Barbecue as either technique or event tends to rouse strong feelings, including an alpha-dog sense of competition among men whose only universal claim to cooking is a lust to roast meat of any kind over an open flame.
Until barbecue grew in popularity via cooking competitions and television shows, many experienced it mainly in the backyard—and mainly as a much-diminished version of real barbecue, the low and slow process of cooking that renders animal fats into sublime elixirs that tenderize even the least desirable cuts of meat and melts the most ravenous of carnivores into finger-licking kittens.
Before a couple of good spots began opening in farmers markets about 10 years ago, there were too few places to get good barbecue locally beyond a few seasonal roadside stands that limited offerings to chicken and ribs. But those places were enough to give us a real taste. A pioneering full-service restaurant at the beach proved there was an appetite for more, and it has succeeded wildly. Wilmington got its own quick-fix place about four years ago, then, in July, New Castle County got a full-service place of its own, Limestone BBQ and Bourbon, and it is a very fun place, indeed.
Prime Brisket.//Photo by Joe del Tufo
Limestone signifies not only the restaurant’s location, but also the rock that filters groundwater sources for good bourbon—part II of a winning concept: Southern food, Southern drink. This in a state that has straddled the line geographically and somewhat culturally while being denied culinary benefits such as Low Country cooking (though we now enjoy some very good Cajun-creole).
“We do things a little differently here,” said the smiling server who greeted us. She pulled a pair of menus from a holder on the post, then directed us to a cafeteria-style line that fronted an open kitchen. We told the staff what we wanted, then they heaped it onto a tray covered in brown paper for us to slide down to the next stations, where you could choose side dishes and desserts before you paid and proceeded to a table or booth of your own choosing.
The kitchen offers the standards: beef brisket, St. Louis-style pork ribs (an important distinction for rib aficionados), pulled pork, grilled chicken, smoked turkey, sausages and then some. Side dishes include cole slaw, macaroni and cheese, beans, collard greens and potato salad. Order what you like, or try the Philthy Sampler (three meats and three sides) or Philthy Feast (five meats and five sides, which are, of course, meant to be shared). Most meats are available as sandwiches. True to form, plain white bread abounds.
We were seated in a room designed like a roadhouse: big pine posts and beams, wooden rafters (nonstructural) overhead and barn-planked sections of wall. The serving line is overhung with a corrugated steel awning. The rounded backs of the booths look like big bourbon barrels. Wood tables. Mismatched wood Windsor chairs. Big Jim Beam label painted on the wall. Cord wood stacked in a corner near the kitchen. Blues and some Southern rock on the stereo. You get the picture.
We sat at a high communal table smack dab in the middle of the action and watched the Friday night dinner crowd of families and after-work groups file in. Our shared tray between us, my companion—a native South Carolinian who is more than passingly familiar with regional variations of barbecue (South Carolina alone, I learned, has four)—started on his side as I began on mine.
After two bites, he declared, “This brisket is good—really good.”
(FROM LEFT): The More Cowbell sandwich; Sliced prime brisket on a Texas-style bun.//photos by Joe del Tufo
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It was an understatement, which is all you need to know about the food at Limestone BBQ and Bourbon. I—more often than not underwhelmed by overly dry beef—could only agree. It was moist and fork-tender, a pleasant surprise. The ribs were tender and tangy. The pulled pork was as good as one could hope for—and all the more fun thanks to the squeeze bottles of sweet, spicy and tangy barbecue sauces to sample. Anyone loyal to a particular style will find a match.
Our assessment of the side dishes we sampled: equally good. The cole slaw was crispy, cool and zesty. The macaroni and cheese was rich with tangy cheddar. The collard greens had an unexpected sweetness, more sugar than smoky ham that I suspect came from a braise of orange soda, which is about as Southern as you can expect—except for the small styro container of banana pudding we finished with.
By then, a male-female guitar duo had taken the small stage up front and started their set of pop covers. That’s part III of the concept: live music on weekends—and good music at that. We never made it to the bar, which features a wall of top-shelf and small-batch bourbons. That’s OK. Because there’s nothing quite like Limestone in the county—and my jones for ribs can be overpowering at times—there will be plenty more opportunities.
Limestone BBQ and Bourbon: 2062 Limestone Road, Wilmington • 274-2058
Recommended: prime brisket, pulled pork, macaroni and cheese
Prices: sandwiches: $8-$13; smoked and barbecued meats: $8-$14 per pound; samplers: $28 for a serving for two, $60 for four