Lexington: More than Great Barbecue
Grab a plate but save time for everything else this town has to offerBy Renee C. Gannon
Once a key furniture and textile manufacturing town in the Piedmont Triad, Lexington is in the midst of a rejuvenation period, expanding its economic interests in business as well as becoming a destination for travelers.
One economic driver that hasn’t changed for more than 100 years is barbecue. The town is actually “built” on the history of cooked pork. True story: during renovations of City Hall in 2014, the first original brick and mortar BBQ pit built by Alton Beck was discovered behind a brick wall. The pit is now showcased at the hall.
Barbecue is the main reason more than 200,000 people visit Lexington in October, to attend the annual Lexington BBQ Festival. That’s quite a few extra folks in this town of 19,000. But the area offers more than just good ’cue.
Family businesses are a mainstay in downtown Lexington. At the Conrad & Hinkle Food Market, third-generation owner Lee Hinkle still uses his grandmother’s pimento cheese recipe in the store’s deli, and the spread has quite the following. Hinkle said he makes about 1,800 pounds of pimento cheese a week. The store will celebrate 100 years in 2019.
Second-generation sisters Jeanne Leonard, Leigh Foster and Beth Dean own and run the Candy Factory, once part of the Piedmont Candy Company owned by their father (see “Southern Refresh-Mints” on page 10 of our December 2017 issue). At Lanier’s Hardware, if you can’t find what you need in the 85,000-square-foot, 80-year-old store, then you probably don’t need it.
Newer businesses are also opening in the brick manufacturing buildings just off Main Street. Bull City Ciderworks opened in 2017 in the old Lexington Furniture plant, with plans to open a microbrewery and begin an urban apple orchard to go with the town’s open greenspace and amphitheater in this depot district.
How many barbecue restaurants are in and around Lexington, also known as the Barbecue Capital? At last count, 15 locations serve wood-fired and slow-cooked pork shoulders, chopped, coarse chopped or sliced, covered in “dip.” Dip is the local thin, tangy sauce made with vinegar and ketchup as its main base. Plates come with an extra cup of dip on the side to use at your palette’s pleasure. And don’t forget the barbecue slaw, a unique red slaw made with the same ketchup and vinegar base as the dip.
The BBQ restaurants do not view each other as competition, but more like family. Most are run by second- or third-generation members. Each serve up a variation of smoke-flavored pork, red slaw and hushpuppies; but also a few standout sides and desserts. Banana pudding is the mainstay, but at The Barbecue Center, it’s the 3.5-pound banana split that garners attention. Customers view it as a point of pride if they can finish the ice cream dish that is as big as your head.
A customer at Backyard Barbeque commented that he is amazed at the ways you can get BBQ here. “Must be 10 ways you can order, coarse chopped, fine chopped, chopped, chopped brown, sliced … and all come with dip, which also can be found with various degrees of vinegar and ketchup, slaw can be fine chopped, coarse chopped …” he said chuckling. “Then the hushpuppies, come round, thin, fat, oblong, dense or light.”
Burning calories outdoors
Visitors can burn those BBQ and banana pudding calories by paddling or hiking myriad trails not far from town.
The North Carolina Daniel Boone Heritage Canoe Trail travels 22 miles along the Yadkin River, with access points and historical markers along the entire route. Historical points include Boone’s Cave Park, reachable from the Baptism Rock access point. The park, named for the legendary cave that many believe served as the Boone family’s first home, offers 7 miles of trails in just over 100 acres of woods.
And you can get in a little swimming at High Rock Lake — just be sure to wait an hour after polishing off a fine-chopped barbecue plate with slaw, hushpuppies and a hefty helping of banana pudding.
Find a new town, find a new adventure