Taking a trip to Keaton's BBQ in Cleveland, N.C., outside Statesville, isn't really about the food. It's about the journey.
There's figuring out a way to get out of the office and play hookey at a time that actually matches their hours. (The hours change by season or whim, so after you check the Web site, keatonsoriginalbbq.com, it's still a good idea to call 704-278-1619 just to make sure.) There's the 30-minute run up I-77 to I-40 to U.S. 64. There's the drive down long, winding Woodleaf Road, past the farms and corn fields until you cross into Rowan County, head into the trees and finally spot the place.
There's the look on the face of whichever first-timer you're taking along when they first see the rusted sign stretching along the roof, the hand-scrawled notes on the windows and doors. Maybe they look with trepidation, or hesitation. If they look with a big smile, you have the satisfaction of knowing you picked the right traveling companion.
I made my fourth or fifth visit to Keaton's last week, by myself this time. Not much has changed. "No smoking" signs have replaced the old "no guns" sign, which is cheering. There's still the portrait of founder B.W. Keaton by the front door inside, big smile and cigarette dangling from his mouth, long ash eternally caught by the camera just before it falls.
The counter service is just as chaotic and confusing. The side dishes are just as negligible. I've been enough times to know to stick with baked beans and the crusty-on-top mac & cheese and avoid the potato salad. They have pork barbecue, I've heard. But I never get around to trying it.
The real star of the menu is just the same: Half-chicken fried, dipped in sauce and grilled. The meat inside is a little dry, but the skin is the point, peppery and just a little chewy.
Maybe it's not the food. Maybe it is the journey.
Keaton's Barbecue, 17365 Cool Springs Road, Cleveland, N.C.