The Pit – Raleigh, N.C.
328 W. Davie St. Raleigh, N.C. 27617 (919) 890-4500
As anyone who has ever relocated to a new town can tell you, there are certain things you simply must take care of prior to feeling completely at home. Finding a new dentist, for example, or a barber – the old-school kind, with Andy Griffith reruns on the shop television and hot neck shaves. Finding a trusted mechanic, a place to buy guitar strings, the best places to run and bike, etc. Add to that list, for any Southerner at least, finding the best local place for barbeque. Earlier this month Melissa and I finally made it to the much celebrated The Pit in downtown Raleigh.
We went on a Tuesday night – I had heard that weekend seatings were hard to come by – and when we found it in Raleigh’s old warehouse district, I was astonished to discover that they had free valet parking. Which part was more astonishing – the free part or the part about there being valet parking at a Carolina barbeque joint to begin with – I cannot tell you. We dropped the car off with the exuberantly polite valet guys and, with heightened curiosity, walked inside.
The interior is thoroughly impressive. A converted 1930’s-era meat packing warehouse, the owners have done a wonderful job in creating a first rate atmosphere while maintaining the industrial soul of the building. Exposed, rough-hewn beams, high ceilings and a palpable sense that you are in a building that has seen eighty years of sweat and toil and living left me pondering the people who passed through there before I did – people who inhabited a different world, before air-conditioning and television and the relative ease of modern life. The floor, while gleaming and newly refinished, carries reminders of that time in the form of sweat-stained wood, testifying of hard labor through layers of thick varnish, and the deep grooves of heavy machinery moved in and back out again. There is a sense of relief too, as if the boards and nails and timbers somehow know that they have escaped the wrecking ball that unceremoniously dispatched so many of their peers and are enjoying a new and unexpected lease on life. There’s a connectedness in a place like that that somehow adds elements to a meal that are entirely missing in newer buildings.
Still though, The Pit has all of the trappings of a downtown restaurant hoping to capture the young professional crowd. There is a large and extensively stocked bar, specializing in bourbon (God bless them). The modern lighting, while nicely – professionally – done, reminded me not to be suckered in by this place. This is not a real barbeque restaurant, I kept thinking to myself. With its polished maple décor and impressive wine selection, The Pit could have just as easily been a high-end fusion restaurant. It certainly didn’t resemble any barbeque place I had ever encountered. This was a “nice” restaurant for sure, but seemed to be one of those places that gives passing tribute to pulled pork, while focusing more on ambiance and Thursday night jazz trios than anything remotely resembling “craft” in barbeque. It would be easy, upon entering The Pit, for one to assume those things. But you’d be wrong. Very, very wrong.
The Pit delivers in a big way. This, thanks to legendary Eastern North Carolina pit master Ed Mitchell, who, after years of running his own venture in Wilson, N.C. was recruited to The Pit by executive chef Ryan Jacobson and co-owner Greg Hatum in 2007. Some years ago Mitchell embraced the philosophy of cooking only free-range raised hogs rather than the factory farm-raised variety so prevalent in Eastern N.C. These hogs are raised to be succulent, not lean, and the resulting difference in taste “…knocked me down”, Mitchell has said about his first taste of it back in 2003. After a visit to the Pit, I can understand why.
Melissa and I placed our orders and chatted while we waited, taking in the atmosphere and enjoying our night on the town. I knew even before arriving that I would order the chopped pork, but had also heard great things about the fried chicken so I ordered that as well. Melissa went with the chopped turkey. There were a number of sides from which to choose – I went with cheesy bacon grits (because there is no more perfect triumvirate of words in the English language than “cheesy bacon grits”) and black eyed peas. Melissa also had the black eyed peas, in addition to collard greens. Though I had heard wonderful things about the Pumpkin cornbread appetizer, we held back as hush puppies and biscuits (with the most wonderful sweet butter) came with the meal. Though beer was tempting, it tends to be filling and I didn’t want to waste any stomach space on carbonation and liquid calories this particular night. We ordered iced tea instead – Melissa had it unsweetened (she is a native Wisconsinite and I have yet to convert her to the sweet stuff) while I ordered “half & half”, which was perfectly done – just sweet enough.
And then the main event began. The pork was excellent – moist and perfectly seasoned in that classic Eastern N.C. vinegar sauce. Wonderful as it was though, the fried chicken and chopped turkey stole the show. The fried chicken was as good, maybe better than I’ve ever had. It was a breast – perfectly battered, crispy outside, tender and juicy inside. I had not had fried chicken in some time and it was all I could do to keep from moaning with pleasure while devouring it. It’s a small wonder I didn’t bite off a finger in the process. Melissa’s chopped turkey was even better than the pork. The vinegar flavor exploded off of the fork with each bite. I had never tasted turkey done quite that way – it was spectacular. As a testament to how great the meal was, the side items seemed to fade into the background, playing subtle supporting roles – gastric bookends of sorts to the weighty volumes of our main courses. The grits and collards were very good – the black eyed peas could have used a tad more seasoning – possibly some white vinegar to enhance their flavor. All in all though, it was a superb meal – a barbeque tour de force and a vivid testament to the Devine culinary gifts of Ed Mitchell.
Against our better judgment we took the suggestion of our server, Robyn, and ordered the banana pudding for desert along with coffee. The pudding was warm and thick and wonderfully done, and as with everything else, generously portioned. Partly because were so full and partly because we were so enjoying the experience, we took our time with the dessert, sipping coffee and talking about our meal. We were very happy.
Not quite an hour after arriving, we waddled back out the door, as I suspect many others have, understanding that no matter how polished and urbane the place might be, when it comes to authentic Eastern North Carolina barbeque, The Pit is the real deal. Don’t let the valet parking fool you.