Mick's Picks: Since 1960, Bar-B-Que King Drive-In Restaurant off Wilkinson has remained a Westside institution.
Little if anything looks as if it has changed at this drive-in for over fifty years. The Googie-style sign harkens back to the Space Race and the banner in the front window saying they were featured on the Food Network is tough to miss. While Bar-B-Que King stands on the fringe of a seedier stretch of the Queen City, this classic diner is well-maintained and loved like an antique muscle car.
I felt nostalgia for a time I never knew rolling into the lot and parking beneath one of the two expansive awnings. Large color menus great you when you park the car, listing out all your options. Feel free to order inside or go Happy Days-style and use the Servur-Fone intercom to hail Maria and get your order delivered curbside by one of the charismatic carhops in their bright red shirts. If you don't want to eat in your car, have a seat at one of the polished steel counters that the carhops keep buffed to a sharp glimmer. When I asked for their recommendation and mentioned I was working on a feature for Restaurant Traffic, Maria asked me to come on in.
Don't let the name Bar-B-Que King fool you because there is so much more on the menu than you'd find at a typical Carolina barbeque spot. You'll find chicken liver sandwiches, po boys, fried trout and that is only the beginning. There are probably thirty options for your main course and everything from potato salad to hush puppies for a side. The ice comes crushed in your drink and they make the milk shakes by hand. One of their most popular drinks is a cherry-lemon Sundrop which was amazing and worth a visit in and of itself.
Even with all the choices I stuck with the swine and requested their minced BBQ pork sandwich and a side of onion rings. The carhops showed me the little counter where I could eat and then hustled me over to the window where my food would be coming out and introduced me to Gus Karapanos standing on the other side of the warmers. I took a couple shots of the food and Gus let me dig in a bit before coming to say hello.
First, the barbeque pork here ranks among the best in the city. It was minced to tender perfection and heaped in a mound between a sesame seed bun with a dill pickle slice spiked on the top. I enjoyed how the tangy tomato-based sauce covered the outside of the pork but didn't soak all the way through. It allowed me to enjoy the smoky flavor of the meat and appreciate the sauce more. The onion rings were an inch thick, wide as a saucer and encased in a golden batter shell. Loaded with the fresh pungency sought after by onion lovers.
The carhops (these guys are great) were encouraging me as I plowed my way through the sandwich and then scoffed when I dumped a bunch of hot sauce on my plate for dipping the onion rings. Here man, try this, one of them said offering me a plastic ramekin of tartar sauce. It is homemade. The best you'll ever taste. He wasn't lying. It was thick and hardly even a sauce, more like some heavenly spread. A minute or two later my man came out with another ramekin. You're gonna want an extra one. No kidding.
I had to chuckle after Gus and I were chatting and he brought me a menu with his contact information written on the back. I looked at his last name, Karapanos, and said "Another Greek" I swear you guys run some of the best places to eat in this town. I mean Little Village Grill, Central Coffee and now I discover Bar-B-Que King. Gus laughed but conceded there are a lot of Greeks in Charlotte running successful eateries. He attributed it to the hardscrabble life of the immigrant. No choice but to make money. No direction to go but up. Gotta keep the family fed and sheltered. Restaurants always need somebody to start in the back and over time, the determined move up the ranks from dishwasher, and if motivated, become proprietor or venture out on their own.
Gus, his brother George, and a couple other family members own the restaurant now, but he started in the back thirty years ago scrubbing out pots and cutting onions. Every week we go through a fifty pound bag of onions. That is a lot of onions. After three months of cutting onions I told my uncle I would do anything he wanted but I couldn't cut another onion. I don't blame him.
To make it fifty years, Bar-B-Que King obviously knows what they are doing and don't need to change what is working. The traffic over lunch was ebbing and flowing without hardly a break in visitors. Gus said they get folks from the neighborhood, locals who've known about the place for years, and BBQ hunters and foodies who travel from all over the country after they saw Guy Fieri swoon over the food on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Spiting the recession, Bar-B-Que King hasn't noticed a decline in their business. In fact, Gus says business gets a bit better when people are more conscious of where they spend their food dollars because the menu is so affordable. Only a few of the seafood dishes breach the $10 threshold.
No doubt about it. I loved Bar-B-Que King and felt a bit foolish after driving by so many times without stopping in for a taste. The hype and following is well-deserved. Gus and his family have something in their hands that translates to excellent food. Perhaps it's the Greek touch. The folks coming back year after year know it. The visitors from out of town know it. The Food Network knows it. They already shot more footage for an episode of "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" premiering on September 12th.
Oh, and be sure to bring cash. You can't pay with anything else.
Are you a fan of the Bar-B-Que King? Let us know in the comments section.