Review of Keaton’s Barbeque – Cleveland, N.C.

Keaton’s Barbeque – 17365 Cool Springs Rd, Cleveland, N.C. 27013 – (704) 278-1619

 3/25/2011

Driving home to Raleigh last Friday from a work assignment in the Charlotte area, I was getting hungry, (ok, I’m always hungry) and, seeing highway signs for Lexington, N.C., the widely acknowledged BBQ Mecca of N.C., I started searching the GPS for nearby barbeque restaurants. (ain’t technology great?) I quickly  found a place called Keaton’s Barbeque in nearby Cleveland.  About four miles off of Interstate 40, perched among the bucolic, rolling hills of central North Carolina, Cleveland sits between Charlotte, about an hour south, and Winston-Salem, about an hour east. Pulling off of exit 162 and heading west on Highway 64, past the newly green rolling hills, ancient barns and barley fields of Rowan County, those towns (any town for that matter) seemed light years away. I seemed to be lost in a Jim Harrison painting.

A little over two miles after turning left onto Woodleaf Rd, I came to Keaton’s on the right . Keaton’s is one of those low-slung, Mid-century, cinderblock buildings that dot the landscape of the rural South – a monument to understatement which, in another life, could have just as easily been a motorcycle bar – the kind of place that may have seen a knife fight or two in its time and few million empty beer bottles. Pulling into the parking lot to the familiar and somehow distinctly Southern sound of gravel crunching under car tires, I expected to hear Hank Williams or Muddy Waters playing on the radio when I walked inside and was disappointed to hear something modern and synthesized instead. The music didn’t fit.

"Voted Best by Taste Test" - Keaton's BBQ

According to Keaton’s website, Mr Burette Walker Keaton (“BW”) founded Keaton’s BBQ on November 12, 1953. The site goes on… “He came up with a barbeque sauce that captures all walks of life. It was then that he gained fame and notoriety by specializing in his savory barbeque chicken… up until his passing in 1989.” Unfortunately, I did not realize until after placing my order that the place specialized in chicken – a fact I uncovered after ordering a pork plate – typically a no brainer in this part of the world. While waiting on my order I sat down and half read a newspaper while taking the place in – it was low-ceilinged, a tad on the dingy side with a staff likely doing just enough cleaning in just the right places to garner the all-important “A” health and safety rating.  I sat and sipped my sweet tea and admired the various framed signs on the walls – “In God We Trust… all others pay cash.” – and other such witticisms. It was a classic Southern roadside BBQ shack (and I use that descriptor with reverence). There were probably ten other people eating already – a few local firefighters and what appeared to be a gathering of office workers. I settled into the rump-worn vinyl booth at my table and thought about all of the people who had come and gone through this place in nearly 60 years – farmers and mayors, pillars of the community and ne’re-do-wells, black people and white, rich people and poor – generations of Clevelanders – and I was suddenly very, very hungry.   

When my number was called I hurriedly picked up my tray and sat back down, ready to dig in. The BBQ was chopped and covered in a tomato-vinegar blended sauce – typical for central, N.C. – which had a nice tang – just enough spice to get your attention. Though I wish I had ordered the chicken, the pork was very good. The coleslaw though may have stolen the show. I’m not typically a big coleslaw fan, but this was not your typical coleslaw. Marinated in what tasted like the same tangy tomato and vinegar blend that graced the pork, the coleslaw was excellent and a nice change from the typical creamy varieties. My other side was macaroni and cheese – nothing Earth-shattering here, but still, good. Hard to mess that up, I suppose. 

All in all, a great barbeque experience, and, like so many of these gems, very much worth the effort of driving a few miles off the interstate to enjoy – it sure beats the heck out the “McFranchises” out by the exit. So if you find yourself in that neck of the woods, make the extra effort and give it a try. (just remember to order the chicken!)

Next review: Red Bridges Barbeque – Shelby, N.C.

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