Saturday, 19 July 2014

Wilber’s Barbeque

Pork and fried chicken combo at Wilber's Barbeque
For some reason our GPS did not find the exact address for Wilber’s Barbeque. Given how popular the place is, I was a bit surprised; I was even more surprised when we pulled into the parking lot as, not surprisingly, it was packed. Wilber’s is right off the highway, identified with a simple red non-descript sign saying "Wilber’s Barbeque”. As were about to find it, "Wilber" was all that sign needed to say.

Inside, we sat near the front door, take away counter and the two cashier lines. Directly behind me was a large pan of fried chicken ready to be collected; I have not yet had fried chicken my extremely clogged heart started to pump a little harder.
I really appreciate a place that has both sweetened and unsweetened iced tea. The sweet tea can be diabetes inducing, something I don’t need to add to my high cholesterol and gout. Two half-and-half for wifey and I.

I migrated from the pork sandwich today as the pork and fried chicken combo plate just made sense. Accompanied by the requisite slaw, hush puppies and potato salad of course. Wifey ordered her fifth fish sandwich in as many days, also with slaw.

With Wilber Shirley of Wilber's Barbecue
With Wilber Shirley
When the food came, I saw Wilber standing just behind our table. I knew it was Wilber because he was wearing a shirt with the Wilber’s Barbeque logo embroidered on his left shoulder and his employee name, Wilber, on the right shoulder. Like a groupie, I leapt out of my chair to meet this great man, who proceeded to give us an inordinate amount of his time to talk about his story, which was fascinating. To paraphrase: start a business in your early 30s after 11 years at another place (and a tour of duty in The Korean War) and work every day for 52 years. Proceed to beating the trousers off of everyone else. Mission accomplished.

Wilber’s hush puppies were a perfect specimen. Hot, crispy, hand dipped and not sweet. Pretty much tied with Lexington for perfection. Wifey and I devoured a basket so quickly Wilber had another basket sent over in about five seconds. We were enjoying the pepper vinegar sauce that was on the table when Wilber walked over and had us try his special sauce. It was excellent. For those of you will never make it to Wilber’s, the sauce can be purchased by the case online.

Wifey’s fish platter was two large flounder filets that looked incredibly fresh and simply floured, seasoned and fried. The slaw was, again, vinegar and mayo based sauce. But the cabbage was of such good quality that there were dark green specks from the dark, rich outer leafs of the cabbage that really gave this slaw some depth. Excellent.

The pork and chicken plate was exceptional. Like that of Allen & Son, the chopped pork was rich in flavor, a light wood flavor (all oak) a nice mix of different pork cuts (whole hog) and a healthy amount of seasoning from Wilbur’s pork sauce. I am not sure if it was his bottled sauce but it was abundant and excellent.

Dennis Monk of Wilber's Barbecue
Dennis Monk of Wilber's Barbecue
My first fried chicken of the trip was pretty nice and simple. A thin coating, not greasy, all dark meat. Nice, though they could have used a bit more seasoning. And those are the only non-glowing words about Wilbur that will ever pass these lips. I was so full I barely touched the potato salad, which was a bit sweet for my taste. But given the secret ingredient that were told, I understand why. Some like it sweet that is fine, just not for me.

After lunch, Wilber showed us his scrapbook and other memorabilia about his life and his restaurant. For an 85 year-old (does not look a day over 60), he is as sharp as a tack, loves what he does and is a true ambassador of North Carolina BBQ. After a few pictures, handshakes and a few goodies to take home, we parted ways with Wilbur as he handed us over to his son-in-law, Dennis Monk, who took us out back for a tour of the pit operation.

Dennis, wearing a very cool Wilber’s BBQ t-shirt (also available on the website, in multiple colors) started the tour with the fire pile. The fire pile is burning 24/7/365. It is outdoors. It is uncovered. It is a pile of wood, fire and ashes that power the cooking pits. When it rains, corrugated steel is draped over the tinders to keep them going. Apparently the fire does occasionally die but is quickly restarted as to not upset the pit master, or worse, Wilber.

In the pit at Wilber's Barbecue
In the pit at Wilber's Barbecue
The pit house is the same as it was when it was built 52 years ago. There have been repairs but the integrity of the original pit remains. Two long corridors run along the two walls inside the pit house, made of brick and what looked like railroad ties. Iron rods connect the two long rows of bricks and ties that run the entire length of the house. Hogs, split in half, lie on the rods and are covered with more corrugated steel. The pit is open underneath and the pit master adds fresh, hot oak ashes as he sees fit. There are no controls, no temperature gauges, no timers, no clocks. Put the pigs on after sun down, take them off some time after sun up. Stagger the pigs such that there are freshly cooked pigs available all day. Make sure the pit house does not burn down. Finish the day with little pork remaining, don’t run out before closing time, start again tomorrow.

Wilber, the man and the BBQ restaurant, is a class act through and through. So much that we are ending the North Carolina leg of our journey one day early, as we see no real reason to further our education of North Carolina BBQ. We have had the best, met some wonderful people, ate like kings, learnt some trade secrets (which we intend to keep!) and have had some amazing food that we will humbly try to replicate back in London. Next stop: Nashville, Tennessee!!

Wilber’s Barbeque
4172 U.S. Highway 70 East
Goldsboro, N.C. 27534
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 6:00am - 9:00pm; Sunday, 7:00am - 9:00pm
Phone: (919) 778-5218

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