Raleigh is in this growing pain stage. Like Durham, which is trying its hardest to prove that it can be an upscale food destination with its latest advertising campaign, Raleigh is at a point where it’s trying to keep its Southern comfort food roots while trying to be a center of fine dining. That leads to weird mashups as far as restaurants.
A perfect example of this is The Pit (328 W Davie St, Raleigh 27617). The Pit tries to make classic North Carolina Barbecue upscale and ends up leading to a disappointing experience. When you enter, it’s hard not to get a little blown away by the atmosphere. It is standard fine dining: modern seating and lighting, an impressive looking wine selection in full view, the typical upscale touches that are standard with Raleigh’s revitalized warehouse dining. I went in my standard uniform of a hoodie and jeans and immediately felt under-dressed to say the least. The one thing saving me from feeling like a street urchin was that we came in at the tail-end of lunch service, so people were slightly more casual.
Once I got past the pretty, shiny touches, I was looking forward to how they dealt with traditional southern cooking. Maybe something a little deconstructed? Maybe non-traditional meats and veggies (I’ve often wondered if something like lamb would yield well to N.C vinegar-based BBQ). A quick scan of the menu was discouraging: the same old, same old; plates of chopped or pulled pork, ribs and chicken. The only interesting item was the barbecued tofu, but it sounded more like an afterthought to its hipster clientele than an actual dish. The ubiquitous sliders, which seems to plague the starter menu of every wannabe cutting edge place, were there as an appetizer, but with a BBQ twist.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the beer is good, the service, consisting of at least three different girls waitressing our one table, wasn’t bad. But when a place looks this pretty, it sets itself up to fine dining standards. The Pit fails at that, there’s nothing new or exciting about the food, they stick pretty much to the BBQ playbook. Our meal came with hushpuppies, which weren’t bad and was at a perfect mouth-popping size. How was my barbecue plate? Disappointing. Underseasoned and lacking the vinegar bite, it’s not terrible, but it’s pretty generic. You need the extra hot sauce to add any depth to the flavor. The meat was tender and I applaud BBQ master Ed Mitchell’s attempt to bring comfort food to a higher level of diner, but you could find better barbecue with bigger portions at better prices elsewhere. In fact, right down the street, I did….
Cooper’s BBQ is literally down the street (109 E Davie St Raleigh, Raleigh 27601, a 7 minute walking according to Google maps) and while it’s not much to look at for those foodie snobs out there, offers better food and has entire meals under $6.00, including iced tea. Walking in, there was a little confusion. Do we stand in line with all of the people, which was almost out of the door? Nope, that’s the takeout line. Should we wait for a waitress? Good luck with that, the ladies move around so quick and are so busy, you’re in for a wait. Tony and I planted ourselves at the counter and were finally noticed after a few minutes. So far, not good.
I wasn’t expecting much when I ordered the Sandwich special, but man, I would wait for hours to have this again. The chopped pork had Zing, with a capital Z. I didn’t need any hot sauce, which Tony testifies is not kidding with the heat. The meat was the perfect mix of sweet, salty, and tangy and the coleslaw wasn’t overpowering with its sweetness and tasted fresh and crisp. The fries were crisp and crunchy and the added fried pork skins were a surprise. Call me a fake southerner, but I’ve never understood my home’s love of fried pig body parts, but this made me a believer of how good fried pig skin could be. You could buy a plastic bag full of them on your way out, which I might just do next time.
So, am I falling for Cooper’s because of its “authenticity?” I was afraid of that when I left, am I just a sucker for a greasy spoon? But my tastebuds don’t care if a place looks good or if it’s been making food for ages. If it tastes good, then it’s good, that’s all that matters. Cooper’s may not be as attractive on the outside, but the food delivers a punch, and you don’t even need to be wearing a dress and heels to enjoy it.