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'Roadside Eateries' reveals where the locals chow down

D.G. Martin traces his love of home-cooked country food to his upbringing in Charlotte, where a football teammate introduced him to “the wonders of the annual Mallard Creek Church barbecue” — the exemplar of how “good barbecue and a host of friendly people make a meal into something memorable.”

That combination of plain ol’ good food served (mostly) by native North Carolinians in diners, barbecue joints and sandwich shops across the Tar Heel state is the theme that makes Martin’s traveler’s guide entertaining and indispensable.
A varsity basketball player at Davidson College, Green Beret and graduate of Yale Law School, he has been a practicing attorney, political candidate and university administrator. He might be best known these days as host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch. Engaging and sunny, Martin is the perfect explorer to lead the hungry traveler a few miles from the interstate exit ramps to the traditional homes of homemade biscuits, meat-and-three purveyors and of course barbecue restaurants where the locals eat. In North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners and Barbecue Joints, Martin offers up relief from the billboard-hyped chains at every cloverleaf and rewards those willing to drive a few extra miles in search of real gravy.
Traveling the state throughout a varied career, Martin has made the otherwise mundane stop for lunch a virtual treasure hunt for the tasty country feed.
“In my three political campaigns, I was more successful at finding great gathering places for breakfast and lunch with supporters than I was at winning elections,” he writes with characteristic humor.
Luckily for us fellow travelers, he’s chosen not to keep these finds a secret. He takes the food more seriously than he does himself. And because he loves people almost as much as a good skillet-fried leg quarter, Roadside Eateries is as delightful a read for its mini-portraits of the cooks and counter help as the reviews of meatloaf, pinto beans and peach cobbler. “From little diners with hushpuppies you never forgot to watching people settle differences over a slice of lemon pie, I’ve seen and tasted nearly everything,” he says. Everything, that is, under the heading of country cooking, blueplate specials, Carolina burgers, fried okra, fish camps, barbecue and Brunswick stew. Nouveaux cuisine ain't on the menu.
But enough intro. People want to know what Martin said about the greater Hendersonville area.

Choose your interstate

Organized by interstate highway, Roadside Eateries makes it easy for motorists to pick a home-cooking alternative no matter where they may be. Martin gives each stop a writeup of about a page and a half, often recommends a “don’t miss” house favorite and ends with a wonderful post-script called “After Eating,” a tip about a nearby museum, store, attraction or historic site worth visiting.
After getting off I-26 at Four Seasons Boulevard Martin takes a right on Duncan Hill Road and pulls into Harry’s and Piggy’s. He tells the familiar story of how Harry Thompson started Piggy’s ice cream stand — and turned it over to his wife, Sally (aka Piggy), to run. Success gave rise to Harry’s, which the family was building when the patriarch unexpectedly died. Not surprisingly, given Martin’s reliable nose for finding the place where the locals eat, Sally guesses that three-quarters of her customers are from here. “Even if the barbecue and ice cream were not so good and the memorabilia on the walls not so interesting,” Martin says, “I would come back here just to have another visit with Piggy Thompson.” After eating, he suggests a visit to the Music Academy of Western North Carolina, just a few hundred yards down Duncan Hill.
Some of us local diners would have urged Martin to explore a few more miles further into town, where he could have found AlyKat Deli, Mike’s on Main, the Flat Rock Wood Room and Hubba Hubba Barbecue. Alas, only Harry & Piggy’s makes it in Hendersonville.
Saluda, less than a tenth the size of Hendersonville, gets two winners.
“Even if you’re not hungry for home cooking,” Martin notes, “you should stop in Saluda, one of North Carolina’s most charming small towns and just a couple miles off the interstate.” At Ward’s Grill, where he enjoyed a hamburger “all the way” (chili, onion and slaw), Martin got the lowdown on the grill and the next-door market. Opened in 1890 by George Lafatte Thompson, Thompson’s store is the oldest grocery still in existence in North Carolina. Lola Thompson Ward, who took over from her father in the 1930s, opened the next-door diner in 1960 at the urging of her husband, Roy. Lola and Roy’s son Charlie created “Charlie’s Famous Sage Sausage” recipe in the 1940s and it’s still sold in the store and enjoyed in biscuits and with eggs. The grill’s CJ burger, a house specialty, is half “Charlie’s famous sausage” and half ground chuck. After eating? What else? Visit the oldest food market in North Carolina.
Across the bridge, Martin offers props to Green River Bar-B-Que, where Melanie Talbot has been serving Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue for 25 years. Besides the usual sides, the barbecue joint serves up some tasty options a bit less conventional, including tomato pie, Vidalia onion slaw and corn nuggets with cream corn in the middle. After eating, our gustatory guide recommends diners check out the town’s colorful rail history and the tragedies and tribulations on the Saluda Grade.
Down that Saluda Grade we go until we reach Caro-Mi Dining Room (5-8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday), where former teacher and school administrator Charles Stafford oversees the serving of such favorites as skillet-fried chicken livers, mountain trout and old-fashioned country ham that owners call “The Ham What Am.” After a repast, the author recommends the diner sit for a spell on Caro-Mi’s front porch to the gentle sountrack of the Pacolet River rushing downhill in the backyard.
Toward Asheville, Martin stops in at the Moose Café — the one next to the WNC Farmers Market, not its newer sister in our Wal-Mart shopping center — and finds the biscuits and homemade apple butter fittin’ to eat. He loves the sampling of cabbage, collard greens, pinto beans and other country sides.
On the diner’s behalf Martin discovers Clyde’s in Waynesville and Sherill’s Pioneer in Clyde. In Asheville, he heaps praise on Little Pigs Bar-B-Que, Luella’s Bar-B-Que and 12 Bones (which would be a “must do” even if Barack Obama had not made it famous).
Martin samples the fare, chats up the owners and fellow diners and finds hidden gems at more than 100 diners, grills and barbecue joints across North Carolina and we are the beneficiaries. If you’re looking for something for the person who has everything but a full belly, buy a copy of Roadside Eateries. You’ll be glad you did, especially if your gift recipient takes you on his or her next detour to a worthwhile lunch spot.

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North Carolina’s Roadside Eateries: A Traveler’s Guide to Local Restaurants, Diners and Barbecue Joints (University of North Carolina Press, 176 pages) is available from Amazon.com.