“Barbecue is all about slow and low,” said Blackrock BBQ owner and pit master James Aust. “The secret’s in the rub, and I can’t share that.”
Barbecue, as a food, lends itself to mysterious discourse, in part, because it’s so simple. Pork shoulder butt (or whole pig) cooked in a smoker until it’s poised to fall apart. For purists, the nuance of flavoring with smokes and rubs is where the art is.
Sylva has a new repository for that art thanks to Aust and his partner in crime Chef Jay Horton. Aust recently purchased the building that used to be Lee’s Barbecue on NC 107, renovated it, and started a whole new kind of shop.
“It just kind of fell into my lap. Lee was looking to get down to one restaurant, so I talked to him about it and thought I’d give it a try,” Aust said.
Horton and Aust met in the kitchen at the Cedar Creek Racquet Club in Cashiers where they worked last summer. Horton, raised in Canton, has 21 years of experience in fine dining and got his start cooking at Ghost Town when he was 16.
“The only other thing I’ve found I’m good at is putting money into the cash registers at a convenience store,” Horton said.
Aust, an Army brat who’s spent the last 16 years of his life in Sylva, was going to school to become a teacher when he decided to take over Lee’s. Blackrock BBQ and Grill has been open for less than a month now, but it’s already packed during the lunch hour with a mix of Lee’s loyalists, WCU students and staff, professionals from the hospital complex and members of local law enforcement agencies.
The barbecue is Eastern North Carolina style pulled pork and they serve it with both vinegar and hot pepper sauce and sweet tomato-based sauce on the table.
Aust cooks the dry rubbed cuts of pork for 15 hours in a smoker, and the result is delicious. Barbecue in the mountains, unless you’re at someone’s house, is often a dicey proposition. The economies of scale that make for barbecue meccas in places like Lexington don’t exist, and the result is often meat that is rushed or over-sauced.
The pork at Blackrock is spot on. The dry rub adds a distinctive signature that isn’t distracting, and the smoke flavor doesn’t overpower the meat. One of the great things about whole pig barbecue is the crispy bits of skin on the outer layer and the strands of pork underneath coated in the rendered fat. When the meat is pulled, it yields a range of textures from crisp to succulent and fatty.
“Slow and low” sounds easy, but getting the right seal on the pork is crucial and you can tell Aust know his work, because the meat pulls right and arrives on your plate in a neat little mound of crispy-edged hunks.
Horton prepares all the sides and a la carte items, like collard greens and hand-cut potato wedges, from scratch and to order. The pulled pork platter comes with two sides and hush puppies for $7.50. The beans were the second star of the show, tangy and sweet with the same distinctive spice signature as the rub.
Another huge upgrade to the Lee’s experience is the total interior renovation that Aust’s father, Jim, contributed to the project. Jim has transformed the kitchen into a clean, efficient stainless steel commercial space and the front room into a rustic, hand-worked wood parlor with four spacious booths and five two-tops.
“We wanted to make it a rustic clean place to sit down for a good meal,” said Aust. “ Everything in here is hand-made, just like the food.”
Aust and Horton plan to add Memphis-style spare ribs and catering to the operation in the near future. They also cure their own bacon for their BLT’s and burgers. Mmmmm, bacon.
The two partners are happy to be out of the fine dining world and confident in their product.
“It’s the kind of food we love to fix,” Aust said. “Just good old Southern food.”
Find them on Facebook or call 828.586.3490.