Story by Wyatt Stayner
Photos by Virginia Werner
Fried chicken, mac and cheese, and pulled pork. These delicacies are missing from my life, and that’s bad. I’d say that my doctor is proud to know I’m healthy and free of fried food and barbecue, but that would be a lie. He’d be ashamed because he is, like me, a Southerner. An Alabaman to be exact. To us, barbecue is more than a delicious meal. To us, it’s an identity. People in the Northwest are good at cooking. They have tasty soups and breads, and everything is made with healthy and local ingredients. Out here they have things like veganism and gluten-free eating. I’m sure I will thank Oregonians for this when I’m healthy at 75 and all my Southern friends are diabetics, but sometimes I just want to eat some grilled flesh. That’s why I’ve set out on a quest to find the best barbecue in Eugene: BBQ King, Papa’s Soul Food, Hole in the Wall Barbecue, and Delacata. I’ve never eaten at these restaurants for fear of disappointment. That ends now. It’s time to find my home away from home on a plate, smothered in sauce.
BBQ King is housed in a tiny red shed, but that’s okay because the only size that matters is the size of your smoker. On my approach to the shed, I notice a big, jovial man named Ken. He has a bushy salt and pepper beard, and he’s joking and cussing with the customers in his gravelly I order a pulled pork sandwich, and chat with Ken through the screen window on his cookout shed. He tells me that he’s from Texas, and he lets out a hefty, guttural laugh when I tell him about my quest. My immediate reaction is to tell him that I’m a Southerner. That I’m different. That I’m in his club, sharing a fraternal bond symbolized by geography and a love of juicy pit-cooked meats.
The sandwich is scrumptious. It’s mesquite, smoky, decidedly Texan. Crunchy coleslaw sits atop chunky pork – something I’ve never had. The sauce spills off the bun and onto my hand, making it sticky. My napkin, once a blank canvas, is now a masterpiece painted in barbecue sauce. Ken aided my art, only giving me one napkin, a sign that he’s a true barbecue king. The messiest restaurants always give you the least amount of protection against their food.
My next adventure, Papa’s Soul Food, requires the help of my Southern sidekick, Craig, a friend from the University of Alabama. I need Craig since he hasn’t been in Oregon as long as me. It’s possible that I’ve lost my Southern taste buds. We wait in line for 45 minutes, something that would never happen on Wednesday night in the South because everyone would be at church for evening service. The smell of sweet potatoes wafts outside, alleviating our impatience.
In the South, most good soul food is eaten in a dive. We like to be in a slightly seedy place. The experience isn’t complete if you don’t feel like there’s a chance you will die there. Papa’s isn’t a dive, but it’s a soul food restaurant for sure. It comforts and transports you to the South through nostalgic decoration. There are posters of B.B. King and James Brown. We finally get our table, and are ready to grub. When I order Kool-Aid, the waitress responds by asking if I want red or purple as opposed to cherry or grape. Trust me, that’s a good sign. Craig gets pulled pork. I get chicken and waffles, the holy grail of Southern food. Neither of us knows where to get this in Alabama. The fried chicken is crispy, greasy, and accompanied by multiple napkins – grease doesn’t turn napkins into art, it just turns them into greasy napkins. The meat is tender and juicy. I accidentally bite into a bone, and know it has been too long; I’ve forgotten how to eat fried chicken. Forgive me Paula Deen for I have sinned.
After dinner, we decide on dessert, a gigantic serving of moist bread pudding, which is simultaneously the best and worst decision of the night. I haven’t been this stuffed in a long time. I despise myself right now, and it’s awesome.
Next up is Hole in the Wall. Alex, a friend from Oregon, joins me because it’s one of his favorite place. There is a Texas flag on the wall, and country is the preferred music. Cleaning products cover up the smell of barbecue. Tin buckets serve as shades over the light bulbs. It seems like someone’s idea of the South.
My friend Alex joins me tonight, excited for the fare. Our waitress informs us she’s “not a rib person.” Uh oh. I order a pulled pork sandwich and it’s underwhelming. The meat is soggy, bland, cold. Pork requires warmth. The sauce doesn’t spill onto my hands. I guess there will be no painting tonight.
I was afraid of this disappointment, but I realize now that I wasn’t afraid of my own disappointment. I’m disappointed for Alex and for Oregonians that will only ever know barbecue like this.
Two days and two pounds pounds later, I arrive at Delacata for lunch. My buddy Nick from Salt Lake joins me. Delacata is a shiny black and silver food truck with a gigantic catfish logo on the back. I approach the window and see a Mississippi State hat on one of the owners, Stephen.
They are friendly and Southern. The accents are a welcomed sound. I get a fried shrimp Po’ Boy sandwich and Nick gets a pulled pork sandwich. While we are waiting for our food, Nick asks about Hole in the Wall.
As I try to explain my let down, I notice Colleen, who’s making my sandwich starting to smile, and I feel the need to let her know I’m from Birmingham, just like at BBQ King. It turns out that both Colleen and Stephen are from Mississippi. We talk a little about the South, and Colleen jokes that she had to tone down her hot sauce for Eugene.
The Po’ Boy is awesome – it’s as good and possibly better than the ones I’ve had in New Orleans. The shredded lettuce provides a crunchy contrast to the fried shrimp. The tomatoes are juicy, the sauce is spicy, and the bread is toasted perfectly.
At the end of my expedition, I remembered how difficult it’s to eat barbecue everyday. It tastes amazing, but there’s an anchor in your stomach after eating it, and for the next week you walk around smelling like a firefighter. That’s okay, because I only need barbecue every once in a while. After all, I moved out here to try new things and experience the culture of the Northwest.
In Oregon, these meals might be few and far in between, but no matter how comfortable I get in my new home, I’ll always need that slice of the South. It’s fried chicken for the soul.