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Mitchell's Barbecue


Varmint
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Mrs. Varmint was headed to SC to pick up the oldest L'il Varmint, so I packed up the 3 younger ones in the mini-van, grabbed an old family friend, and drove the 55 minutes to Mitchell's Ribs, Chicken & Barbecue in Wilson, NC. I've been a fan of Ed Mitchell's barbecue for years, but I have been unable to visit his joint since he totally rebuilt his restaurant into a large, fancy dining establishment.

The L'il Varmints kept asking why we had to drive an hour just to eat lunch, but I kept reminding them that we were on an adventure, trying to explore new places and new things. They just wanted a grilled cheese sandwich.

As we pulled into the parking lot, I knew that this wasn't going to be the Mitchell's I had remembered. This Mitchell's had hit the big time, praised by Tony Bourdain, the Southern Foodways Alliance, and even restaurateurs in NYC. Strangely, however, the parking lot was empty at 11:40 AM on a Saturday (while the older BBQ joint, Parkers, which is a couple of miles down the road, was packed, even though they no longer cook over wood).

As we walked in, the place was empty. This BBQ restaurant was cafeteria style, with the meat and side dishes sitting in steam table trays. This is not a big problem, but seeing it took a few minutes before anyone came out to serve us some food, I was a bit concerned. They had a lengthy list of items to choose from posted on the wall, but they were not serving many of them today. No pig's feet or ears, only half the veggies on the list, and no banana pudding. Hmph. I asked about the "Pig Bar" that had been promoted and was bruskly told, "That's only open on special occasions." We collected our food and headed to the dining room.

The dining room has been painted on all walls with murals of days gone by, celebrating communal meals of ribs, barbecue, and lots of side dishes. The painter was not the most talented individual in the world, but he/she captured the emotions and spirit of these events. It was a nice touch. Even the high chairs were hand painted with some pig theme.

How about the food? Well, I'd rank the barbecue that I had yesterday as being fine, not on the top of my list, but not crappy, either. First of all, it was too wet for my taste and was seasoned with too much sugar. Using sugar in barbecue is fairly common, but it appeared the sugar-man this day went a bit too far. What was great about this barbecue was the way cracklins had been cut into the meat. Crispy bits of smoky pig skin created a nice textural and flavor contrast to the sweeter and softer meat. I wish everyone would include cracklins in their barbecue. The meat was a medium chop -- not too fine or coarse. It had just a trace of smokiness to it, which is different from my previous tastings of Mitchell's barbecue. One of the pitman informed me that they use hardwood charcoal to cook their pigs, which should be sufficient to infuse some smokiness to the meat, but it just didn't have enough. Perhaps this is all a matter of personal preferences, but to me, the meat just wasn't up to snuff. I'll give it another try, however.

The fried chicken was very good, and I'd be quite happy just peeling skin off breasts and legs and eating that for much of the day. The meat itself was moist, slightly salty, and worth a trip on its own.

The side dishes are one of the things that distinguishes Mitchell's from other barbecue joints. Here, the sides are not an afterthought -- they're essential to the meal. Macaroni and cheese actually tasted like cheese, which is fairly unusual anymore. The black eyed peas were cooked in lots of pig fat, adding tons of flavor. The collards needed no additional seasoning other than a touch of vinegar. They even served mashed rutabagas, something that I'm quite confident would be almost impossible to find at another barbecue restaurant. The hush puppies were hand made and were much lighter than what you might get at most restaurants due to the use of less corn meal. They were quite addictive and sopped up pot likker quite nicely.

We only had a piece of red velvet cake for dessert, which was quite unremarkable.

My biggest issue with Mitchell's is the feel of the place. Despite the murals, and the high chairs, and the quality of the sides, it just felt sterile and institutional to me. It didn't have the feel of a friendly barbecue restaurant. The servers at the steam table were surly. Our waitress, who got us drinks, didn't say more than 2 words to us. It took us five minutes to find someone who would take our money to pay the bill. To be honest, we really didn't feel all that welcome there, which is totally different from my experiences at the old place.

Right now, I'd have to say that come October, there are several places I'd recommend over Mitchell's for a field trip, because if you want top-notch barbecue with the feel of a great barbecue joint, I can't say that you'll get that at Mitchell's. I guess I'll need to give it another try.

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Note the scenes of the hogs being hung for slaughter!!!

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The high chairs were pretty awesome.

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Those are rutabagas, not sweet potatoes in the front.

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Hush puppies, mac & cheese, and chicken only for the youngest L'il Varmint.

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Very red red velvet cake.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I wonder if timing had anything to do with it. Is there some reason Mitchell's specifically would be slow and cranky, with less attention paid to quality-control, on a Saturday?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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What amazed me was that the parking lot at the generally inferior Parkers (but with a far more established tradition) was packed. When we left the place at 1, there were people at approximately 5 tables. That's quite slow. Perhaps dinner would have been different.

I did not see Ed Mitchell in the building. They were not cooking pigs that morning.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I don't eat BBQ that often, but like you, I love it when the cracklin's are chopped in with the rest of the meat. Mashed Rutabega's are a favorite of mine also. I'll put this place on my "list".

Meanwhile, for those headed down in October, if you are coming through Reidsville, there is a place called "Short Sugars" that is very popular and has great BBQ. Also Lexington is famous for BBQ, I think Steve Raichlen even mentioned "Lexington BBQ" in his book the BBQ Bible.

"Never eat more than you can lift" -- Miss Piggy

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  • 7 months later...

I visited Mitchell's again today with Fat Guy and his lovely bride. Ellen took the professional photos, which she'll post later, but I'll provide my report along with some amateurish shots in the next day or two.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I don't want to steal Ellen's thunder, as she'll be providing a comprehensive report of Mitchell's in Steven's book writing blog, but I will post a few photos as a teaser. I can't wait to see Ellen's stuff!

The price can't be beat. Three meats and 4 veggies for 7 bucks??? You gotta be kidding me!

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And here's your meat choices:

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Mr. Ed Mitchell -- Pitmaster

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A contemplative Fat Guy. When one can't decide what to eat, one orders everything on the menu -- except the rice, of course -- that darned Atkins thing, you know.

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Excellent fried chicken and barbecue.

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I've now been to Mitchell's twice, and I think the barbecue has great potential, but it's not quite there yet. Mr. Mitchell is working out some of the quality control issues with his cafeteria-style serving approach, and once he does, it'll be on my "can't miss" list. Right now, the veggies alone are worth the trip. The mustard greens were incredible.

Edited by Varmint (log)

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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My lord!

How the hell, can they afford to sell at those prices??

By my calculations, with the price of gas, if you lived more than 15 miles away, the drive would cost more than the meal. :hmmm:

I should expand upon the word meal, that plate, looks like dinner for 4.

That place and dinner looks fantastic.

woodburner

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I don't want to steal Ellen's thunder, as she'll be providing a comprehensive report of Mitchell's in Steven's book writing blog, but I will post a few photos as a teaser. I can't wait to see Ellen's stuff!

I have to hit this place this summer, during the final leg of my planned two-month-long road trip! Really though, Varmint, posting those pics is a mean trick to play on me, languishing in NYC without pitmasters or mustard greens.

JJ Goode

Co-author of Serious Barbecue, which is in stores now!

www.jjgoode.com

"For those of you following along, JJ is one of these hummingbird-metabolism types. He weighs something like eleven pounds but he can eat more than me and Jason put together..." -Fat Guy

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Please understand that we didn't pay for the food. They heard Ellen was coming, who is the nation's leading expert on cole slaw, so they let us have one of everything on the house. Thanks, Ellen!

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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The exact ones I have come from Chefworks.com and you can also get a version with an aquamarine colored background from Chefwear.com.

I have a great deal of respect for Ed Mitchell, and plan to devote a nice chunk of a book chapter to his operation. There is so much to admire about him and his operation. But to zero in on my single objection to it, I don't think the cafeteria-line style of service is the best conveyance for all those food products. Many of them hold up very well, especially given the high turnover: the vegetable dishes in particular, most of which are braised/stewed anyway, are great, as are all the chicken and rib items. But two items definitely suffer from being held in trays: the hushpuppies and the chopped barbecue. The hushpuppies we had were downright cold, which is crazy given that Mitchell's is one of the only barbecue operations in existence where every hushpuppy is made by hand. And the chopped barbecue, well, it loses too much moisture. We had some from the steam-table and some from the kitchen before it sat in the steam-table. Guess which was ten times better?

Mitchell's is a work in progress -- he is quite up front about the fact that much of what he's doing is preparation for potential franchising and expansion, and that he's constantly tinkering -- and I think if they can get the steam-table issues licked they'll rise right to the top of the barbecue charts. I don't think it's hard to do: hushpuppies should simply be brought out in smaller quantities with greater frequency, and the barbecue should be held covered and also in smaller quantity. That's how it works behind the scenes in the kitchen of any barbecue restaurant: it's not like they're cooking a whole hog to order. Mitchell's simply puts this process in plain view, and has a little tinkering to do yet.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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A few additional photos to supplement those above.

We start in the pit area, where Ed Mitchell explains the unique design of his pits. He uses a combination of charcoal (for heat) and wood (for flavor) and a complex redundant ventilation and "banking" system that allows for the hogs to cook unattended overnight. When we arrive, the hogs are already off the pits and they're cooking ribs and chicken. Ed's brother, Stevie, is handling the actual cooking today.

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They're very scientific about the whole process, and use computers and temperature probes to refine the heating curves for hogs of different sizes.

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The next day's hogs hang in the cooler.

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In the kitchen, Ed Mitchell tries to get one of his cooks to pose for a photograph.

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Hushpuppies are crafted from hand-mixed dough, individually, with a spoon. The kitchen staff wear headsets, in order to handle the drive-through (Mitchell's has, in addition to the cafeteria line, a drive-through and takeout operation as well as a "pig bar" that was not in use when we were there).

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Various vegetables, desserts, and meats are fabricated in the kitchen, then placed in trays in pass-through warming ovens. The kitchen staff checks the trays from its side and makes more food as supplies dwindle. This prevents the need for any crossing back and for the between the kitchen and service areas, and it minimizes the possibility of miscommunication.

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The food items are served from the cafeteria line.

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Prices are quite reasonable, and portions are large. A takeout order of ribs is very generous, especially by New York standards.

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Customers choose their desserts and then their hot items.

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We choose all of them.

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Ellen Shapiro

www.byellen.com

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  • 8 months later...

Just got back from a round-trip visit to Florida, and the eating highlight was definitely our last meal on the road, supper at Mitchell's Bar-B-Q Ribs & Chicken in Wilson, NC. Not only was the food very good -- we "splurged" for the three-meat/four-side combos, which are a whopping $6.99 each -- but Stevie Mitchell gave us a personal tour of the entire operation. :biggrin:

I wouldn't expect that kind of treatment at lunch, when the place must be a zoo, but we were the last customers in the evening. Stevie even comped me to a slab of bread pudding. :shock:

Back to the food for a second. The ribs were really good, and the cue is more peppery than most eastern NC cue. As for the side dishes, you could certainly make a meal out of five or six, or eight or ten, and be very happy.

For anyone who has to spend a night in Wilson (and thereby get to eat more barbecue) the Holiday Inn Express on Montgomery Drive is centrally located and you can walk across the street to Cherry's Barbecue, which we didn't get to try but has been around since 1965.

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Many thanks for your post and welcome to the Southeast Forum, Chantilly Bob!

This, Mitchell's Bar-B-Q Ribs & Chicken, looks like it might be worth the drive from Atlanta if your excitement was this complete! :biggrin:

full review by Michael Stern

There is no problem finding barbecue in Eastern North Carolina. It's as common as chile in New Mexico. And most we've eaten is very good. Mitchell's is a cut above, one of the very best.  A former roadside shack that is now a significant foodservice enterprise, Roy Mitchell's restaurant serves meals cafeteria-style. You select what you want from an array of meats that includes chopped pork (the main attraction) as well as ribs, turkey, chicken, pig ears, feet, backbones, and chitterlings.

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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  • 4 months later...

It is my understanding the Mitchell's in Wilson,NC closed within the past week or so. Has anyone else heard about this being the case? If it has that is too bad because I think his heart was really in the right place in regards to what he was trying to do for BBQ and pork suppliers.

I hope he will be able to reorganize and reopen at some point soon...

Note: Lest this message be too inside baseball or too cryptic or not pan-Southern enough, let me explain. Ed Mitchell is an African-American restauranteur who had opened up a BBQ restaurant on the site of his parents old store in Wilson that gained some renown for his devotion to pit cooking BBQ in an area where that is not done as often as it should. He has been featured on a number of TV shows, he and his BBQ operation have traveled down to Oxford, up to New York, are going out to Blackberry Farm, and he had recently started moving towards organic and heirloom pork. All good ideas.

William McKinney aka "wcmckinney"
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If you read above, I've said several times that I like Mitchell's, but it was never great. Even when I ate the barbecue coming right off the cooker, it was just pretty good.

As far as the location is concerned, I don't buy that for a minute. People will go way out of their way for good barbecue. To me, if this was a matter of Ed closing down the place because of cash flow, it came down to building up too quickly. This facility was one of the nicest barbecue restaurants I had ever seen, and to me it seemed to be a case of too much too soon. Combining that inconsistent quality, and that created a recipe for disaster.

Ed Mitchell is a great man, and I know he'll land on his feet somewhere.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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What we know is that the phone has been disconnected, because I called the number and that's what the recording said. I also sent an e-mail to Ed Mitchell, trying to find out what's going on. I'll certainly report back if I hear anything.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I spoke with Ed Mitchell for nearly 2 hours today, and it's quite a story that I'll put together over the next few days. However, Mitchell's is indeed closed temporarily, but they plan to re-open in Wilson in the next month or two. Ed Mitchell has been working on a partnership with North Carolina A&T University to breed and raise heirloom, hormone and chemical-free pigs for barbecuing, and ultimately, this path led to the closing of the restaurant. Ed Mitchell has lots of ambition and good ideas, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him back better than ever soon.

And he's definitely going to be at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party for 2005.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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