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Wine, Swine & Dine: Lexington is Pure Americana

Epicurean-Chalotte

This delightful small town has much more than barbecue to enchant intrepid day-trippers and weekenders alike. If variety is the spice of life, Lexington, North Carolina offers visitors an entire kitchen cabinet’s worth.

The tiny hamlet, just beyond an hour’s drive north of Charlotte, has no less than 17 barbecue restaurants to serve a population of 19,000. This makes Lexington the undisputed ‘Barbecue Capital of the World.’

The title is a source of great pride for locals and a cause for celebration and sharing. More than 200,000 festival goers flock to Lexington each October for their annual barbecue festival, one of the largest single-day festivals in North America.

While the town is most certainly known for its signature Lexington-style ‘cue, visitors are delighted to find several days worth of diversions, attractions and activities to captivate their attention for a spontaneous afternoon get-away or an entire extended weekend.

Lexington boasts four area wineries, each offering tastings and tours.

Native son Bob Timberlake might just be on hand to greet visitors at his expansive gallery featuring his original artwork, home furnishings, accessories and personal memorabilia.

NASCAR legend Richard Childress makes his home here, and visitors swarm to his RCR Racing Museum. The museum has been expanded upon the site of the original No. 3 race shop, where team owner Childress partnered with the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. This 47,000-square-foot racing Mecca pays homage to Childress’s illustrious career, in addition to featuring 47 rare vehicles and being packed with decades of NASCAR history and mementos.

Strolling down Lexington’s Historic Main Street is sure to spark nostalgic remembrances, whether sampling the renowned pimento cheese at Conrad & Hinkle, an area grocer in business since 1919, satisfying the sweet tooth at The Candy Factory or window shopping at any one of a dozen shops along the way.

Pit Smoked Barbecue

What makes Lexington-style barbecue so very special are four key elements that local pit masters say are critical in crafting the highly-sought-after local mainstay.

The initial step is using only pork shoulders—these make for moist and juicy barbecue.

Cecil Conrad is the second generation owner of the highly-regarded Bar-B-Q Center on North Main. “We sell about 100 to 150 pork shoulders a week,” said Conrad, who noted that the pre-cooked or “green weight” of a shoulder is 18 to 20 pounds.

Low and slow pit smoking is the second crucial step for barbecue, according to traditionalists. The legendary Lexington Barbeque off U.S. Highway 64 has been pit smoking their shoulders using hardwood for more than 60 years. Eight to 10 hours in the pits, lovingly turned every so often, is standard care for falling-off-the-bone tender barbecue served here.

“It has to be cooked with wood,” said Rick Monk, the third generation of his family serving barbecue from this Lexington institution. Lexington Barbecue uses a mixture of Hickory and Oak, as do most other restaurants in town. “When you saturate any piece of meat with smoke,“ he says, “it goes all the way through the meat and the flavor is just unreal.”

Bucking the traditional trend of the hardwood pit and serving some mighty fine barbecue in the process is hometown favorite Speedy’s Barbecue. Here, the pit masters use rotisserie electric smokers, allowing the natural smoke from the drippings to flavor their ‘cue. Lettuce lovers can order up a Barbecue Salad and get crisp, tasty fresh greens served with barbecued porky goodness right on top—hog heaven.

The third crucial step for true Lexington barbecue is the sauce. Or, as they call it in these parts, “dip.” No fancy rubs or marinades go into prepping the pig in this town. Some joints use a light dusting of salt, but most go “naked” in their prep, letting the pit smoking do all of the work.

That tang that the ‘cue is known for is achieved in the dip (pronounced with two syllables by the locals, di-yip). A thin, vinegar-based accompaniment, local dips combine ketchup, sugar, salt, crushed pepper and either cider or white vinegar in secret amounts to create their signature blends. Pulled, chopped or sliced sandwiches or ‘cue platters are topped with a kiss of the dip and served with plenty on the side. It’s for dipping, of course.

Finally, the last element setting apart authentic Lexington-style barbecue is the variety of sides available with your meal. Hushpuppies, onion rings, French fries and okra are just some of the many tasty accompaniments you can ponder when ordering. Don’t forget the “red slaw,” tangy coleslaw made with dip as a substitute for mayonnaise. Most say it’s the perfect foil for the barbecue and slather it right on top of their sandwiches.

For chicken lovers, head over to Smiley’s Lexington Barbecue, where folks enjoy fork tender bird Thursday through Sunday. Coleslaw purists can get a mayonnaise-based slaw here that’s tangy and sweet, as well as a bit different from others in town.

Save room for home-made carrot cake when stopping in at Smokey Joe’s Barbecue, another great family run place with warm hospitality, pit cooked ‘cue and plenty of locals with which to rub elbows.

Time for Wine

Don’t miss out on some of North Carolina’s finest local wines while visiting Lexington. The area is the southeastern gateway to the Yadkin Valley wine region, North Carolina’s first federally-approved American Viticultural Area (AVA) and home to four wineries.

Drop in on Weathervane Winery, where founder and winemaker Sid Proctor will be happy to let you taste from his selection of handcrafted varietals. The folks at Weathervane want visitors to “enjoy award-winning wines without the attitude,” by demystifying the experience and meeting wine drinkers at their particular comfort zone.

Red drinkers should look out for the Sunset Red, a soft, full-flavored Merlot. For those preferring whites, try Weathervane’s own Pinot Grigio-style wine, Ionosphere. Prefer a fruit wine? That’s their specialty with their Placid Peach, a local favorite.

In just a few short years, Junius Lindsay Wines have gained national acclaim and recognition. Grape varieties include Viognier, a rare white grape that originated in Condrieu, in France’s Northern Rhine Valley, over 2,000 years ago. Other varieties—all native to the Rhine Valley—include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Roussanne. As NC Vine put it so well, “If you want a true sense of a French vineyard, then Junius Lindsay is the place to go.”

Native Vines Winery is the first Native American Indian-owned winery and has been producing seasonal fruit since 1998, with a focus on apple and blackberry. These wines are produced from fruit grown on the farm and are completely natural.

NASCAR team owner Richard Childress enjoys a reputation around Lexington as an individual who gives back to the community. He established one of the most recognized and visited wineries in the state with Childress Vineyards. Here, winemaker Mark Friszolowski works with 12 different varietal grapes grown on the property’s 77 acres. He produces more than 30 different wines.

Visitors will find his Tuscan-style, flag stone and arbor-flanked winery stunning. In the tasting room, you can sample premium varietals, desert wines, house blends, a sparkling wine and special Reserve wines. Be sure to have lunch at The Bistro over a glass of wine while overlooking the estate.


Main Street Strolling: Pure Americana

Travelers visiting Lexington will be hard pressed to find a better representation of small town Americana. Many of the storefronts operate out of century-old brick buildings with tin ceilings and retain a nostalgic feel.

The Davidson County (Lexington is the county seat) Courthouse is situated right on Main Street and is a gem of a building built in the Greek Revivalist Style in 1858.

Take a break at Perfect Blend, a Main Street coffee house that knows how to pour the perfect cup-o-Joe. It shares space with Missions Pottery and more, a funky gallery and paint-it-yourself ceramics shop that is sure to appeal to the kid in everyone.

Wet your whistle with a local microbrew while catching some of the best rhythm and blues bands in the region at High Rock Outfitters. The hip nightspot was once an outdoor gear shop and still sports a rental canoe over the bar.

Those looking for overnight accommodations will find the Holiday Inn Express and Suites adjacent to Childress Vineyards an ideal locale to use as their base of operations. The roomy property offers complimentary breakfast, large comfortable rooms and easy access to all of Lexington’s attractions. Guests are literally walking distance to the Vineyards, and the retail shops adjacent to the hotel are primed for retail therapy.

Any way you slice it, Lexington is one fun town that should surely be on your bucket list.

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