Friday, September 11, 2015

Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge: A Tradition Dating to 1946

The sign in front has been a beacon
for BBQ fans for decades.
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, NC, has been a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. It is one of the top BBQ places in the South and continues to be recognized for its tradition and legacy of serving moist and tender barbecue.

A main stop on the historic barbecue trail of the N.C. Barbecue Society, it ranks high on just about everybody’s list – Southern Living, Southern Foodways Alliance, and barbecue writers such as Randy Moss. In 2015, it won the “Ultimate Barbecue Bracket” competition of Garden & Gun. Magazine articles and photos line its walls among family pictures and scenes of yesteryear. 

Bracket results tell the story.
Because it is set back from U.S. Highway 74 Bypass, I missed it when I drove by the first time. After making a U-turn, I found what everyone has been talking about – the restaurant looks like it’s been frozen since the 1950s in a time warp (you can almost imagine it being on a two-lane road that the bypass was at the time) and the barbecue is still prepared in the same time-honored tradition as it has been for decades.

On the wall is a picture of the restaurant in the "old days" (observed the vintage cars).

After I had ordered lunch, I started taking pictures. My server Diann (who is certified as a barbecue judge by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and has been a member of a competitive cooking team) asked if I wanted to take pictures of the pit. Of course! There’s where I found Dennis at work, guarding the fire and watching over the smoking shoulders. He has a lifetime of experience and learned his skills from his father, who was cooked pork for most of his life.

Pitmaster Dennis, 55, learned the skills
 of of operating a pit from his father.
Red Bridges himself learned the art of cooking pork shoulders slowly over wood coals from Warner Stamey of Greensboro fame. True to “Lexington-style,” he used only shoulders for pork barbecue that he served with the cole slaw variety that is “red.” I obviously had to order pork barbecue for lunch. The easy choice was a jumbo BBQ plate (combination of chopped pork and chicken with a thin stream of sweet sauce on top) that included baked beans and red slaw and was accompanied by a basket of perfectly fried, crunchy hushpuppies. For dessert, I selected banana pudding (always available) over pineapple-coconut cake, the dessert of the day – both made by Diann who makes all the desserts.

"Lexington-style" barbecue always comes with "red" slaw.

Granddaughter Natalie (left) and daughter
Debbie keep Bridges' spirit alive.
The restaurant continues the legacy of Red Bridges, its namesake, who started selling barbecue in 1946. It is now run by second and third generation family members. Granddaughter Natalie said that she began working there when she was 14 or 15. Diann mentioned that grandson Chase makes all the red slaw and never deviates from the family’s recipe.

The restaurant has a steady stream of customers -- new and repeat.

The woodpile is huge -- and neat.
I couldn’t believe how much chopped wood was in back of the restaurant waiting to be turned into hot coals on another day of cooking. The wood was stacked as neatly as a Boy Scout project and all in a single row as long as the restaurant. Next to the woodpile was the remains of an old free-standing pit building that with a little coaxing looks like it could be returned to service with some tender care. I could almost picture coals blazing in the pits.

Banana pudding is always available.
The constant stream of customers coming and going made the restaurant seem like a train station. A line of customers at the cash register waiting to pay their bills seemed to never disappear. The dining area displays a community spirit as several customers greeted each other and the restaurant’s staff, and most tables were noisy with friendly conversation until food was served. It was obvious that a few customers were also first-time visitors as they (like me) were taking pictures.

Watching descendants of Red Bridges work in the restaurant that he and his wife Lyttle started many decades ago was a special experience. Enjoying pork barbecue and red slaw at Red Bridges Barbecue gave me a greater appreciation for the role of “Lexington” style in creating N.C. barbecue traditions and for this particular restaurant’s connection to others that serve barbecue in the Piedmont.
About 50 shoulders cooked the day before are ready to be chopped or sliced in the kitchen.

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