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Barbecue Shines in Union County

Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous in Memphis didn't impress me much. This legendary spot tucked in a back alley near the main drag in downtown Memphis is a large emporium filed with thousands of knickknacks and tourists alike and serves spicy crusted (not a rub) ribs. The spice is a mix of Greek seasonings, a nod to the original Greek owner, with a heavy dose of chile powder. The ribs are cooked over charcoal, not wood. At Rendezvous the spiciness of the "rub" obscured the taste of the meat which may play well to some Cue aficionados but not to me.

The better Memphis ribs were found at another legendary spot, Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Que, where the ribs are pit cooked for five hours over a combination of gas and hickory wood. At Interstate the meat is the deal.

Surprisingly, though, these renowned Memphis spots were surpassed by the extraordinary ribs at Elmer's BBQ in Tulsa. Oklahoma is on the geographical cusp of pork and beef barbecue and the nexus between cooking over hickory and mesquite. But owner Keith Jimerson espouses an almost Carolinian attitude about the taste of the meat saying that if the meat is quality, a cook shouldn't hide it with sauces or spices.

The flavor of the meat is the heart of good Carolina barbecue. While the debate continues whether Eastern style or Lexington style is better, superior barbecue is imbued with flavor. Barbecue has united Carolinians for generations: Historically barbecue has always been the food of the masses and the food used for fundraisers, social events, and family gatherings. But recently in Charlotte, with its strict building codes, establishing a barbecue restaurant has become difficult.

Champion barbecuers Candy and Brian Elkins found this to be true when they first started looking at Charlotte locations to open a restaurant in 2000. Finding Charlotte's protean building requirements "too difficult and time consuming", they established the 36-seat EB Bar-B-Que in Indian Trail in Union County in 2005.

The restaurant is named for the EB Bar-Be-Que cooking team of Earl Pinyan and Brian Elkins. The 82-year-old Pinyan was a friend of Elkin's father and the two started cooking barbecue on the competitive circuit in 1997.

Lining a shelf across the restaurant are dozens of trophies won at various contests across the United States. Candy Elkins said the one they are the most proud is are the two 2003 fifth place trophies for pork and chicken from the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue contest held in Lynchburg, Tenn. Since it is invitational (contestants must qualify by having won other barbecue contests) to compete, this is considered by many to be the "Oscars" of the barbecue world.

Is their cue good? You bet. While it does not follow either traditional Lexington or Eastern style, this is first-rate Carolina barbecue. By all indications the before-5 crowd which gathers outside on the first and third Saturdays for ribs agree. But even if you miss their ribs, their pork barbecue sandwich, especially the one with house-made red slaw, reveals the Elkins magic and is available all day -- or until they run out which happens frequently.

Down Monroe Road from EB's is another recently opened barbecue outpost: Stallings Rock Store Bar-B-Q. Located in the almost miniature historic Rock Store, circa 1936, this former gas station is on the city of Stalling's seal. Many businesses have been located here. In 2004 Mark Murphy operated a coffee shop, but allowed amateur barbecuers Jack "Bubba" Chavis and Jay Mondock to sell their barbecue from a truck in the parking lot. Soon it became clear that the barbecue was the hit and the three became partners in Rock Store Bar-B-Q.

For Chavis and Mondock, getting into barbecue was easy. These former educators, who worked together at Independence High School, cooked barbecue for events. When Charlotte Shout offered the first Blues, Brews, & BBQ contest, Chavis and Mondock had other commitments, but the second year they won second place. That spurred them on.

In January 2005 they opened their store, which is primarily takeout although there are a few tables inside and out. They cook their succulent pork shoulders and beef brisket in small smokers inside with hickory and cherry wood. Chavis' father, semi-retired, comes in early to pull the fat from the meat.

Rock Store offers three sauces: a South Carolina-styled, mustard-based, "down home," and an Eastern-style vinegar. Chavis, a native Charlottean, says his sauces are a complement to his savory meats. "Some (cooks) sauce their meat to cover the dryness. Some reheat the meat the next day. We cook all our meat fresh. That's the difference."

Being educators taught these entrepreneurs to be frugal, Chavis noted. He priced his family dinner at $20, which includes one and a half pounds of pork, a pint of baked beans and slaw, and banana pudding, accordingly. A while back they added ribs to the mix. These are offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m., but they only prepare 50 to 60 racks and these usually sell out well before close.

Both EB's and Rock Store are creations of an emerging breed of restaurateurs in the Charlotte area: natives who grew up cooking local cuisine -- in this case Carolina barbecue -- which then became a hobby/side business and finally developed into a business. Union County was smart to welcome them and the trip down the road from Charlotte is well worth the time.

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