by David Cecelski
I found Keaton’s on a quiet, dark stretch of Cool Springs Road, betweenStatesville and Mocksville. It’s an old plank building surrounded by woods. Outside, the parking lot was full and cars lined both sides of the road. Founded by a legendary African-American ‘cue man named Burette Walker Keaton, the restaurant has been serving barbecue chicken and “hot vinegar spicy slaw” there in the little community of Cleveland, in Rowan County, for nearly 60 years.
Inside, people were everywhere. Signs on the wall announced “No gambling,” “No credit cards,” and “No photographs of employees.” At the counter, I gave my order to a brusque-talking woman who looked at me like she had seen all the foolishness in the world and dared me even to think about trying any of it there. I waited obediently for my order at the other end of the counter, where a sign instructed me to “Wait for order here.”
The menu featured different combinations of barbecue chicken mostly, a variety of sides, and beer and sodas. The “hot vinegar spicy slaw” is the side that I was craving. It’s a kind of Cole slaw I’ve only seen in the state’s foothills: shredded cabbage in a spicy red sauce of vinegar, tomato, cayenne pepper, and celery seed.
The restaurant’s kind of barbecue chicken is unusual. I’m not sure I’ve seen barbecue chicken like Keaton’s anywhere else. It’s fried or baked and then dipped in a hot vinegar-tomato sauce—I’ve heard people called it “dipped chicken.”
As soon as I got my chicken and slaw, I wanted to find a booth and eat—the smell was dizzying. I liked the place’s loud, festive atmosphere on a Saturday night, too. But I had to get back to my hotel in Statesville, so I got my order to go and headed out into the night. When I finally had the chance to try the chicken, my verdict was quick: crazy good, best I’ve ever had, should have got more.
Keaton’s BBQ is located at 17365 Cool Springs Road, Cleveland,N.C., not far off US 40 if you’re traveling between Statesville and Winston-Salem. Hours this time of year: Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 AM-2 PM; Thursday to Saturday, 11 AM-2 PM and 5 PM-8 PM; closed Sunday and Monday. Hours vary in summer—you should probably call first— (704) 258-1622 . You can also order the restaurant’s barbecue sauce on-line at www.keatonsoriginalbbq.com.