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Stepping Into History At Bridges Barbecue Lodge In Shelby, NC

March 25, 2013
Right on the side of the road in Shelby... .

Right on the side of the road in Shelby… .

Our visit to Atlanta and North Carolina was concluding. Although we had eaten at some delicious barbecue spots along the way, including Fat Matt’s in Atlanta and 12 Bones in Asheville, because of the route we had taken (ending in Charlotte) we had had no opportunity to stop at any of the places along North Carolina’s barbecue trail. Obviously, this was unacceptable. Fortunately, Shelby was right on the way to Charlotte from Asheville, and there is a historic barbecue location on the way: Bridges Barbecue.

During the trip I’d managed what I took to be exceptional ‘cue (Fat Matt’s), delicious theme and variation on classic ‘cue (12 Bones), unremarkable ‘cue (a roadside shack near Highlands that was less than impressive unfortunately). I was eager to try classic Carolina ‘cue. Surely this was it.

Step inside, and step back in time.

Step inside, and step back in time.

First of all, the place looks like something out of another time. From the way the building looks on the outside, to the roadside sign, to the impression you get when you first walk through the doorway. As you can see above – which is pretty much the sight that greets you when you step in the door – there’s a U-shaped counter that juts into the front area, booths that run along the wall, and some tables in the back. The place exudes history. There are photos of the Bridges family all over, and newspaper clippings, and award plaques.

It's like a '50s or '60s era restaurant. Love the counter.

It’s like a ’50s or ’60s era restaurant. Love the counter.

That gives you perhaps a better look and feel of what it is like within. Not pictured, however, is the incredible sense of relaxed hominess that flows through the place. How can I just be arriving, a fish out of water, and feel like I’ve been coming there for years? Perhaps that is the friendliness of the folks in North Carolina. Maybe it was the relaxed vibe. Whatever it was, it was very enjoyable.

I should mention we arrived in the middle of a Friday afternoon. The place was less than packed. Most folks who were there seemed to be of the older variety – though there was one young man celebrating his birthday. The waitress – who introduced herself as Diann – sang “Happy Birthday (from Bridges)” to him, which was sweet. I got the distinct sense that everybody who was in the place had been coming there forever, but more on that later.

The menu.

The menu.

Looking at the menu I was a little perplexed. No ribs? Why had I expected ribs? But Diann gave us some helpful guidance. The place is known for their pork ‘cue, chopped or in slices. She suggested getting the chopped because it was easier to eat.

According to excerpt from The Best Tar Heel Barbecue Manteo to Murphy quoted on the North Carolina Barbecue Society website, though, the thing to get was something called “outside brown.” So I asked for it. Diann explained to me it is the pork equivalent of burnt ends, and is crunchy and crispy. Hence I got the outside brown, red slaw and hush puppies.

On the left, the red slaw. On the right, the outside brown.

On the left, the red slaw. On the right, the outside brown.

Quickly the order came up. It is not a tremendous amount – certainly a manageable portion. Diann explained they serve the brown upside down so that it can gather the sauce. Looking at the plate, it seemed to me there was quite a bit of sauce on it, but it turns out I was wrong about that.

Tender pork.

Tender pork.

Just look at how tender and flaky that pork is. At the tip of the fork, you can see a bit of the “outside brown” – the crispy skin that adds a crunch. As you can see it was not too heavily sauced at all. From the first bite, I was picking up hickory smoke notes, a good heft, a wonderful tender texture commingled with the occasional crunch of the brown and the native sweetness of the pork. But somehow, this was not lighting my rocket. Was it just the historic look of the place that got people singing about this place? Am I missing something?

Turns out I was.

In the middle of the table, sitting quite innocuously, was a small Styrofoam cup. Inside the cup was a red sauce. Putting one and one together, I dipped the pork into the sauce. Goodnight Irene.

I’m not really sure how to describe the effect of what happened. But everything about the meal woke up and started singing. There’s a tanginess, a sweet and sour, a savory, a smoke, even a hint of lemon, some sizzle… . What had started as pretty much straightforward – and delicious – chopped pork (albeit tender and smoky) woke up and was playing a symphony of barbecue. It was transportive.

The sauce – and its effect – reminded me of the way you might dip a soft serve ice cream cone into a strawberry or chocolate sauce and have it harden. It transformed the dish (though it obviously didn’t harden around the ‘cue). So yes, once I started dipping the outside brown into the sauce, everything about the place made sense and I could easily see how they had lasted into their fourth generation of Bridges ownership.

Bridges Barbecue

The hush puppies had a somewhat unfortunate appearance, in my opinion.

The hush puppies were not exactly the best looking examples. Look for yourself and come to your own conclusion. But they were tasty, and perhaps had a hint of an onion note about them.

While we were eating, a very elderly couple arrived. Both were using walkers to get around. He was rail thin, wearing a bolo tie, hair perfectly in place, and while he seemed a bit frail and slightly stooped he made his way with a determination to his booth, she (also using a walker) chugging right along behind them. If I had to guess, I would say they may have been in their 90s, and they were accompanied by some folks who I am guessing were in their 60s and were their children. They got a hero’s welcome from everyone in the place and we learned that they’d been coming to Bridges “longer than anyone can remember.” The notion blew me away. This place was in its fourth generation of family ownership… these folks had been coming here since at least three generations ago. They had been coming longer than Diann (who had started working at Bridges in the ’70s) had been working here. I felt lucky to see it. That sense of hominess, of coming back again and again, of regulars, and of welcome that had been sort of ethereal about the place was suddenly made very real. It was a very sweet moment, sweeter perhaps than Bridges sweet tea, which believe me is saying something.

The whole meal, including the wife’s tea, a root beer, and a sandwich for her clocked in at $18.75.

It’s great. Don’t neglect the sauce. And prepare to be charmed by the welcoming sense of history in the place.

Bridges Barbecue

2000 E. Dixon Blvd.
Shelby, NC 28152
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lee Fanning permalink
    May 27, 2013 5:54 pm

    Best barbeque in the world hands down, W Lee Fanning MD , Charlotte, NC


  1. Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Shelby NC – Marie, Let's Eat!

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