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27 March 2011

Tonight's Episode: May I have the pork, with a side of pork

           There are some restaurants that seem to exist outside of time. Walking through the door takes you back decades, often to a simpler time. When you share a common history, the simple act of picking up a fork may take your emotions on a wild ride through time and space. For some it dredges up fond memories of work on the weekends for cash, large tables of friends and family, and a view of the world outside that you would be entering someday soon. For others, it might force you to remember the reasons you wanted to leave home as fast as possible. Time may mellow some feelings or sharpen others to a razor's edge, but the restaurant doesn't care. Sometimes you have to bury your feelings, pick up a plate, and go back in time.
          The Girl, her parents, and yours truly decided to take our dinner out in Ridgeville at the restaurant that was once the symbol of why I wanted to leave the South. Duke's BBQ has always seemed to have been there.  Situated just across the railroad tracks in a town slowly fading out of existence, Duke's still draws the weekend crowd from miles in every direction. This is the classic cafeteria style BBQ joint that at one time was in every town in the state. In the fall, expect to be sitting shoulder to shoulder with friends you've never met debating which local high school has the best shot at the state title. I'm almost certain every movie set in a small southern town has a scene filmed at Duke's.
        Well, that's two paragraphs, and we haven't even walked through the door. I warned you I had mixed feelings about eating here. You step through the door and the inside is almost as shabby and depressing as Ridgeville itself. Everything seems to be a shade of yellow. The walls are some kind of yellow. The table is some kind of yellow. The tea urns that are as old as my soon to be in-laws are some kind of yellow.  I wouldn't fault you for turning around and walking out at this point. Only when you look close do you see past the depressing and see the resilience of the South. There is a smile on everyone's face. A wave and a head nod quickly turn into handshakes and hugs. Simple tasks are conquered with a whistle and a song. Time may have passed Duke's by, but that doesn't mean you can't stop and smell the hash.
         That hash is the first thing to hit your nose. Not the pulled pork, not the fried chicken. The liquid BBQ just hangs in the air. As you get closer to the self-serve bar, you see more of the classics. Pulled pork, BBQ beans, rice for your hash, fried corn bites, hush puppies, and a range of veggies from rutabega to green beans. Remember, your $7.50 is for all you can eat; you don't have to load up on your first trip.

         After you fill your plate, you have three choices in beverage: sweet tea, unsweet tea, and something pink. (The Girl assures me it's pink lemonade.) Pull the 30 year old tap on some sweet tea and pray that all that sugar killed anything that might be growing in there. Next to the drink station are three pumps and a bottle of sauce. The bottle is a spicy vinegar that I love. In the pumps are Red, Sweet Red, and the evil God-awful mustard based sauce. I'm not sure if mustard sauce or Mark Sanford make me more embarrassed to be a South Carolinian. I prefer a mixture of the vinegar and Red.
       Sitting down at a table with my first styrofoam plate full, I begin to plan my attack. The colors meld together into a brownish-yellow blob, but the smell is heavenly. Starting with the BBQ beans, they are rich and hearty with a nice smoke note. The rice and hash are liquid gold, again with a smoky note but also a rich pork flavor. The pulled pork itself is good, though I have had better. The lack of burnt ends (the outside edge of the pig that gets nice and crispy in the smoker) is a letdown. The real star of my first plate are the hush puppies. These little nuggets are fried wonderfully crisp without being greasy. The same can not be said about the fried chicken. Mr. Robert is normally on the cast iron pan manning the chicken. Tonight, he wasn't, and it was obvious. Unseasoned and greasy, overall just not that pleasant. After a second plate, I turned to the banana pudding with nilla wafers. Oh, that is delicious.
           Relaxing after the meal I look around me. Duke's hasn't changed at all in the more than a decade since The Girl took me there on one of our first dates. So much about who I am and what I believe has changed, evolved, grown. I thought coming back I would look down on the simplistic food in the run down restaurant. Sitting there, staring at my last bite of pudding, I'm glad I came back. Authentic food from an America that is slowly dying. Go while you still can.

The Scores:
Ambiance: 2/5
Service: 3/5
Food: 6/10
Value: 5/5
Overall: 15 out of 25, This is a little taste of classic America that you won't be seeing for much longer.

Dukes Bar bq Ridgeville on Urbanspoon

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