It doesn't take long to figure out that Elliott Moss is cooking with all wood at Buxton Hall Bar-B-Que. You can see the blazing fire rendering oak down to coals right there in a big metal pit behind the counter. He and his team shovel the coals from that fire directly beneath the whole hogs in two adjoining metal-lidded pits.
It’s an unconventional set-up to say the least, and one that requires massive ventilation hoods to pass muster with the fire department. Most of the ever-dwindling number of all-wood barbecue joints do their cooking in a pit house out behind the restaurant, but Elliott Moss—Buxton Hall’s co-owner and pitmaster—doesn’t seem one to be too bound by convention.
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Thanks to a recent family vacation to the North Carolina mountains, I got to finally check out this new arrival in downtown Asheville, and it’s quite an intriguing place. The building housed a roller skating club back in the 1930s, it still has the original maple floorboards from the rink along with faded murals of polo players and skaters on the cinderblock walls. Along one side of the room, the white tile gleams inside the open kitchen, the slogans “Whole hog bar-b-cue!“ and Smoked while you sleep” emblazoned above it in stylish black script.
Buxton Hall features pasture-raised pigs from local farmers. Our pig that day, a chalkboard on the wall informed us, was Cleopatra from Vandele Farms near Lake Lure, North Carolina. And, I must say, Cleopatra was mighty tasty.
Cooked Eastern North Carolina-style, the pork offers a blend of darker and lighter meats pulled into long strands, with a generous proportion of the crispy outer brown bits. Like most direct-heat cooked whole hog, Buxton Hall’s pork isn’t slap-you-in-the-face smoky, for they’re shoveling glowing embers, not burning logs, into the pits. It’s served with a ramekin of thick reddish sauce that I found less than satisfying. But then I reached for the bottle of pepper-laced vinegar sauce that waited in the middle of the table and gave the pork a good dousing. The very next bite sparkled and shone with the classic flavor you'll normally only find in Eastern North Carolina and down in the Pee Dee of South Carolina.
But the real star for me is not the pulled pork, tasty as it is, but an unexpected sleeper for a barbecue joint: fried catfish. This isn’t just any fried catfish though. It’s salt- and sugar-cured, put on the smoker until almost cooked, then finally battered and fried just before serving. The resulting filet is thick with crisp orange batter that cracks beneath your fork into tasty shards. Even after curing and smoking, the fish is still tender and juicy inside, with a temptingly subtle kiss of smoke.
This eclectic blend of styles reflects Elliot Moss’s circuitous path to becoming a pitmaster. He grew up with barbecue in Florence, South Carolina, where his family would cook a whole hog on cinderblock pits for weekend gatherings, but his initial restaurant experience came from working in fast food and bar kitchens. He arrived in Asheville in 2007 with no formal culinary education, but he quickly made a name for himself at the Admiral Restaurant, where his cooking earned him a nomination for Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2013.
Moss's “chef-driven, grandma-inspired” side dishes include tangy green beans cooked “under the pig”—on a big sheet pan to catch the pork drippings coming off the hog. The lineup encompasses barbecue specialties from both Carolinas, like Pee Dee-style chicken bog and a rather unique version of a Midlands South Carolina-style hash and rice. Thick and almost chocolate brown in color, it has a deep, dark richness thanks to a hearty dose of liver.
Some barbecue joints specialize in big trays of banana pudding, others homemade pies. Buxton Hall’s pastry chef, Ashley Capps, has rolled the two traditions together to create banana pudding pie. (Yes, this is a barbecue joint with a pastry chef, and her impressive resume includes a stint at Eleven Madison Park in New York City.) It’s a decadently sweet creation with a crust of homemade vanilla wafers and toasted meringue on top.
There are plenty of other elements you won’t see at traditional Carolina joints, like a full bar with a wall of taps for local beers, a slate of signature cocktails, and a freezer machine turning out bourbon- and tequila-laced slushies. In this and other ways, Buxton Hall reflects one of the new trends we’ve been seeing more and more in the last few years: chefs from the fine dining world turning their sights on the barbecue pits, taking the old regional traditions for inspiration but not feeling bound by them. And that spirit of cheffy experimentation, ultimately, leads to tasty things like green beans cooked under the pig and fusiony banana pudding pies.
It seems be working working with both diners and restaurant critics alike. Bon Appétit just named Buxton Hall one of their Top 50 New Restaurants in America. They must have tried that smoky fried catfish, too.
Buxton Hall Barbecue 32 Banks Ave Asheville, NC (828) 232-7216 www.buxtonhall.com