If you are thinking about heading to Johnson Family Barbecue, be prepared to find some menu items will be gone when you arrive.
That said, the food that is present just might blow your mind, for they nailed most of what I tasted, which was the entire lunch and dinner menus.
I took my husband and kids, as well as my parents who were visiting from New England, for my father always makes a point of eating barbecue during his visits. He and my mom lived in Durham for a few years in the early 1980s, and pulled pork has been haunting them ever since.
The prices were reasonable ($6.50 for a one-meat platter with two sides, $8.50 for a two-meat platter with two sides), and the grub was more than reasonably tasty.
We got lucky: Had we shown up any earlier, we might not have had any barbecue at all.
At 11:45 a.m. on a Sunday, the pork was not yet done smoking. We were told it would be 12:30 p.m. before it was ready. Luckily, after about 10 minutes of awkward debate (do we pack up my two young children and find someplace else to eat?), the gentleman in charge of the pork said he could pull some off the shoulder, to which we responded of course. Yes. Please. Thank you.
Once we had committed to the meal, it went easier. We were also told the fried chicken would take about 15 minutes, since it is made to order. Nonetheless, it was some of the best fried chicken I have tasted, the meat quite tender, the coating striking that perfect balance between flaky, almost pastry-like in texture, and still a bit chewy. I asked if it was brined—it tasted that flavorful—but was told it was not. Whatever is in that flour dredge must be incredibly potent.
The hickory-smoked barbecue was also worth the wait, for I enjoy the fatty bits as much as the meaty ones, and the vinegar-based sauce kept in a condiment squeeze bottle contained the zip and sweetness that I had hoped. The meat, smoked without any herbs or spices, was flavorful, but without sauce might have needed extra seasoning. It was chopped, not pulled, but I prefer that. Typically smoked seven hours, it tasted like it: somewhere between bacon and a juicy pork chop.
Other highlights included French fries, which were skinny and dark brown and nicely salted; baked beans dotted with pickled green peppers; and coleslaw, sweet and vinegary and light on the mayonnaise.
We were so smitten with the hushpuppies that came with each order (my 3-year-old commandeered just about all of them from the table0 that we asked for a few more, and the waitstaff obliged. The meat man also threw us some pats of butter to go with them, instructing the Yankees on how best to enjoy what were the moistest hushpuppies I've ever had.
Alas, not every dish sang.
The boiled potatoes and green beans were bland, the fried pork chop unremarkable. The sweet tea could have been sweeter.
Sadly—quite sadly—there was no banana pudding. You can obviously understand how tragic this reality was, for we had finished the meal fully intending to order dessert. We were told they had run out that morning in some freak banana pudding surge.
This seems to be the main issue right now—running out of food. Online posts mentioned how the restaurant has been closed earlier than the posted times because there is simply no more pork to serve. I understand that as a small business, the restaurant doesn't want to throw away food at the end of the day, but during these first few months, it is even worse to tell customers they cannot eat what they planned to enjoy, especially when the menu is as simple as this one.
Johnson Family Barbecue is open for breakfast, as well as lunch and an early dinner. Since they stop serving breakfast at 10:30, we were out of luck in that department as well, but I would be willing to bet the biscuits are just right, as long as they haven't run out of the country ham to put on them.
Obviously, it is a bit of a fluke that one small joint like this could prepare so many dishes exactly as I prefer them. Just be sure to adjust your expectations for what's available, and heighten your hopes for taste should you check it out.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Catch as catch can."