesh you will chomp into chewy strips from the outside as well as shockingly crunchy nuggets of skin. The cooked skin is insanely succulent. Its firmness gives this meat edible drama that is lacking in barbecue made only from upscale hams or shoulders. Nothing could be better. In a column we wrote about the Skylight in for Gourmet Magazine in 2008, we declared it “the benchmark of BBQ.”


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