Friday, April 30, 2010

'Cue checks: Old Hickory House

I was long overdue for a return visit to Old Hickory House, 6538 N. Tryon St. But that's the great thing about the House -- you could have stepped in pretty much anytime in the five decades since it opened in 1957 and it wouldn't have changed. Same Old West theme, same gunslinger decor and those so-cool covered-wagon wall sconces over each booth.

When barbecue tourists ask me about the Old Hickory, it's hard to form an answer. I'm not damning it with faint praise when I hesitate. It's just that it's hard to figure out where it fits in the barbecue pantheon. It has chopped pork, but it isn't strictly traditional N.C. barbecue. It has brisket, but it isn't Texan. (One of the menu options is chopped brisket -- and can't you imagine the howling all the way from San Anton' over that?)

Even the theme isn't really an answer. It's not Western, not even Western N.C. It's like the owners climbed in one of those Conestoga lamps and wondered off on a trail all their own, settling in a land where the food is pretty good and the people are always friendly. At lunch on a Friday, the male to female ratio was more than 2:1, which is as good a description as any.

And the food is pretty good. The ribs are a little chewy and a little smoky, the minced pork isn't too dry or too wet, the chopped brisket isn't too chewy or too smoky. (Although the only way I could distinguish the beef from the pork on my combo plate was by asking the waitress. "It's the darker one," she said. Sorry, Conestogas aren't known for their light-emitting qualities.)

The Brunswick stew is a mild version, not too peppery, with lots of crunchy bits of corn.
The hardest thing to describe is the Old Hickory House sauce. Saying it's tomatoey doesn't mean it's like Lexington sauce, with vinegar cut by a little tomato. No, this is very tomato-based and sort of thick, with no detectable vinegar. That alone cuts it from the Carolinas herd. In fact, I could swear I tasted a little lemon along with the bits of onion.

The funny thing is that despite the haze of hickory smoke over the parking light and the open pit in the dining room -- complete with longhorn steer horns and that "Hawg Heaven" sign -- the meat isn't overwhelmingly smoky. Like so much Carolina barbecue, it's all about the low and slow cooking, not the taste of wood.

Maybe Old Hickory House is the Gary Cooper of Carolina barbecue: Quiet, reliable and ready to be there for you.


Anonymous said...

I've been going there since 1969. It's beautiful, that all that needs to be said.

Arcola Tisdale said...

Let's see - the past month you've brought us tired and recycled musings on friend chicken, tomato sandwiches, banana pudding, mint juleps, and barbecue. Can you write about grits, Brunswick stew, pimento cheese, moon pies and RC Cola for your next few blog entries? You don't devote nearly enough time and space in your blog exploring the edible delights of the South.

CJ said...

Arcola, you do realize that Charlotte is IN the South, right? It doesn't seem like you have a good grasp of geography, so I just thought I'd help you out.