Shortly after my afternoon contest up the road at Duke, I speed out of Durham and make my way down the road towards Chapel Hill. I’ve got a night game at North Carolina to attend to, but before I head into Tarheel country I’ve got an appetite for barbecue. Fortunately, one of the holy shrines of North Carolina BBQ occupies a dusty stretch of County Road 86 on the way into town and my little Hyundai rental car begrudgingly obliged when I yanked the emergency brake, skidding into the gravel parking lot in a heap of dust.
Founded in 1970, Allen & Son BBQ is a member of the BBQ royal family in North Carolina, a state that claims to have invented the practice of barbecue. Tucked off a side road under the shade of a few massive oaks, the clapboard shack is every bit the icon of a ramshackle country BBQ stand. A faded Pepsi sign hangs off a rusty pole to the side, the words “Allen & Son” barely legible from years of hot southern sun. Inside, an impressive collection of deer mounts hang from the walls, and the waitress quickly greets me with a pitcher of ice cold sweet tea, setting the ice cold mug down on the green and white checkered table cloths. If you had to paint a picture of the perfect southern barbecue setting, Allen & Son would be exactly what you’d aspire to.
Until your food arrives.
I should have been tipped off when the aroma of smoke was decidedly absent from the whole joint and they didn’t offer any kind of sample or combo plate, instead forcing me to order two full entrees of chopped pork and ribs each. From living in the shadow of Chapel Hill for a summer, I order my pork with a generous helping of “outside brown” the delightful crusty, flavorful bits forged after hours in the smoker. But when the cheerful waitress sets my food down, dismay quickly settles in at what sits before me. The ribs, if you can still distinguish them as such, are an overcooked pile of mush on a plate, heavily doused in sauce thats a not to distant cousin of ketchup. The chopped pork fares no better. The “outside brown” are inedible chunks of crust that taste as though charred on a grill, absent any of the sweet hickory smoke found in the Carolina style. I dig through into a few of the moister morsel of pork below, but even those taste straight out of a crock pot, nary a hint of smoke to be found anywhere. Adding insult to my already emotionally scarred taste buds, the check comes in at a hefty thirty bucks, no small price for one of the bigger disappointments I’ve ever encountered.
Readers familiar with the blog know that I normally do my best to put a positive spin on just about any BBQ experience, but in the case of Allen & Son, order no further than the hush puppies.
Dejected from the meal, I peel out of the gravel parking lot and cruise the final few minutes into downtown Chapel Hill, determined to take my frustrations out haggling with an unwitting scalper. I find free parking on a small side street, bypassing the pricey garages along Franklin Street -the main artery of the North Carolina campus. Lined with ample bars and restaurants, the sidewalks are alive with game day revelers who slowly start spilling out of the pubs along Franklin on their way towards Kenan Memorial Stadium. I fall into the throngs of Carolina Blue shirts heading that direction, stopping every block or so to price the market from the scalpers located at each main intersection, and the market looks to be about half face value for the evening.
On the way towards Kenan, I detour off the street and bisect the North Carolina campus, walking through winding paths in the lush grass shaded by a canopy of oaks hanging overhead. I take a sip at the “Old Well” along the way, the icon of UNC. A neoclassical rotunda in the center of campus, the Old Well was once the primary water source for the university at the turn of the 20th century, while today it’s primarily a photo op for campus visitors and the emblematic symbol of the school. A few feet further down the brick path, the North Carolina marching band belts out brassy, pre game notes on the steps of the Wilson Library, while hundreds of Carolina Blue clad faithful look on. It’s here I finally strike a bargain on a ticket, a choice fifty yard line seat only six rows from the field for twenty five dollars – about half face value. Further proof that one need never pay sticker price for a ticket to all but the biggest games…
As the sun starts to dip, I pass by the Morehead Patterson Bell Tower jutting into the few remaining minutes of a Carolina blue sky. Rising 172 feet at it’s peak, the brick tower is surrounded by a formal arrangement of hedges and lawn, a few official UNC hospitality tents spread out on the prime real estate below. Entering Kenan Memorial a few feet away, a black and white picture of famed football alum Lawrence Taylor greets me at the entrance, and I wind around the sprawling concourse towards my section. Descending into the aluminum bench seats, it’s quickly evident that with the sight lines at Kenan being this close to the field is more curse than blessing. The lowest rows of seating sit lower than the playing surface, and I crane to peer over the players during warmups. The crown of the field, coupled with the players standing on the edge of it, make it nearly impossible to see the action.
But the action that follows is fantastic, and I settle into a second barn burner of the day. For four quarters, the two ACC foes battle it out, trading the lead six times over the course of the game. One one side, the Georgia Tech option attack grinds the North Carolina defense into the pink accented bermuda grass (in honor of breast cancer awareness night). The Yellow Jackets rack up 376 yards of rushing in the process, a relentless attack that finally pays dividends late in the fourth quarter when tailback Deandre Smelter breaks a 75 yard run to take the lead. The gritty Yellow Jackets play tough, physical football for all four quarters.
But the Tarheels have an answer each time. Dual threat quarterback Marquise Williams leads the charge, using his athleticism to fire four touchdowns on the night and rush for another. HIs final drive, however, proves the capstone on his huge night. He marches the Heels down the field on a 12 play, 75 yard drive, completing 6 of 7 passes while chewing the remaining three minutes off the clock. Finally, with nine ticks left on the clock, Carolina tailback T.J. Logan punches in the game winning touchdown on a two yard run and the heels walk away with an electric 48-43 win.
Between the barnburner at Duke, and the last minute touchdown drive at North Carolina, I definitely got my moneys worth of football on this Saturday. Exhausted from the full day of pigskin, I muster the energy to trot over to the Top of the Hill pub on bustling Franklin Street – there’s still time to catch the second half of the epic Florida State vs Notre Dame game – if my heart can still take the excitement…
Full gallery below: