The Red Rooster Grill is a hidden treasure
Two Fridays ago, I rode 30 miles from Greensboro but 50 years back in time.
I’d expected some time travel when this issue’s cover story took me to Walnut Cove, where Showtime Video felt right out of the ‘80s. A bigger surprise was hidden in Hick’s Pharmacy next door. When my friend Tim asked Showtime’s assistant manager about local eateries, she told us to check out the Red Rooster Grill inside the drugstore. There’s been no sign of it outside, but when we entered, the sight and smell took me back to my childhood.
Growing up in Fayetteville, I’d been a free-range latchkey kid whose widowed deejay father worked long hours for low pay. Giving me a buck was cheaper than paying a housekeeper to feed me. At Rexall Drugs in 1969, a cheeseburger and fries cost 40 cents, and a fountain coke was a dime, leaving enough for ice cream and a comic book.
The low prices aren’t that cheap, and there’s no comics rack, but Hicks Pharmacy in Walnut Cove contains the kind of lunch counter that vanished from the cultural landscape decades before videos stores did. My search for one relic of the past uncovered an older one.
A handful of Tarheel drugstores still have lunch counters, but I’d thought Brown-Gardiner the only one remaining in the Triad. It’s pure nostalgia for anyone my age, and worth visiting for its fresh-squeezed orangeade and what some have called the best club sandwich in Greensboro, but most of their food isn’t prepared in-house. Most of Red Rooster’s is.
Friday’s special was fried flounder, hush puppies, fries and slaw for $6.99. Tim ordered that, and as I was already considering this article, I needed to try something else. However, I wanted more than a burger or a hot dog or the chicken salad that Tori at Showtime said was the best she’d ever had, and I wasn’t in the mood for the $7.95 ribeye. Then I saw and smelled the $6.99 barbecue plate with two sides brought to a nearby table. Maybe the pig hadn’t been cooked here, but that golden brown ear of deep-fried corn sure had.
The corn was great, and the ‘cue was excellent. Not as good as Short Sugar’s in Reidsville, but better than any in Greensboro. Maybe it was the sheer novelty or sheer hunger; maybe if the same ‘cue was served at Sugar’s or Lexington Barbecue #2, I wouldn’t have been nearly as impressed. However, on that day and at that unexpected lunch counter, it was damn delicious.
Manager Amy Bowman Bullins told me the secret was in the sauce, made that day from her family recipe. This may get me run out of town on a rail, but the sauce is what’s always kept me from loving Greensboro’s most famous ‘cue as much as many do. However, this stuff was sublime, tasting both comfortingly traditional and uniquely different.
Bullins wouldn’t tell me her recipe. There was the tang of vinegar, but also a sweetness that wasn’t ketchup or brown sugar. She said she used local honey. Tim tried some and agreed on its excellence, saying it seemed a bit like classic Lexington-style, but with a suggestion of traditional Chinese duck sauce. That combination may sound ungodly, but the taste was both heavenly and authentically southern.
I had some of Tim’s flounder, which wasn’t as huge as the large fillets at Coliseum Café on Flounder Fridays, but just as expertly deep-fried, with the perfect hot, crunchy crust and moist, flaky and fresh interior. Bullins insisted we try dessert, saying it was homemade every today. We both had lemonade pie, which was wonderful.
She told me that she’s been working here for 15 years, and her mother worked here in the ‘80s.
“This one’s been around since 1976, but there was a previous one up on the hill over there that was built in ‘66. “
I want to return for the hot dogs that are 99 cents on Tuesday, which several on Yelp have singled out for praise, or the fried chicken plate, which according to a photo of the Red Rooster specials board on Facebook comes with the choice of “boob or leg.” On Thursdays, homemade desserts are free with a meal plate. There’s also a full breakfast menu, and recently added milkshakes.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.