“Granddaddy always said, ‘Sauce has absolutely nothing to do with making good barbecue,'” Samuel Jones is happy to tell you, referring to Pete Jones, who started the Skylight Inn back in 1947. We know of no other place that practices the ritual of North Carolina barbecue so perfectly. It starts late in the afternoon, when the pitmaster burns oak wood logs until they turn to charcoal. The coals are pushed from the chimney into the adjoining pit, where halved hogs are arrayed on a grate above the heat. At midnight, then again at dawn, more coals are moved to the pit. There are no thermometers at the Skylight Inn. Doneness is checked by feel.
At 9am, the meat is fully tender and ready for the chopping block, which you can see behind the counter of the restaurant. Here stands James Howell with a cleaver in each hand. He starts hacking up the meat. Periodically, he puts the blades down and reaches back for a bottle of vinegar or Texas hot sauce to splash onto the pork and he shakes on salt and pepper straight from the carton. Nothing is measured out and there are no secret ingredients. When he’s got a moist, steaming heap of five or six pounds that are the texture of coarse hash, he 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. Sandwiches, which include cole slaw, are wrapped in wax paper. Trays full of meat are topped with a square of unrisen corn bread.
There is nothing else on the menu, but that’s fine, because the goodness of this pork demands full attention. Its union with smoke creates a soft elegance that is abetted but not the least bit overwhelmed by the vinegar and hot sauce. What’s most striking is its texture. Along with veal-soft shreds from the interior of the flesh are chewy strips from the outside as well as shockingly crunchy nuggets of skin. The cooked skin is insanely succulent and its firmness gives this meat edible drama that is lacking in barbecue made only from upscale hams or shoulders. This just might be the best barbecue there is.