For the second time in a month, business took me to Raleigh, NC. On my last visit, I paid a visit to the Pit to experience Ed Mitchell's vision of upscale barbecue. This time I decided to try and find a different experience. I wanted something that really painted a clear picture of traditional Eastern Carolina barbecue. I did a little Googling and ran across Clyde Cooper's Barbecue, in business since 1938 in downtown Durham. Online reviews of Coopers were very good. I also checked with a couple of my Raleigh colleagues and they said it was very good stuff. One colleague even remarked he remembered eating there as a kid and loving it. After finishing up my morning business meeting, I made a quick run into downtown Raleigh with three of my coworkers to sneak in a quick lunch before hopping back on my flight back to Atlanta. Coopers really impressed me that day with some great food and an authentic experience.
Cooper's restaurant is split into two main areas - a traditional dining room and an old-school lunch counter. The walls are covered with autographed pictures of celebrities, presidents, local politicians letting you know that Cooper's is a famous part of Raleigh's cultural community. It's hard to pin down the exact era of the decor, but it's old enough to really make you feel like you are in a historic spot. The lunch crowd was strong, and every seat was taken. We managed to score a table back by the kitchen. Take a look at what chefs call "the pass" (the place where food arrives plated and ready to go to the table). That storage container to the left is full of freshly fried pork rinds.
Speaking of pork rinds, take a look at the first thing to arrive at your table if everyone in your party orders the pork dinner plate. A glorious basket full of hot hush puppies and pork rinds. My arteries may have objected to this opening salvo, but my stomach sure didn't. They were delicious. Behind the basket, you can see the two different kind of sauces offered at Cooper's. Reflecting the dichotomy that runs rampant in North Carolina, both a traditional East Carolina vinegar sauce and Western Carolina Lexington sauce are on each and every table. Sticking with the when-in-Rome-rule, I chose vinegar sauce for my chopped pork.
Cooper's menu lets you know right off the bat that you are getting ready for some Carolina 'Que. Pork is offered chopped or sliced but not pulled. One thing that really jumped out to me was how different the sides seemed compared to the places I frequent in Georgia. Boiled potatoes, steamed cabbage, corn and limas, hush puppies are just not commonly found down here. I chose a chopped pork plate with brunswick stew and limas and corn. Check out what $6.25 will buy you at Cooper's.
This was a fantastic lunch. I loved the generous portion of smokey, chopped pork and brunswick stew. The stew was nice and thick and loaded with vegetables. Just what I would expect in a traditional Carolina BBQ spot. As an added bonus, I got a serving of vegetables with my lunch (limas and corn). That almost never happens in my world (I do not count fries as a vegetable).
So, if you find yourself in Raleigh then take the time to visit Cooper's Barbecue. It's what foodie types would call "destination dining".
Post script - Did anyone else find it hysterical that Cooper's spells BBQ as both "barbecue" and "barbeque" in their exterior signage?