Thursday, September 2, 2010

Barbecue road trip, Part I: Keaton's



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.



20 comments:

Anonymous said...

This review didn't really leave me with a strong desire to "make the journey". Maybe that was the point? Can't imagine slightly spicy chewy chicken skin (which seems to be the only selling point) is worth the drive. um...I'll pass.

Looking forward to the next destination.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely delicious, and well worth the trip. If you like dives, and chicken, you'll love this place. Check out roadfood.com, they have a really good review with pictures.

Anonymous said...

Been there "many" times and the skin on that chicken is GOOD. A little crispy. Hard to explain. But good whichever you want to call it.

Order the hot, not the mild. You can get it either way, but the hot isn't that hot. Did I say good??

You know, if you're the nit-picky type that's looking for something to complain about, stay home! There'll be that much more room for those of us that appreciate, did I say good, chicken.

Fancy it aint! Good it is! Did I say cold long necks too??

Well worth the trip........

Dubious said...

I agree with the first post. Although I have heard many good things about Keaton's, this review removes much of my desire to try it out.

Kathleen Purvis said...

I didn't mean to damn the place with faint praise. I've loved all my trips to Keaton's. But it isn't for everybody, and I think it's fair to reflect that.

Anonymous said...

Is this Buster's place?

Anonymous said...

Or Diane's?

Anonymous said...

Maybe Michael's?

Anonymous said...

As Burt Reynolds once said, "Watch out for the short haired kid with the white eyes."

Willie said...

Geesh, Kathleen gives a great review of the place - what's good and what's not. The whiners can stay home. I'll be making the trek. Thanks for telling us about them.

Kevin A. Leitch said...

We called up there last week, double checked closing time... drove from Charlotte (over 1 hrs to get there during the week in the evening). We got there 30 minutes before closing and they said they were not making more chicken for the evening.

Absolutely terrible experience. I couldn't believe it. We ended up driving to Ronni's in Clemmons for some classic wings at a favorite dive.

Anonymous said...

This is the poorest excuse for a restaurant review that I have ever read.

Anonymous said...

Disappointing and misleading story...Kathleen, you're slipping. The title was about a BBQ road trip but the story wasn't and you ended up eating mediocre sounding fried chicken.

Anonymous said...

Like the lady said "it ain't for everybody." But then again, the same could be said for lots of places.

So it boils down to one thing. If you like good chicken. Yes good, not mediocre as someone here claimed. If you like good chicken that's different, then by all means go.

Don't be unduly influenced by some of the naysayers here. Try it first. Go with an open mind. Don't expect your normal "big city" restaurant, because it's not. But do expect good chicken that's not like what you've probably had before if you've never been to Keaton's. If you like bland, fast-good, KFC type chicken and nothing else don't waste your time. Because bland it's not.

The service is good enough. If you go up there expecting them to kiss your feet and act like you're the second coming the moment you walk through the door, then don't waste your time. But they are respectful, reasonably prompt, and courteous.

Don't go up there at, or near, closing time and expect a big batch of chicken to be waiting on you. It's probably not going to happen. Folks, this is NOT fast food chicken. It's not made quickly.

Eat in, there's plenty of paper towels on the tables. This chicken is "messy", but good messy.

I know there is nothing that can be said to some of you that are dead set against this place, but if you are the least bit adventurous, open-minded, and love good chicken in an atmosphere that's old time, down home, and a tad funky then go. To not go would be to deprive yourself of a great experience.

They sure must be doing something right. They've been in business for a long time and still ticking.

sam said...

I have always found the chicken to be moist, and the flavor is exceptional. The owners have been courteous as well. The "community seating" in the dining room allows one to chat with the other patrons, which I find fun and educational. Most of them eat there regularly, and a few buy chicken to freeze and eat during periods when the restaurant is closed.

Anonymous said...

Why drive all the way to Cleveland NC for fried chicken when we have the best fried chicken in NC right here in Charlotte at The Coop. I read this story again and I really don't see the point.

Anonymous said...

You are definitely no David Cecelski so maybe you should leave the road trip writing to the pro and stick with the desk job.

Anonymous said...

OMG--I grew up near there...and have never eaten the chicken . I am 59 years old and always get the Bar -B- Que . I live in the eastern part of the state now ,but if you were brought up in Woodleaf ,going to Keaton's is definitely'' homecoming'' for many of us . Great food ...Especially eaten with sweet tea or Cheerwine !!!

Anonymous said...

Price's Chicken Coop chicken is GOOD, but it's not the same kind of chicken. Price's chicken is more the old homestyle rolled in flour and fried kind of chicken.

Keaton's is "fried", but not like that. And at some point in the process, Keaton's chicken is dipped in a seasoned sauce and served that way.

Alike in that both are "chicken", but that's where the similarity ends. Two entirely different things. Therefore, there is NO comparison and there shouldn't be. Both are champions in their respective rights.

Kathleen Purvis said...

Thanks, Anon 1:37. They call it barbecue chicken on the Web site (which is why I included it in a barbecue roundup - it's definitely made with a barbecue sauce). Most descriptions are that the chicken is fried and then dipped in a vat of hot sauce. But I've also gotten different answers from people behind the counter when I've asked how it's made, and they run a continous loop of a video that looks like it also includes a grill. So I guess that would make the category "fried barbecue-dipped maybe-grilled chicken."