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North Carolina BBQ

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For as long as I can remember, there has been an ongoing argument about which is better... the barbecue from Eastern or Western North Carolina. (Western is the tomato-based sauce and Eastern is vinegar-based.)

That question might have been answered last week when three City of Lexington, NC, (stronghold of vinegar-based sauce) vehicles stopped in Charlotte at the Old Hickory House Restaurant and bought large quantities of tomato-based take-out barbeque.

Interestingly, there is a new "Cajun" BBQ joint in Chimney Rock, NC, that features Eastern and Western NC BBQ as well as Texas-style (beef) along with descriptions of the different sauces):


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  1. Purely by happenstance, I have been to Old Hickory House in Charlotte.

    It's not what most people consider "western NC barbecue" AKA Lexington or Piedmont style, which has just a hint of tomato in the thin vinegar-based "dip" (sauce).

    Instead, Old Hickory House serves what I have come to learn is predominant in what is really western NC, Ashville and beyond. Their 'cue comes in a much thicker, very tomatoey sauce. It's pretty good for what it is.

    It's really nothing like what you get in Lexington, which is probably why the guys from Lexington drove down to get some.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Bob W.

      What you describe of Western NC sauce is hardly indigenous to Western NC. As you probably know already, a thick tomato-based sauce is common in the Deep South (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi) as well as Kansas City and even Memphis.

      1. re: Sant

        Which is why most NC bbq aficionados don't bother venturing past Shelby.

        What's commonly referred to as Western NC 'cue really should be called Central NC 'cue (if you're not going to call it Piedmont or Lexington 'cue). In other words, as far as barbecue is concerned, what is served way out in what is really Western NC isn't even on the map.

      2. re: Bob W.

        Any one out there know of a rib joint in the west jefferson area of north carolina,or galax virginia..

        1. re: sculpaway

          Wrong part of the country for rib joints, I am afraid.

          1. re: sculpaway

            There is a decent BBQ place in downtown Galax called The Galax Smokehouse. I've never had their ribs, but it would be worth try. There 'q is pretty good.

        2. Lexington is not the stronghold a vinegar-based sauce. In Lexington, they add a little ketchup to the sauce and call it a dip. It's still a thin sauce, and to the rest of the 50 states, it might appear to be a vinegar-based sauce, but here in NC, the mere presence of a smidgen of tomato causes fightin' words.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Brent Kulman

            I stand corrected. Actually, I suppose we should add a third category for the Lexington style... maybe call it Piedmont-style Barbecue!

            "Piedmont-style" (which, by the way, typically contains only pork shoulders) is a mixture of the vinegary sauce of the East, combined with tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and brown sugar.

          2. BBQ is not in the sauce.

            Eastern style is whole hog,

            their sauce of choice is vinegar & a few spices.

            Western style is whole sholder

            their sauce of choice is just like eastern with a little ketchup added.

            5 Replies
            1. re: Raine

              And if you were blindfolded and a plate of each (Eastern & Western) was placed in front of you with no sauce... you could tell the difference?

              I don't think so.

              1. re: Hog farmer

                Just to be clear, by no sauce you mean other that what is applied during the cooking process, right?

                If that's the case, I think a large percentage of NC barbecue lovers could tell the difference, because the Eastern would be chopped much finer than the Western.

                Lexington aficionados often denigrate Eastern NC cue as "minced."

                1. re: Bob W.

                  The bbq's I had in Etowah and in Saluda were minced to the point of being like sawdust. They were dry to that point, too.

                  Maybe, as another poster suggested elsewhere, there should be 3 divisions of NC bbq - Eastern, Piedmont, and Western.

                  1. re: Sandy

                    It has been run through a buffalo chopper with a fine blade, and that will ruin good bbq.

                  2. re: Bob W.

                    Don't think they cook it with sauce.

              2. Southern Living last month called The Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC not just the best bbq in Carolina but the BEST BBQ IN AMERICA. Southern Living.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Joe H.

                  Boy, now that's the way to start a real fight.

                  If their review of SC places is any indication, they didn't get very far from the interstates.

                  1. re: Sandy

                    The Skylight Inn IS that good. I've posted on here several times that I believe it and the Luling City Market in Luling, TX are America's two best. Totally different yet as good as each style gets. There's nothing in either Carolina-not Sweatman's, Lexington #1, Wilber's, Stamey's-nothing in the league of The Skylight Inn. When you walk in the door you'll understand. One man stands behind a butcher block with two cleavers, doing literally nothing but chopping pork over and over for hours. This is whole hog q from a man whose family has been doing it since 1830.

                    Link: http://www.usatoday.com/advertising/o...

                    1. re: Joe H.

                      Be it as good as you say, that still wouldn't stop the fight.

                      1. re: Sandy

                        True, sometimes it's one town's best q vs. another's and it involves a lot more than just the bbq!

                2. joe h. is right. until you've tried the skylight inn, you wouldn't understand. sandy is just stuck on some kind of sentimental kick. skylight inn is in a category of it's own, and there's no way another restaurant could create such gold out of a pig, some wood, and a couple cleavers. best bbq, hands down.

                  1. Just curious, what are the hours at Skylight Inn? I won't be down that way for another 18 months, sadly, but I have decided that when I am in Durham (September 6, 2008) I want to make Skylight Inn a part of the trip, along with my pilgrimage to Allen & Sons. (Yes, yes, I could call, but I'm lazy and things will certainly change between now and then).

                    Also, what's people opinion of Bum's? Seems like it would be worth doubling up (when I get done in Carolina, I'll be driving back to New York City, so I do what I can when I have the chance).

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: NYChristopher

                      I'm not sure about the hours as I have always gone at lunchtime. Don't even think about hitting any of the great NC BBQ places on Sunday, however, as they are all closed.

                      Anyhow, whenever I'm in the Ayden area, I always make a twofer stop. I hit Skylight to eat and then Bum's for takeout. Here's why. At Skylight, they chop the cracklin into the BBQ. If you freeze it (and BBQ does freeze well, by the way), the bits of cracklin turn into chewy blobs of fat. So, the only way to experience Skylight's BBQ is fresh.

                      Bum's on the other hand, has BBQ that you can freeze. But, more importantly, those guys are masters of southern vegetables. Collards, rutabagas, black eyed peas, green beans, etc. Stock up on all of that stuff and carry it back to NYC with you and prepare a southern feast the likes of which are rarely seen above the Mason Dixon line.

                    2. Bum's is damn good barbecue. They also offer a variety of sides that range from OK to excellent. I'm partial to collards.

                      1 Reply
                      1. Bum's Barbecue
                        115 E. Third Street
                        Ayden, NC

                        10 Replies
                        1. re: NYChristopher

                          Bum's is great, but not as great as B's BBQ in Greenville. That stuff is legendary!

                          1. re: tablewines

                            It's all a matter of taste.

                            Recently, I was in Greenville with my parents and we hit the troica - Skylight, Bum's and B's. They liked B's and I liked Skykight, so go figure.

                            Since you will be in the area I would hit all three as you don't get down there everyday. Pick up some chicken at B's and maybe some ribs, if they have any left.

                            I like visiting with the pitmaster at B's since he is so visible relative to the other places but note that he is cooking with charcoal rather than hardwood.

                            1. re: brentk

                              Thanks for the tip on B's, I'll be sure to add it to the list (as you said, I'll be in the area so I should take advantage of it while I can).

                              As for your folks not being AS fond of Skylight, I would say that, in all likelihood, its about the craklin ... some folks just don't get it (me, I generally do). Of course, maybe they prefer charcoal to hardwood (I'm assuming Bum's is also dedicated to hardwood).

                              In your opinion, has Skylight Inn changed much since Mr. Jones passed? I have read elsewhere that there were concerns (or hopes depending on which side of the fence you're on) that changes may be in store.

                              1. re: NYChristopher

                                He'd been ailing and out of the business for several years before he died a few months ago. His son (or nephew?) has been behind the counter every time I've been and I have been going there with some regularity over the last four years or so.

                                So, from my perspective, I have seen no changes at all during that period.

                                1. re: brentk

                                  Good to know. Thanks for all your help, Brent and everyone.

                                2. re: NYChristopher

                                  Bum's cooks barbecue exclusively over wood coals.

                                  1. re: Hushpuppy

                                    Ok...I'm bringing back an oldie goldie here. HINT: this is a fairly old thread!

                                    Just some thoughts about cooking over wood coals or charcoal. In the Eastern North Carolina style of cooking the difference between wood coals and charcoal will be VERY subtle and probably indistinguishable.

                                    The reason is simple. Eastern NC bbq isn't "smoked" like many other styles of cooking Q. Instead, the wood (if used) is burnt down to glowing embers/coals before ever being introduced to the pit. The smoke is pretty well gone by that time. Most of the "smoke" flavor you get in Eastern NC bbq comes from the grease that drips from the pig onto the coals beneath it...I did mention Eastern NC bbq is cooked directly over the heat source and not indirect cooked like you would when "smoking", right?

                                    So, given the fact that any "real wood" is burnt down into coals before being introduced to the pit, it really doesn't make much difference if you use wood or charcoal. It will make "a" difference...just not much of one.

                                    Alot of people are put off by the Skylight Inn by their use of crispy skin in the bbq. I'm from the school that says, "skin = flavor". I like the texture and the taste. It's the best I've ever had...and evidently the best Southern Living has ever had...and the best that National Geographic has ever had. And if all THAT doesn't say something about how good the bbq is at the Skylight Inn...just look on the wall for their James Beard Award and that will put all the questions to rest.

                                    1. re: JayL

                                      I'm a big fan of Eastern NC bbq but not with skin in. If the skin would stay crispy I think I'd like it but that's impossible given the moisture in the 'q. So the skin gets slimy and that's where you lose me.

                                      1. re: jiminea

                                        There is some truth to that and, at Skylight, you must eat the Q fresh or the skin will lose its texture.

                                        Also, there is a difference between the skin (cracklin) and outside brown, which is not skin but outside pieces of pork that caramelize and develop a textural contrast to the tender inside meat..

                                        1. re: brentk

                                          I will agree with both points.

                                          Skin will get soggy pretty fast in bbq. That's one reason it's constantly being chopped at the Skylight Inn. Get there during lunch, stand in line, and get the freshest of the fresh.

                                          In eastern NC...there is no such thing as "outside brown". They mix all the good parts together...that's what makes it so good.